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Equity Must Be The Yardstick

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When you pick up the Milwaukee newspapers these days, two issues fight for your attention: plans for new taxes to build a fancier stadium for the Milwaukee Brewers and the controversy over providing vouchers for religious and private schools.

As a teacher and an avid baseball fan, I often get asked what I think about both. I explain that, as disconnected as these two issues seem, they symbolize what is wrong with education reform.

First, I believe the plan for a new stadium is yet another example of our society's mixed-up priorities. I personally think children and schools should come before stadiums and overpaid baseball players. I get enraged when "no new taxes" Gov. Tommy Thompson--who put a cap on school spending--proposes taxes to build a stadium whose only real difference is the addition of corporate luxury boxes.

I also believe schools should come before prisons. Yet, across the country, prison-building is at an all-time high. People constantly complain they don't want to throw more money at social problems, specifically, schools. But they don't have a problem pitching in for new stadiums or prisons. I don't understand it.

Second, regarding the voucher debate, I have many problems with privatization, but that's not the point I want to make here. Using vouchers to help pay for private schooling reflects the quick-fix approach to school reform. Too many people think there is one single solution, one "silver bullet" that will kill all that is wrong with schooling. Some cities have tried privatization. Some have brought in a new superintendent. Some cities have tinkered with governance and the promise of decentralization. Still others are instituting more discipline and a back-to-basics curriculum.

Yet, if there's one thing I have learned in my 20 years of teaching, it's that education reform is a difficult, long-term, complicated effort. If there were a single solution, we certainly would have seen it by now.

That said, the question remains: What can we do to improve public schools? Before I enter those muddy waters, let me explain my perspective. I am not a national "expert" nor a university professor. I am a public school teacher in Milwaukee at La Escuela Fratney, where some 80 percent of the children qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. I also consider myself a teacher activist, as an editor of Rethinking Schools and a former vice president of our local teachers' union.

And when I consider my experience, when I look at the faces of the kids at Fratney school, when I try to articulate key elements of reform, one thing seems clear: We must have a renewed commitment to equity. It's an overused and abstract word that means, quite simply, that what the best parents want for their own child, society must want for all children. Unless we mean to further entrench our current system of educational apartheid, equity must be the yardstick by which we measure success or failure.

It's not that our society doesn't know how to teach or raise our children well; the problem is that we do so unequally.

Some children attend fully equipped, modern schools with small class sizes and high expectations of success. After school, they go to soccer games or gymnastic classes. At night, they do their homework on the family's personal computer.

Other children, particularly those in impoverished urban areas, attend underfunded, poorly equipped, deteriorating schools with big classes and low expectations. After school, they have few recreational programs to choose from, and their parents struggle to afford private piano or ballet lessons. They may not have a telephone in their home, let alone a home computer.

Schools, rather than helping low-income children rise above these realities, tend to reinforce economic and social inequalities. And they do so with the blessing of politicians eager to pander to the affluent, suburban vote. At some point, society must acknowledge that education apartheid exists, in part, because one group benefits at the expense of another.

Equity can be applied to many different areas: equity in facilities, in school finance, and in teacher training and retention. These are all key issues. But in the classroom, equity can be applied in four ways that would significantly improve children's experiences and achievement:

  • Dramatically smaller class sizes. Last week, I received a letter asking me to speak at a conference. The writer encouraged my participation by writing, "I have admired your work ever since my nephew fell in love with you when you were his kindergarten teacher."

    I remember her nephew well, although it was a good 10 years ago. I remember because I had only 18 children in my class that year. Small class size allows for much richer interaction between student and teacher. There was a chance to really connect with the kids that year, and everything seemed to click. When we have 25, 30, or more students, it becomes almost impossible to implement the kind of interactive, hands-on curriculum we know our students need.

  • A rigorous multicultural, anti-racist curriculum. We have to value all children, no matter their cultural, ethnic, or linguistic background. Most important, our multiculturalism must be unequivocally anti-racist. Food fairs and holiday celebrations are the beginning, not the end, of multiculturalism.

    Race is perhaps the most complicated issue I have encountered as a kindergarten teacher. Rather than glossing over the topic--arguing that all children are the same--teachers must receive the support and training to see how issues of race seep into all aspects of schooling, through textbooks, discipline, and interactions on the playground.

  • More time to develop a collaborative school community. Teachers are thrown new curriculum, issued mandates on standards, required to get involved in shared decisionmaking, chastised for not being innovative enough--and then given no extra time to implement reforms. Time is absolutely crucial: time to reflect on your own teaching; time to collaborate with other staff in your school; time to involve parents as essential partners in reform. If something is worth doing, it's worth doing well. And to do something well takes time.
  • Schools as community centers. In many urban neighborhoods, the two dominant public institutions are the police station and the school. The police stations are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Schools need to be open before and after school hours, on weekends, and during the summer months. And they should serve the entire community, providing educational, recreational, and social services.

    Viewing our schools as community institutions would do wonders in addressing the gap between learning and the "real world," the lack of connection between youths and adult role models, and the tendency to look at students as separate from the many complicated issues they face, such as teenage pregnancy and unemployed parents.

The question is not whether we can reform urban schools. Of course we can--with equitable funding and resources. The issue is whether we have the political will. It's time to reorder our priorities so that our children come first.

Some might call my aspirations for equity unrealistic. That's OK; I know they are not. Dreams can become reality. If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't be a teacher.

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