Jim O'Leary

Waverly Star

By Jim O'Leary

An e-mail newsletter for and about Waverly people, used with permission in the HLW Herald and on this web site.

  Nov. 17, 2003

America's public schools a light for the world

Whatever else is wrong with our culture, it isn't the public schools or public school teachers. I know this because I have just been there and seen it with my own eyes. You will have to look elsewhere if you want to complain about our culture. Whatever it is that is wrong with our culture, it can't be found in the public schools.

And if you want to reform public education, don't. Our public schools are the best thing America has going for it right now. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Especially, don't try to "fix it" by the conservative agenda of school vouchers, home schooling, "Pledge of Allegiance" or school prayer.

How do I know this? Last week I accompanied my science teacher wife, Jeanne, to the Reliant Convention Center in Houston, where several thousand teachers showed up to learn more on how they could do a better job in their teaching of science.

Besides about a hundred workshop offerings, there were 280 exhibition booths, some of them, I am proud to say, from Minnesota.

Doctor Jorgenson from Augsburg College in Minneapolis was manning a booth on teaching aids for meteorology.

When I was in high school, all I learned about the weather was that if I wet my finger and held it up I could find the wind direction. If I found the wind direction, I could face into it and know that a low-pressure area was on my right (in the northern hemisphere).

In this new world now, high school students are learning how to predict low-pressure areas on the computer and map them out just like the TV weatherman does. They don't have to stand outside anymore to learn about the weather.

Minnesotans at the convention all agreed that Minnesota was far ahead of the rest of the nation in public education at all levels. None of them had an answer for why Minnesota, year after year, scores number one in the 50 states on every measurement, whether it's the dropout rate or the test scores in math and science.

My own guess is that it's because Minnesota is made up of 10,000 lakes and 100,000 small towns. In small towns one more easily participates. People vote in school board elections in small towns. They don't vote in the big cities.

There is something totally admirable about people who are willing to serve on the school board. Of all the thankless jobs in the world, this one has to be the most unappreciated.

There are midnight phone calls from irate parents, maybe because their child didn't make the school band or get an A in chemistry. In small towns the school board members are your friends and neighbors.

People also go to the PTA meetings in smaller communities and they always have. The Waverly Star of 1933 reported that the Montrose PTA meeting for District 111 had a 100 percent attendance from the roll call of parents for grades one through eight.

All educators agree that the one crucial ingredient for a good school is parental involvement. I would add to that "community involvement."

Down here, the schools in south Texas with majority Mexican-American students succeed mightily beyond expectations because of the "snow birds" from Minnesota tutoring and because of parental involvement in the smaller communities.

"No child left behind" states the basic philosophy of American education, but these days I'm not worrying so much about the children of America getting left behind as I am about people my age getting left behind.

People my age are hollering about how bad the kids are, the need for conformity and "prayer in schools," but if you graduated from high school before 1960, go back to school before you start shooting your mouth off about something you don't understand.

While public education was always our pride and joy, it has improved by leaps and bounds since I was in school.

When I took chemistry there were 92 elements. Now there are about 120 and counting. In biology we cut up frogs to find out that frogs had stomachs and hearts.

Nowadays students are processing DNA, splitting protein molecules and finding out all about genomes. We didn't even know such things existed. The demands on us were nothing compared to the demands on the teenagers of today.

Teachers don't like it that teenagers don't get enough sleep or time to do their homework, because so many of them are working to make car payments or engaging in too many extracurricular activities.

Why do public schools have to provide the full gamut of sports? Other countries think we're nuts. I know boys and girls who have to be at school at 6 a.m. for basketball practice - and the sports budget is much higher than the science department budget all over the country.

Why should I, who never set foot in a public school in my life except as a teacher, advocate for supporting our public school system all the way?

I am glad I went to Catholic schools for a lot of reasons, but I am also glad the government didn't pay for them. England, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, and Spain all have government subsidized religious education. I will match American church attendance and piety against theirs any time.

Meeting a lot of teachers in the last few years as a substitute teacher, and being married to one for even longer, I have come to admire teachers and, yes, their students, far more than I ever expected.

The teachers I have met in their classrooms, and at the convention last week, are brave, young idealists, willing to navigate the mysteries of our current, sometimes awful, popular culture so they can communicate to this present generation of strangers in the house, our kids.

Please help them to grow and prosper in our public schools.

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