Opinion: Snapshot of Our Schools Offers Worrisome Glimpse of Class of 2027

Mark Weber | September 16, 2014 | Opinion
My kids were well-served by New Jersey’s public education system, but can all parents say the same?

Mark Weber
I’m an elementary music teacher, and we have a funny tradition that starts each year at my school.

All of the “specials” teachers and staff meet out in front and greet our students on the first day as they get off of their buses. While the homeroom teachers are busy preparing for the all-important first morning of classes, the rest of us say hello to our returning students, usually with added comments about how much they’ve grown in the little more than two months since we last saw them.

But that’s not the tradition. That starts as soon as the kindergarteners, barely bigger than their backpacks and clinging to the bus’s stair rail, step onto the school grounds for the first time as enrolled students. You might mistake them for Hollywood stars on the red carpet, considering how many times they’re being photographed.

You see, it’s not enough for some parents to just take pictures of their 5-year-olds as they get on the bus for the first time at the end of their driveways; these parents also want pictures as their children come off the bus. So, right after they send their little ones on their way, they jump into their cars, drive (not too fast) to the school, and photograph the historic moment.

I can’t blame these moms and dads: I wanted to capture every important moment with my two sons when they were young. All children grow up way too fast, and a family’s milestones — especially the big ones, like the first day of school — come and go quickly.

This year, however, watching our parents beam with pride at their kindergarteners was especially poignant for me. This is my last year as a K-12 parent; my youngest son will graduate this June. As a parent, this year will see my last back-to-school night, my last band concert, and my last high school sports event. This spring, my son leaves all those things behind him as he enters adulthood. But my wife and I leave these things behind as well — and with more than a little tinge of sadness, no doubt.

A part of me envies these younger parents. I won’t pretend my sons’ school careers didn’t have their difficult moments — what child’s school years are perfect? — but my memories of their schooling are largely happy, and a part of me wishes I could relive them. I am very grateful for the time and talents of the many fine educators who served my children over the years; their example is largely the model I use for my own teaching.

But as I watched these parents and their young children embark on their new public school careers, I must admit I’m also worried. It’s been a decade and a half since my oldest son entered kindergarten, and public education has seen some dramatic changes over these years, many not for the better.

I worry these kindergarteners are entering a time when we expect far too much from children — especially from small children. “Rigor” seems to be the catchphrase of the moment in education policy, but what good are high academic standards without a soul that has learned to play, to laugh, to forgive, to love, and to dream?

We’ve made the stakes for academic success too high. It’s commonly accepted these days, for example, that a four-year college degree is a prerequisite for earning a good wage. But why should this be? Why can’t people who work hard and play by the rules make good money doing necessary work, even if that work doesn’t require academic credentials? Why do we believe the only path to a dignified life runs through college campuses?

I worry these kindergarteners are increasingly unsafe. We were all horrified at Sandy Hook . . . for a while. What have we done since then to make life safer for children?

I have no problems with gun owners; you have every right to your firearms. But can’t we all agree that military-grade weapons in the hands of the unbalanced are a danger that should be confronted? Can’t we all agree that one Columbine is one too many?

I worry these kindergarteners are being schooled in an environment that enshrines test scores. We know these scores correlate strongly to a child’s economic circumstances. We know the test scores have less to do with school or teacher effectiveness and more to do with the realities of a student’s life outside of school.

Why, then, are we so focused on test-based outcomes? Is school really all about how well a child beats what is becoming little more than a computer game? What harm might we be doing, in the name of “accountability,” to our schools by overemphasizing a testing regime that has never been properly vetted?

I worry about the changes in the youth sports culture these kindergarteners face. We now put 12-year-olds on national television as they play games that used to be reserved for neighborhood sandlots. We have fetishized high school sports to the point that even public school teams are engaging in practices that are little better than outright recruiting.

And it’s not just sports. All of the fun stuff that kids do — music, dance, drama, student government, journalism, even cooking — is being professionalized. Is this really in the best interests of our children? Don’t they have enough pressure in their lives already?

I worry about the segregated schools in which these kindergarteners will learn. Fifteen years ago, the district where I work was overwhelmingly white and Asian; it remains that way today. Fifteen years ago, Newark and Camden and Jersey City and Trenton and Paterson and so many other cities were overwhelmingly full of students of color living in economic disadvantage; it remains that way today.

My sons never had a classmate like Michael Brown, and he, I’m guessing, never had classmates like them. From all indications, it looks like the reality of segregated schools will continue for the Class of 2027. Is this an issue we are prepared to acknowledge, let alone confront?

Finally, I worry about the teaching profession, and how the changes imposed on it will affect these kindergarteners. Young people entering the workforce are seeing an unprecedented assault on teachers: pay has eroded, benefits are slashed, workplace protections are under fire, and we educators are told our schools are the cause of income inequity, even as it has become increasingly obvious that school outcomes are, in reality, the symptom.

Why would any bright young person want to enter a profession with low pay and even lower prestige? What are we doing to attract the best and the brightest into teaching? How does reneging on pension promises and basing evaluations on unreliable test scores and gutting tenure protections — protections that keep our schools from turning into hotbeds of cronyism — do anything to make our teaching corps the best it can be?

Twelve years from now, I hope these kindergarten parents can look back with the gratitude and thanks my wife and I feel towards New Jersey’s public school system. But as an educator, I’m worried: it often feels as if we’re solving problems that don’t actually exist, and ignoring the realities that truly matter in the lives of children.

The kindergarteners who step off of their school buses today are entering arguably the best statewide school system in the nation. Twelve years from now, when they enter their final year in high school, will we be able to say the same? Will we be able to put our children’s kindergarten snapshots next to their senior portraits and say, with pride, that they got the schooling they deserved?