An Education in Education

Speaking of education, here are a few things I learned over the past few weeks. 

1. When Clarence’s school board decided to submit an above-cap budget for 2013-2014, it could only be passed by a 60/40 supermajority. The practical effect of that is that my yes vote is worth only about 5/8th of a no vote. That’s not “one person/one vote” and that’s not fair. There is a bill in the Assembly to right this wrong

2. Elections that are governed by the election law, which includes races for school board, are barely regulated and shadowy groups using untold amounts of money can operate with absolute secrecy. If, for instance, you want to spend more than $25 towards the election of another person who is running for a school board, you’re prohibited from doing so. But the penalty for breaking that law is non-existent. For an ultra-right wing group that wants to take over a school board or defeat a school budget, unlimited people can spend unlimited money to do it. In Clarence, that’s happening right now. 

3. There are no exceptions to the tax -cap legislation to allow for, e.g., paying court orders and school safety.

4. The Annie E. Casey Foundation is based in Maryland and was set up by one of the founders of UPS to, “build better futures for disadvantaged children and their families in the United States. The primary mission of the Foundation is to foster public policies, human service reforms, and community supports that more effectively meet the needs of today’s vulnerable children and families.” Frankly, the sort of things a government should be doing. AECF ranks states in terms of the quality of the education children there receive. New York is number 19.  Clearly, there is work to do. 

5. The United States spends over $600 billion on educating its next generation every year. By contrast, our elective war in Iraq cost over $2 trillion.  The difference is that no one got to vote in a referendum on the tax levy for the Iraq war. Using 2007 numbers, the United States spent less than only Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Norway among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries per pupil. 

6. In a recent ranking of education quality, the United States came in as “average”. The top countries are Finland and South Korea. This has an adverse affect on kids’ abilities to compete in a global marketplace where their peers abroad are simply educated better. 

When it comes to education, “rah-rah US is #1” is untrue and just as jejune as allegations that kids can do well in school regardless of the quality of teachers or class sizes if they come from the right home in the right neighborhood with the right family makeup with a nice income. There is clearly a lot of room for improvement; especially if you live in a place like Arizona, Mississippi, New Mexico, West Virginia, or Nevada. The report which ranks education quality country-by-country comes up with these conclusions

  1. There are no magic bullets: The small number of correlations found in the study shows the poverty of simplistic solutions. Throwing money at education by itself rarely produces results, and individual changes to education systems, however sensible, rarely do much on their own. Education requires long-term, coherent and focussed system-wide attention to achieve improvement.

  2. Respect teachers: Good teachers are essential to high-quality education. Finding and retaining them is not necessarily a question of high pay. Instead, teachers need to be treated as the valuable professionals they are, not as technicians in a huge, educational machine.

  3. Culture can be changed: The cultural assumptions and values surrounding an education system do more to support or undermine it than the system can do on its own. Using the positive elements of this culture and, where necessary, seeking to change the negative ones, are important to promoting successful outcomes.

  4. Parents are neither impediments to nor saviours of education: Parents want their children to have a good education; pressure from them for change should not be seen as a sign of hostility but as an indication of something possibly amiss in provision. On the other hand, parental input and choice do not constitute a panacea. Education systems should strive to keep parents informed and work with them.

  5. Educate for the future, not just the present: Many of today’s job titles, and the skills needed to fill them, simply did not exist 20 years ago. Education systems need to consider what skills today’s students will need in future and teach accordingly.

Clearly, there is work to be done, and each side in the debate in the US have at least one point, but we’re missing the bigger picture because it’s difficult and time-consuming. Note that American teachers are paid wages below the world average. 

The solution, however, is not to cut teachers or to treat them like fast-food workers. It is not to cut programs that encourage learning, fitness, or creativity. We can work for systemic improvement while not sacrificing the quality of education that kids are receiving now. Testing and more testing isn’t the answer, nor is pitting teachers’ unions against everyone else. 

I don’t know whether Carl Paladino’s baseball bat or AFP’s decimation of public schooling are precisely the right solution.  But one thing I do know – I’m embarrassed and ashamed for having not paid closer attention to these things before, especially as it relates to my own town. 


  • You are precisely right Alan. We know the cost of everything and the value of little. And you don’t educate for today, you educate for a lifetime. I went to a great parochial school here in Buffalo, long shut down by the Diocese, and while the education was good — it was not as great as the education that my sons are getting in Clarence — primarily because our district offers instruction for the entire spectrum of students. This is what is so disheartening. The very people who criticize public education do so because they don’t want cattle herded into stalls. Clarence educated inviduals — from IEPs to APs. We offer(ed) more diversity of programs – so you could select the threads that reflect the tapestry of your life. The state mandates are English, Science and Math — but it is the electives — the Engineering, the Computer Science, the Music, the Art, the Business Law, the Psychology that shapes the individual. Psychology is so key in nearly every product design — how will people behave with this product? Clarence is akin to the best prep schools in the nation — that still serves every educational aptitude that a district MUST. In fact, all students in Clarence — whether attending public, private or home, are provided services mandated by the state. That was in the budget as well. That few know this is no comfort. However, what happened this month, will have lasting impressions on our students — and hopefully they will take these lessons learned and never let it happen to their kids.

  • NY The Vampire State

    You failed to include keeping the teachers union out of elections and budget votes Alan.

  • If you’re actually going to start paying attention to schools now, you should start reading folks like John Taylor Gatto, Grace Llewellyn, Ivan Ilitch, etc, and realize that the public school system in the US is irredeemably broken.

    I don’t want any generation of American kids educated in a system designed by Prussian industrialists to create a docile working class.

    No amount of money and “respect for teachers” is going to fix that.

    Support starting points like ( and enable the development of endless educational opportunities for individual needs, not the industrial needs of guys like Rockefeller and Carnegie.

  • On #1: That’s the way it is Alan. Kind of like the recent downsizing petition law… which, by the way, a well know local downsizer told me that Andrew Cuomo, prior to his highnesses governorship had alot to do with…that changed how many people (what percentage) are needed to petition a vote on village elimination or downsizing. What happened is that supporters of getting rid of small government had the law changed. It takes a smaller number of people to get the vote on the ballot than any other ballot initive. The ‘Peoples Voice” rules for village elimination plays by a seperate standard than any other referendum by petition.

    Seems the powers that be have hit upon a new tool. Change required numbers, but do it selectively for only those things they want to see done. Now there’s integrity!

    Also Alan I suggest if you really want to blow your mind, see how it’s all done, where all the money goes and get a great inside look at how the NYSDOE really dictates then get on the board. I did, two terms. I found that DOE has gone to great trouble and exacting policy to fairly ensure that a local school board can act as really nothing but their rubber stamp. One year while working endlessly on the primary school budget…and after we satisfied all the state mandates we had only enough money left to purchase either a new tuba for the band…or…replace collapsed bookshelves in two classrooms. Albany and its mandates spent all the rest…every nickle.

    We purchased the tuba (maybe it was a Susaphone). They we cashed in all our small yearly stippend checks and bought the booshelves ourselves.

    This system worked great for Albany…the politicians and the DOE. They called every shot, spent every nickly…and there was the local rubber stamp schoolboard. We were simply bait for local ire.

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