For those who’ve known me over my 16 years as the education columnist for the Providence Journal, welcome to my column’s new home at EducationNews.org. Big thanks to Jimmy Kilpatrick for this opportunity.
My journey into the landscape of kids and education began when a friend recruited me into a city-wide parents group working on improving our local schools. My own twin boys had only just started kindergarten, so my attitude was fresh and eager compared with the other battle-scared parents whose kids were older. Because the people seemed interesting, I joined a sub-group that was studying the Providence teachers contract. A parent who also was a labor lawyer helped the us understand the arcane meanings encrypted in that long, daunting, and terrible document.
In the early 1990s, I got appointed to the Providence School Board as a representative of that group.
At my first Board meeting, I was greeted with flaccid handshakes and overt disdain. The long-time Chair introduced me to each member, dramatically broadcasting his distaste for the task. An official of Rhode Island’s youth prison offered his thick hand and a freezing-cold stare. Ignoring the introductions altogether, two women talked in what seemed to me like staged over-animation, as they leaned against the easy-wipe plastic wallpaper, decor that made the School Department look like a corporate insurance company. Together, we would shape education policy for our students. Oy.
What I didn’t know at the time was that I hadn’t been appointed because of my animated interview with the Mayor and knowledge of the teachers contract. It took a while, but I finally realized that the lame-duck Mayor had only chosen me as a way of sticking it to the new guy.
On my way into that first meeting, the seen-it-all School Board secretary pulled me aside and told me that if I were smart – “smaht” – I would shut up for six months and figure things out before making a fool of myself. She said that new Board members always think they have the answers when they first arrive (I did), but solutions are not so obvious (right again).
But I did know some things. At Rhode Island College where I was then teaching, most of my students were woefully ill-educated. From all over the state high-school graduates in my History of Theater class came to me thinking that the ancient Greeks were, maybe, a baseball team? They had trouble constructing sentences. They had zero curiosity about the subject. For the most part their educational goals were to get a job that would get them good money, with which to be a good consumer.
What was going on? How’d they graduate high school with only the vaguest idea of the function of a verb?
The School Board offered depressing answers to that. Most notably, the Board’s work had little to do with kids. Budget battles, adult personnel issues, and the paralyzing labor contracts ate up most of our attention. The only students we discussed were those being considered for expulsion. Kids were just the excuse for grown-ups to collect tax revenue and pass it around to each other.
Each week I read the education trade paper, Education Week, cover to cover. In time I developed the nerve to suggest, in a winning, positive voice, that we could solve a certain problem the way some other community had, as reported by EdWeek. But beware. Pointing out problems to educators can unleash wicked defensiveness, often accompanied by a shower of fingers pointing to the parents, government officials, electronic distractions or under-funding as the source of all problems. It was as if there were nothing we could actually do for the benefit of students.
Soon after leaving the Board I started writing for the Journal. Education was my focus, but okay, what about the parents, the funding, the officials and the like? What about all the things that affect kids, since what affects kids affects education?
During the summers, when no one wants to hear about math, I began running long series on big issues like premature pregnancy, parenting, children’s mental health, the disappearance of imaginative play from childhood, the alienation from nature. One summer I wrote about all the kids no one wants to bother with: juvenile offenders, victims of neglect or sexual abuse, foster and group home children. I got no e-mail response all summer. Not interested.
My take: in America, kids in general are not cherished. The public wants high academic performance from them, but resents how much support they need to reach high standards. Other-people’s children are inconvenient, rude and expensive.
So all too the focus on helping kids gets drowned by adult concerns. The adults have tons of needs, don’t get me wrong. Parenting skills have fallen on hard times, and teachers are ill-equipped to deal with kids’ challenges. Still, getting kids’ real issues front and center, first, before the adult issues, shouldn’t be a major battle.
Jesse James explained that he robbed banks because “that’s where the money is.” I obsess about schools because that’s where the kids are. But we’ll never improve education until we nourish and value kids, in and out of schools.
So, while regular beat reporters write about the blood in the water – the conflicts and combatants – I write about the water.
I’m delighted to be able to continue to do so.
Julia Steiny wrote the education column for the Providence Journal for 16 years. She is a freelance writer and consultant on data projects such as infoworks.ride.ri.gov, RI’s school-accountability site and ridatahub.org , an innovative data-analysis tool. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative. She blogs and can be reached for questions or comments at www.juliasteiny.org .