Sunday, July 17, 2011

Selling Our Schools

I was disturbed by this headline: Public Schools Woo Foreign Students to Boost Ranks.

According to the article, the latest money-making ploy by our public schools is to recruit foreign students who pay $13000/year for tuition to attend our fine public institutions.

This bothers me - a lot.

What bothers me the most, though, is that no one will stand up and cry foul, because to do so would be to come out as being against the public school system, and how can anyone be against educating our children, right?

I'm not against educating our children. It's just that I don't agree that our schools are doing such a great job of it. When compared with other "developed" nations, the US falls in lower 50% in both math and science, and barely skims the mid-range in reading. Those comedy shows that pick fun at how stupid Americans are, are not funny to me. I don't understand how any American can find them funny rather than disturbing. "Hey, it's you! They're showing you!" At least, from the perspective of someone who has never been to America, when they see something like that will believe that those Americans are representative of us as a society ... and are they not?

The point of having these foreign students attend American schools is to increase enrollment in aging communities where the student body is decreasing. It's certainly not to "educate" them, as Singapore actually scored better than the US on the PISA tests - and Singapore is significantly closer to China than the US. If I were a Chinese parent, who could afford an overseas education for my child, I'd be more inclined to send him/her to Singapore for an education than all the way to Millinocket, Maine, but that's really beside the point ...

... which is, this, recruiting foriegn students is just another ploy to get more money, because, afterall, it's not that our school system is flawed and unsustainable, but rather that we haven't, yet, thrown enough money at it. Right? With more money, our schools can do so much more. Never mind that my community already pays as much per kid for nine months of education than a person working full-time at minimum wage will earn over a full years' time (Federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour, and if a person working full-time works 51 weeks of the year at minimum wage his yearly earnings will be just under $15,000 fot the year).

When I was teaching, I received a very fast and very eye-opening education on how the school systems work, and it's all about the money ... and making sure they can get more of it.

Schools get the money they use to operate in several different ways. The first is from the local community property taxes. Then, the State will provide funds based on the number of kids that are enrolled in the school (which is why Millinocket and other towns are looking to increase their enrollment). Finally, the Federal government will provide educational funds to States, which will allot a certain amount to municipalities based on test scores, enrollment, and special needs. He who has the most of each will get the biggest cut.

Unfortunately, when schools only wish to keep warm bodies in the seats, nothing good ever comes of it. When I was teaching, I discovered first-hand that schools are often loath to dismiss students who have no business being in the school. Our school was very small (graduating class was twenty-three), and every single beating heart counted toward the funds the school was to receive. The community was largely a farming community. The number one source of income was Social Security and the largest employer in the town was the school. There was no way they were going to lose even one kid, before his sixteenth birthday.

The result was the retention of kids who were not just disruptive in the classrooms (making learning for the other kids difficult, if not impossible), but who were also often violent, in an insidious, daily torturing kind of way. They did beat up a few kids, but mostly it was small things, things that got them a slap on the wrist, like walking up to a kid and elbowing him in the kidneys as they passed, or dumping a lunch tray on another kid's lap, or knocking books out of another student's hands as he was rushing to class, or throwing spitballs into a girl's hair, or tossing a year's worth of teaching aides and worksheets from a teacher's classroom filing cabinet while they were supposed to be watching Julius Caesar. These things were never taken as a whole, but rather as isolated incidents, but it made the school environment incredibly hostile for both the teachers and the other students.

But the administration wouldn't kick them out of the school. No way! That warm body ... cha-ching ... cha-ching.

What's worse is that some of the most disruptice kids perform satisfactorily on an academic level, and some of them even perform superiorly, which makes it even more difficult for the school system to contemplate kicking them out, because smart kids boost test scores, which brings in more money.

But at what cost to the emotional and physical well-being of the rest of the kids in the school?

There's one common denominator in the money the schools receive. It all comes from the same place. We think of it as local money and State money and Federal money, but the bottom line is that it's all OUR money. *We*, the PEOPLE, are paying for our schools.

So, basically, we have an educational system that uses 50% of a community's financial resources to pay for less than 15% of the population (to which none of those who most benefit even contribute), that subjects some portion of its population to continued abuse just so that it doesn't lose any funding due to decreased population, and that teaches, primarily, to improve test scores - and all of it is about the money. None of it is about educating our children.

This latest ploy to attract Chinese students into our schools so that we can get their tuition money is not about making our schools better - or even about giving those Chinese kids an education. It's about the money ... the money ... the money, and nothing but the money.

What's most amusing to me, though, is that my local school budget is $42,000,000 for eleven schools that house about 3000 kids. It works out to $14,000 per kid. So, if we were to attract any of those Chinese kids, we'd actually be paying $1000 to have them here.

Seems pretty typical. When the bottom line is the dollar sign, there is a marked failure to see the bigger picture. Corporate America was short-sighted when they sent all of the manufacturing jobs overseas. Now, we have an economy, not based on something we make and sell to others, but on the shuffling of pieces of paper that represent money. Maybe for a couple of years selling all of our jobs overseas seemed like a good idea, but now, we're kind of in a bad spot.

Bigger is not better, and the bigger something gets, the more likely it is to suffer and die. There is a mid point at which a thing has grown as large as it needs to get in order to thrive, and beyond that, disease sets in.

Corporate America is discovering this fact. One hundred and sixteen major corporations declared bankruptcy in 2009, and there are dozens more that have or will face a similar fate.

I predict, as our schools try harder and harder to keep being what obviously doesn't work, they will become like the corporations they have tried to emulate. In fact, we're already seeing school closures, and at least one brand, spanking new school (at a a cost of $105 million to build) won't be opening its doors, because the town it's in can't afford to operate it.

Of course, I would be remiss if I offered only criticism and no solutions. So, instead of trying to bandaid the problem of our schools by bringing in foreign students in the hopes that we can get a few dollars from them to help keep the schools' doors open, how about if we completely rethink what we have?

In colonial America, the literacy rate was above 90%. Nearly everyone could read and write, but there were no schools. Unthinkable! Our country was founded by a bunch of guys who never went to kindergarten or first grade, and in fact, likely didn't even start formal educational training until they were nine or ten, if ever. And, yet, somehow these individuals are lauded as the greatest thinkers in our nation's history.

I'm not anti-school. I, afterall, am a product of our public school system, and I like to think that I'm intelligent and thoughtful. I also trained to be a teacher, and taught in the public school system, but even as I was doing those things, I thought, perhaps, there was a better way.

For my children, I have chosen homeschooling, but I recognize that this is not the best option for everyone, but the fact remains that we need to cut costs and so I propose the following:

  • Compulsory attendance requires children be in school from the age of 7 to the age of 17, and indeed, there is no evidence (except in extreme circumstances) to support the supposition that early childhood education increases a child's chances of future academic success. We could significantly reduce the schools' budget by eliminating services for children who are younger than seven or older than seventeen.

  • Or better, what if we reduced the full-time school day to those kids between the ages of seven and thirteen? Here in Maine former Governor Angus King pioneered the laptop program in which every child (in the public school system - which excludes kids in private schools and homeschoolers) who is in the eighth grade is given a laptop computer. At one point, Deus Ex Machina and I figured out that for about one-tenth of what our town spends on our schools per year, we could buy every kid in the town a laptop, pay someone to link each home in the community to a LAN, and then have one full-time teacher per grade level and one per subject level at the upper grades to provide Virtual lessons and to be on-site to provide one-on-one assistance for those kids who needed face-time with the teacher. I realize that younger children might not do so well in a virtual classroom, but why not allow high school kids - at least those who are over sixteen (we trust them to drive, right?) to do virtual school rather than having to report to a classroom every day, six hours per day, five days per week, 180 days per year. Virtual school is way cheaper than maintaining a building big enough to house hundreds of kids for a few hours per day.

  • And if, we were to move to a virtual program or to only providing "free" public education for those kids who fall within the compulsory age range, we could go the extra step to reduce the overall school day, which would allow us to reduce the physical size of our buildings. What if we only needed ONE school building for all grade levels, and what if the school day was staggered so that little kids were in the building from 7:00 to noon, and older kids were in the building from noon to 4:00?

An unwillingness to change is what will make our schools fail, and anyone who can't see that our schools are in some deep doody is not paying attention. Even the teachers know the schools are in trouble.

Our school system is no longer fully concentrating on educating our kids. It's all about the money, and this newest trick of recruiting foreign students to bring in dollars to dying school systems is just another misguided attempt to prop up the stinking corpse of our educational institution. Better to let it die, and allow us to rise from the ashes with something new, something more suited to our present.


  1. These are all excellent points! I saw somewhere that Maine is trying to change the compulsory age to 6-18 years old...I wonder what that would do to budgets and our property taxes...

  2. Here's how I view it: There is no magic bullet and that's what a lot of districts are trying to find. Your ideas for change are fine ideas. But they wouldn't work where my husband teaches. Well they might, but not until much, much, much more basic things changed. Where my husband teaches, things need to be changed on a community/cultural level. Then we can worry about age of attendance and length of the school year/day. I think that's the problem with the public school system, our country is just too big and too diverse to enact one-size fits all regulations.

  3. Heather - one of the bills that was before our legislature was a proposal to require students to stay in school until they graduate or until they turn 20, whichever comes first. In essence, they want to raise the age of compulsory education, but again, the only reason for doing so would be to secure additional funding.

    Kaye - What's funny is that when the US was formed, it was formed as the UNITED STATES, and the idea was to have a central government, but each individual state was supposed to have individual rights to do things, like, govern education. Initially government fell under the rule of the State government. I don't know when that changed - perhaps as people moved across the continent, before States were formed in some of the territories, and the Federal government had to establish education for those children, and just never gave up the reins ;). I completely agree with you, though. As with many things, our country is too big and too diverse to enact a one-size-fits-all regulation, and every time they try, someone gets 'left behind.'

  4. I learned a great deal about the difficult position school administrators are in during 3 years serving on school committee. For instance: in Massachusetts, we are required to use any school building for 50 YEARS that received state money for building or renovation (that is, virtually every school). So, school administrators do not have the option to downsize; they are forced into looking for any way to increase funds just to pay for the operating costs inherent in having more buildings than are needed. A local school district is running a virtual high school, as you describe, which raises funds (many of the students tuition in) that can be used to pay for the physical infrastructure they have to maintain.
    $14,000 per kid (I think its $12K here) may seem like a lot of money, but when you break it down into heat, electricity, salaries, bussing, it goes away shockingly fast. And unfortunately, I feel like all of the administrators' time and energy is taken up just running to stand still a lot of the time.
    Your comments about keeping kids in school who are disruptive and make for a bad learning environment for others - that is a really difficult issue. While I'm not sure kids get all that much out of being in school a lot of the time, they do face serious challenges if they don't finish high school, and if they are kicked out of public school they generally don't have any other options. We would do better, I agree, to have more diverse options for students than all-college-prep, which is what our public high school offers. Too many students are just not good college material, at least at 18, and would be far better prepared for life as adults if they could work on life skills in high school rather than esoteric academics. They might be less disruptive if they were more engaged, or if the school focused on social curriculum to a greater degree.
    Sorry for long post, this is a hot button issue for me as someone who does choose public school for my kids so they go to school with their neighbors, but struggles with the shortcomings of that system.