Bus tour with teacherken: More on education in Pennsylvania


Ken Bernstein is a recently retired National Board Certified Social Studies Teacher who was a 2010 Washington Post Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher. Nationally known for his blogging as teacherken at Daily Kos and elsewhere, he served until his retirement as the lead building representative (NEA) at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt MD.

Let me start with this: if you really care about what is happening to education, you absolutely should subscribe RIGHT NOW to Diane Ravitch’s blog. It has become the hub of information about what is happening. Diane – whom I acknowledge as both a professional colleague and a personal friend – posts not only her own thoughts, but about things she either encounters in her reading or that people pass on to her. You will hear from teachers, students, parents, principals, scholars.

Because I follow Diane, this morning I encountered her email about a post in which she points at this editorial in The Mercury, the newspaper serving Pottstown PA and the surrounding area. With the title “Public school cuts threaten the future,” the piece begins like this:

“Death by a thousand cuts” is one way to look at what is happening with Pennsylvania public schools.

The Corbett administration has already cut more than $1 billion from the state funding for education, and that cannot help but have an impact, one that often falls negatively upon our children. As the editorial notes:

The findings of a recent statewide survey by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators show what local headlines reveal during budget season: School districts respond to financial stress by cutting electives, cutting tutoring and cutting teachers.

Cutting teachers increases class size.

Cutting electives limits the opportunities for students whose families cannot afford to provide them with lessons in music, in art, and more.

Cutting tutoring eliminates the help upon which some of our most at-risk students need.

The editorial notes the opinion of those who think electives and extra-curricular activities are not necessary and thus should not be the responsibility of the taxpayers, but responds, appropriately I believe, with this:

But parents, teachers and educational experts point to the positive effect and discipline that extracurriculars instill in students. Cutting them is a step backward.

In my 18 years as a classroom teacher, I taught courses required for graduation – US History, World History, Government – but I also taught electives in Social Issues and Comparative Religion. In both elective courses it was not unusual that students had transformative experiences. I remember one student in our Science and Technology program who had for her entire adolescence been oriented towards a career as a pediatric oncologist who after taking Comparative Religion decided instead to study and become a female theologian in her Church. While I am not sure her mother was happy about the change, for the young lady in question she became excited about her future in a way she had not been. The first time I taught Social Issues, in the Fall Semester, four students in that class whom I had not previously known asked me to write their letters of recommendation for college because they had so grown during the class.

Similarly, some students persist and do their academic work to stay eligible to participate in dramatics, in music, in athletics. If we believe, as does ASCD ( an international professional organization with 150,000 members in more than 145 countries) that we should be educating the Whole Child, then elimination of electives and extra-curricular activities is an unproductive approach to take.

If you are very wealthy, you are able to send your child to a school with small classes, with lots of electives, with many varied extracurricular activities. You view all of these as important, which is why you may well spend more than $30,000 in elite schools such as Phillips Academy Andover (alma mater of George W. Bush), or Sidwell Friends (where the Obama daughters attend). Your children may already have the advantages of your wealth and power, and if we do not provide at least some electives and extra curricular activities of lesser means the advantages with which they started will simply be perpetuated.

Those advocating the Greed Agenda see nothing wrong with perpetuating such inequity, not providing an opportunity for those of lesser means to explore options and paths for themselves.

Free quality public education was a major component in building a thriving middle class America.

Cutting back on what we offer through public education, which is part and parcel of the Greed Agenda, and which is what has been happening in Pennsylvania, robs America of the full talents of the young people we thereby deprive of full opportunity.

Kudos to The Mercury of Pottstown PA for an editorial that advocates for our children.

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