Sunday, April 01, 2012

A Larger Imagination for Public Education (Memories of Wayland)


I'm interested in your reaction to these thoughts on Kansas school funding.  Please email me at minister[at]smuuch[dot]org and let me know your reaction.  Do I have it right?  Am I misguided?  Thanks for sharing your opinions and thoughts with me.

Ten days ago I attended a forum on public education and school financing hosted by the MainStream Coalition.  More than sixty of us met in the basement of a UCC church and heard from a school superintendent, a Kansas legislator with a pro-education track record, and the lobbyist of the Kansas NEA.  I was just about the youngest person in the room and, unfortunately, there were only a few families with young children represented.

At the forum we learned about more proposed cuts to education coming out of Topeka as well as several awful pieces of legislation that are being considered this session.  I am convinced that the administration in Topeka doesn’t believe that public education should be appropriately funded.  They cut programs so they can turn around and cut taxes on the wealthy.  They propose legislation that would funnel money away from public education and towards private (religious) education.  When they can’t point out shortcomings in public education (shortcomings caused or magnified by a lack of funding) they manufacture data to show that Kansas schools are failing.  They are interested in creating an atmosphere in which public support for education is so low that scuttling the system is not met with resistance.  They are interested in the wealthier districts taking an “every man for himself” approach that is shortsighted and self-destructive.

Over the past couple of years I’ve attended several public forums on public education and school funding.  I leave each of these meetings troubled by the state of politics in the State of Kansas. But, I also leave these meetings mourning what I see as a failure on all sides to imagine what a truly great public education looks like.

+++

I grew up attending public schools in Wayland, Massachusetts, one of the best public school systems in the entire country.  Many of my teachers in high school, middle school, and even elementary school had doctorates.  (My second grade teacher had a doctorate!)  My high school English teacher had a Ph.D. in English literature and an undergraduate degree from Stanford.  My high school biology teacher had a Ph.D. in biology.  My high school American History teacher was a published historian.  One of my friends from college, a brilliant woman, went on to earn an advanced degree in education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and is now a teacher at Wayland Middle School.

There were 132 students in my graduating class and 130 of them went to four-year colleges or universities.  And, the list of academic institutions that Wayland High School graduates went to was nothing short of amazing.  Whether true or not, it was widely rumored that Harvard capped the number of students it would accept from Wayland High at four per year.  (If true, this meant that it was easier to get into Harvard than to finish at the top of the class at Wayland High.)  Besides sending four students to Harvard, Wayland High graduates from the class of 1995 also went to Yale, Brown, Dartmouth (4), MIT (2), Stanford (2), Amherst, Swarthmore, Johns Hopkins, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, Duke, Vanderbilt, and Georgetown.  That is just the beginning of a list!  As high school students we were even required to attend a set number of individualized college counseling sessions with one of the school’s guidance counselors.

I was one of two students in my graduating class to go to Reed College, a small liberal arts college with a first class reputation in Portland, Oregon.  Even though I was at college 3,000 miles from home, I was around another high-achieving Wayland High student.  One of my high school classmates also majored in religion at Reed.  He was a finalist for the Rhodes Scholarship.  Another of my high school classmates is now a speech writer for President Barack Obama.

I don’t mean to imply that gaining admission to elite universities is a prerequisite for a successful education or a successful life.  However, the K-12 public education received by students in Wayland is a launching pad for a life with tremendous opportunities. 

I could go on bragging about such a public education.  Maybe you are reading this and asking how such public education is possible.  The answer is that the residents of the town paid for it.  There is no denying that this education was possible because of the tremendous affluence of the town of Wayland.  However, the town also made a conscious decision to leverage that tax base and invest in education.  The town attracts the best teachers by paying for the best teachers.

In 2009-2010 the average teacher salary in Wayland was $83,872.  That was good for seventh in the state.  Although it is impossible to know how much the salaries of individual teachers increased, we do know that from 2004-2005 until 2009-2010 the average teacher salary in Wayland increased an average of 4.7% per year.)  This article from 2008 details the high end of teacher salaries in Wayland.  The current contract between the Wayland Teacher Association and the town of Wayland includes a provision (section XXII) for annual salary increases for all teachers.

+++

Members of my community send their children to some of the best public schools in the State of Kansas, even in the whole Midwest.  The Shawnee Mission, Blue Valley, and Olathe school districts are well-regarded.  Shawnee Mission leads the state in teacher salaries with Blue Valley second.

I am well aware that measuring school performance is a challenge.  Among the factors that makes it so challenging is that different communities are vastly different in terms of socio-economic standing.  What do standardized tests prove when opportunity is not standardized?  However, I would be willing to bet that there is a high correlation between teacher compensation and student performance. 

Towns like Wayland are far from perfect.  But, there is no denying the basic argument that it is a town that invests in education, though sometimes it gets it wrong.  In thinking about the recent debates about funding for public education in Topeka and in Kansas, the debate so often seems myopic, small-minded, and lacking in imagination.  The conversation would change entirely if the public schools of my childhood were imagined, if public education was widely regarded as a sound investment, and if taxes were increased with the goal of funding excellence.