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  • May 2007
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Public school beurocracy

I have to start by saying that most of my education was in public schools. I did a short stint a Catholic school, because when bussing started, some yahoo was taking pot shots at the school bus, and my folks decided that it made more sense to go to the local private (Catholic) school than ride into the inner city. Oh yeah, and the public schools sucked. Despite all of that, I manged to come out more or less OK (twitch, twitch), and had a successful career as a research biologist and then as a high tech executive…

This Rant is about a series of events that have been going on for the past year or so. I volunteer in the local elementary school, and I’ve noticed that the kids are pretty much taught entirely by rote. It doesn’t matter if you understand how addition or subtraction work, the goal is to memorize all of the addition and subtraction problems up to 20 +- 20, and be able to snap out the correct answer as fast as possible. This is called “Math Facts”, and is apparently an extremely good way to really crank up the scores on the standardized math tests (which are used to measure how “successful” a school is). The teaching methods employed in our public schools will be the subject of another rant some other time.

Being a scientist, engineer, and overall geek type person, I feel rather strongly that the kids should be encouraged to explore problem solving and critical thinking. It turns out that the Lego companies agree (or at least see an opportunity for large profits in this area), and have a whole line of products specifically designed for schools – preschool through high school – that teach the kids the basics of engineering (gears, levers, etc) and some simple programing (from a drag and drop GUI for the little ones to a full blown C interface). The Lego Education stuff is incredibly popular in schools, and the little bit that exists in our local elementary school is a huge hit with the kids. Problem is, there really isn’t anyone dedicated to the whole program, so its done on a more or less part time basis, on a shoestring budget. Does anyone see an opportunity here?

After a bit of legwork, talking to some friends, and the normal “what can we do to improve this situation” type thing (remember that bit about problem solving and critical thinking?), I find myself discussing possible solutions with the powers that be in the local schools. Turns out that they are extremely excited about the prospect of having someone who would be willing to work with teachers, after-school programs, etc. and make an entire Lego curriculum available to the kiddies. Fast forward a few months, throw in an anonymous benefactor, and I’ve got three pallets of Lego Education materials sitting in my living room. The next time I stop in to chat with the local school folks, I’m told that its great that I’ve got all this stuff, and they really appreciate that I’m willing to let them use it for free, but you see, in order to actually work with the kids, you need to be a State Certified Teacher. And if I want to work with different age groups, I need to be Certified for each age group. And because this curriculum covers science and Technology, I need to be certified in both subject areas. “Why don’t you go talk to the local University and see what it would take to get your teachers certificate?” I guess that as long as all I’m doing is “volunteering” in the classroom, anything goes. As soon as I want to donate more than my time, I need to be Certified (there is some irony to that. Certified. Yep, that would be acurate).

Well, it turns out that despite the fact that I havea  Masters in Neurobiology and spent 15 years teaching at University, none of the work or classes I took would count, so I’d have to go back to school as an undergraduate and get a BA in teaching, them get another Masters. Once I’ve got that done, I can spend a year working (for free) at a school to get my internship done, THEN I can start taking the battery of tests needed to make sure that I actually know the material I’m going to be teaching. Kind of a lot to do just to do so that I can make about $15,000 worth of resources available to the local school. Not to mention the 6 years or so it would take to get all those degrees and tests and such taken care of. What’s really ironic, is that when I’m volunteering in the classes, I typically teach the kids while the teacher is doing something else. If the kids ask the teacher a question that (s)he doesn’t knowthe answer to, I’m the one the teacher asks. So even though I’m already teaching in the school (for free) if the school decides to actually use all this stuff that I managed to make appear (for the school), I have to go deal with all this crap.


Lets see, problem solving and critical thinking. There is an after school program fun by a local day care. One quick phone call, and I’ve got a two afternoon a week program set up for next year. 1st grade through 7th grade. If it is successful, they’re going to want to pay to continue to the program. The goals of the program are to encourage critical thinking, problem solving, and to do everything we can to get the girls hooked before the third/fourth grade social pressures convince them that math and science are “for boys”.

Word gets out. There are fourlocal churches that are interested in summer programs. Would I be willing to come see them and see if I could fit them into my schedule? All of them want to try and keep the girls involved in science and engineering type things, and want to see the kids learning about how things work. Oh yeah, and there are a couple of local private school (which aren’t required to have state certified teachers) that are fighting to get me to some teach.

So the end result is that in order to provide a service that will help the local school meet their stated goals of teaching critical thinking, technical literacy, and preparing the kids for the real worl work place, I have to go through a ton of bureaucratic horse shit – even though all I’m trying to do is make a (very expensive) service available for free. However, the local non-public school programs are fighting over the chance to *pay* me to provide these same services.

What was particularly frustrating was that everyone at the local school really wanted to make this happen. I can’t tell you how many hours we spent trying to think of ways to get around the insane bullshit that was making it impossible. The teachers, principle, computer lab folks – everyone at the local school was excited, supportive, and looking for loopholes. I think that many of the teachers at the school really do want to teach (not all, but some), and they are trapped by the stupid bureaucrats and state regulations.

End result: A local non-profit will now be providing a highly rated, very sought after k-12 technology program through local private schools, day care centers, churches, and children’s museums, but not at the local schools. Ever wonder why our public schools suck so bad?


One Response

  1. It’s astounding, isn’t it?

    Mr. Chili and I aren’t relying on the public schools to educate our kids. Sure, they get much of the basics in the classroom, but we do an awful lot of “filling in the blanks” here at home. When Punkin’ was in 1st and 2nd grade, for example, there were NO standards for spelling. She could spell a word any old way she wanted – they called it ‘invented spelling’ – and Mr. Chili and I were OUT OF OUR MINDS frustrated by that; why let a kid develop a habit that s/he has to UNLEARN later! GAH! We’re fortunate in that Mr. Chili is an engineer (read; math and science/computer geek) and I’m an English teacher with a strong background in history and languages, so we’ve got most of our bases covered as we fill in the missing pieces in our daughters’ educations.

    I almost wish that our public school systems could break themselves free of the political bullshit they have to endure. SO much of it gets in the way of real teaching and a lot of opportunites, like the one you’re providing, have to be passed over for just the reasons you describe here.

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