catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 9 :: 2013.04.26 — 2013.05.09


The equation for education

A few months ago, my husband and I had dinner with friends who live in a marginally converted one-room schoolhouse. I say marginally converted, because there are still pull-down maps and a chalkboard, along with the well-worn wooden floors and wavy panes of glass. These friends are readers and have traveled the world, so in addition to the educational artifacts, their home is full of books and art in many forms from many cultures.

I thought, driving home that night, how much more interesting a place to learn I’d been in, as opposed to the slick, streamlined, industrial schools in our community. And as I listened to the news over succeeding weeks, I wondered more and more whether we’d taken a wrong turn in our educational system, one from which it may be impossible at this point to recover.

In the region where I live, my generation is transitional. Although I didn’t go to a one-room school, a number of my cousins did; my aunt taught in one until the mid-1960s. A friend has a class photo hanging on her kitchen wall. It includes her five older siblings at my aunt’s school; as the youngest, my friend was the first in her family to start school after consolidation.

Consolidation! I’m sure the word was chosen for all of the positive connotations it held: efficiency, scale, rational thinking, level-headedness. But when I compare the stories I’ve heard about education in a one-room school to my observations of my own kids’ educations in much larger systems, I’m not sure we’ve made progress. I wonder whether we were mistaken in thinking that the industrial model of efficiency, when applied to the education of our children as though they are widgets, has led us astray.

Yesterday I heard a presentation about community development, stressing the need for people in a community to make personal connections to each other. It’s much easier to be helpful, to recognize needs, to recognize common interests if you know each other’s names, they said. And of course that’s true. The presentation was part of a fundraising luncheon, through which a non-profit sought money to support their efforts in community development — which starts with introducing neighbors to each other.

And I wrote a check. But I’m also acutely aware that at the same time I’m giving money to undo our alienation from each other, I’m also giving money to schools (and other institutions, I’m sure) that, while not designed for alienation, may have that unintended effect.

Over the last decade, the neighborhood school system in the small city near me was redesigned, “consolidating” students by age group into fewer and larger schools. I hear about the effects: neighbors know less about each other. Kids aren’t able to walk to school. Parents are more likely to have kids at multiple schools, which increases family stress to be in multiple places at the same time. The school is no longer the community gathering place that it once was.

And the community has adapted. People understand the cost equations used to justify the change: it was just more efficient per student widget. But what if those equations aren’t complete? What if we haven’t yet figured out how to account for community impact? What if we find that we need neighborhood organizations — like the ones that non-profit is developing — to compensate for the absence of the school? How do we do that math?

And what is the value we assign to a student’s feeling of being seen and known in her school? What value is lost if a child feels invisible? How does it inhibit his potential? What kind of example does it set for her later participation in a community?

I begin to think, in this case as in so many others, that smaller is better. If our schools were smaller and more local, could they build community at the same time they educate our children? We might be able to reclaim some of what we’ve lost from the one-room school: long-term relationships, among students and with teachers; older or simply stronger students helping those who are younger or struggling; gatherings of neighbors instead of strangers for school programs; a walk or a bike ride to school, with the chance to dally with friends on the way home; the message that individuality and diversity are not only tolerated but part of what makes each school strong; home-like buildings full of books and art and caring.

This sounds delusional, I’m sure — like hopeless sentimentality. But I see hope in the food movement, where local and small-scale producers are accorded more value than corporate behemoths. And the number-crunchers will immediately reassert the math that led to consolidation in the first place.

But when there’s serious discussion about investing $3.3 billion for an armed guard in every school, I suspect that money isn’t really the issue we claim that it is. And if we draw a boundary around the school system budget, I’m not sure we’re considering the real economics for the community, or for society. If we cut gym class from schools but add public health programs to address obesity, what have we gained?

It’s a challenge for us, but let’s think bigger and smaller at the same time. Let’s think bigger by thinking systemically about education for our kids and in our communities. Let’s think about how education intersects with health, public safety and our environment, just to start. We can think bigger over time. And then let’s think small, about schools where it’s no surprise that everyone is known — not just by name, but by interests and talents, too.

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