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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

It Makes You Wonder — The Twin Stresses on Modern Public Education

Our town is unusual in that it is a relatively small and pretty suburb of a major city — so part of its population are highly educated and succesful professionals who commute to important jobs — and yet it is also contiguous with some of the poorest places in the state — cities that people move to when, say, Newark, becomes too expensive for them. The children from one part of town have electronics, tutors, nannies and au pairs. The children from the other part arrive, so my son tells us, at school on chilly days wearing shorts to get their free breakfast. Creating an educational system that serves all of those children, on the limited budget of town with very little retail income, is quite a challenge. In a way, though, it is the entire nation’s challenge.

As Marina pointed out to me the other day, our educational system is feeling two very different pressures. On the one hand, the future we need to train students for is international — involving knowing languages, cultures, histories that were not emphasized in the past — and puts our children in direct competition for college and work slots with the very best and most motivated students in India, China, Brazil, Israel, and beyond. On the other hand, for all its failings, NCLB recognized a fundamental truth: we need to educate everyone. We can no longer let poor blacks, hispanics, farm kids, the poorest immigrant kids drift, drop out, and get by. They will not get by, and we as a society will not get by. So we are, for the first time in our history, actually trying to educate everyone — and, at the same time, trying to catch up and keep up with the very best schools and students all around the world. And, by the way, as in our little town, there is ever less money available to accomplish all this.

When I hear what Sasha tells me about his school, about the deep splits he sees and experiences in 6th grades, I start to wonder. Is it possible, is it even possible, for students who have such gaps in their home life, in the family income, in the resources available to them to be in the same race for the same grades? Maybe from Middle School on, there should be a social action component in education — where part of what all students do is to work to improve the community, our community — learning by doing. We all work together to change, to uplift, all — so that we can then learn together. I know IB has community service as a function in later years — and of course we cannot ask middle school kids to do the impossible, or place them in situations where they are in any danger. But I wonder if the impossible race to the top pressure on one set of kids, mixed with the impossible race to tread water and not drown on the others, is not fundamentally both wrong and impossible. Maybe we need to be building community as a fundamental part of education — weaving all the needed lessons into that. As Dr. Berger told me in South Africa, he likes being there because the challenges there are more like the rest of the world than the challenges in some gated upper middle class community in Euopre or America. In our town we have both communities together — and so have a chance to think in ways that really match the whole wide world.


  1. Sue Bartle says:

    What I really want to know is why is it a Race to the Top? What are we racing to the top of? Why can’t it be more about doing the best we can to provide the right education for our students – whether the students are interested in entering a vocational field of study or an academic field of study. We still need plumbers, electricians, and mechanics. These positions can not be outsourced.

    I just finished reading Marina’s Ask No Questions and I really like the way she sets up the family with two very different daughters. This is a perfect example of two daughters both having skills that can benefit the whole family but all attention is paid to the “smart” one Aisha. When the family experiences their immigration crisis then the “average” child Nadira takes center stage and is the catalyst in several situation that leads the family through the crisis successfully.

    When I taught in the library I often wondered about my students. Who would stop for me if I had a flat tire or who would I want to stop for me if I have a flat tire?

    It was not always the smartest and brightest that would stop or I would want to stop. The students who have the most heart and determination were many times those with average grades and average achievement but they used their talents in other ways to support and help each other. We do not value the heart and determination enough of our students. If we did we would see that these our the people that will help make our world as great a success as those with the brilliant minds and IQs

    Service Learning/Education
    The guru of service learning/education is Cathryn Berger Kaye. She leads seminars that make you think, work, and read about how to bring literacy and service learning together. I have had the privilege of attending a seminar with her in Albion, NY.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    I was impressed when I saw all of the vocational training in the Western NY sites. Clearly those are needed jobs, and provide skills for kids who may not flourish in a 4 Year College. I do, though, think the CC is correct in teaching kids of all stripes critical thinking and critical reading — we need those skills as citizens, whatever career and training path we follow. I am going to follow your link to Ms. Kaye’s site.

  3. And the joy of CC is that in a vocational program NF fits the bill for critical thinking and critical reading when students must demonstrate at Grade 11 or 12 how to solve the issue of a broken valve on a furnace or in a vehicle or determine the correct measure of medicine for a patient.