Tuesday, August 3, 2010

How much does an education really cost?

I interviewed for a job today. I was excited for the interview because it's with a company I've worked with before. In fact, I've held this same position before (a teacher with at-risk kids) and I absolutely loved it. It was, in my opinion, one of the best jobs I've ever had. I loved every minute of it and found it to be quite rewarding. The only drawback, of course, is the pay.

Nobody goes into education to get rich. If they do, they're highly misinformed. Teachers as a group across this country are underpaid and underappreciated, yet held to continually higher standards each year. Given that many standards are simply developmentally inappropriate and for some children just downright unattainable, it's ridiculous to punish teachers for what children do or don't learn.

The push for accountability in education has caused a wide array of problems that the average adult may not even be familiar with. Schools lose or gain money based on their test scores. Teachers are forced to forego teaching certain subjects or interest-based learning to cover material that will appear on standardized tests. Gone are the days of exploring children's natural curiosities--there's a test that has to be taken, one that will determine how much money the school system receives. Most children in elementary school spend the majority of their days focusing on reading and writing. If you're asking what's missing from that equation, let me tell you: creative writing, art, music, science, social studies, and opportunities for social skill building and critical thinking.

We want our children to be critical thinkers, to be able to solve the problems of tomorrow, yet we give them very little time to build and practice those skills. The majority of material young children are bombarded with is the type of knowledge that requires rote memorization. In other words, don't think about it, Johnny--just tell me what I told you, in time for the test.

In areas where there are socioeconomic concerns, these problems are intensified. Factors such as hunger and poverty strongly affect school outcomes. If you didn't eat or you don't have a place to live, it's a lot harder to focus on learning your ABC's. What a surprise that schools with higher levels of poverty score lower on standardized testing! And the answer? Punish those schools! Take away their money! They're not using it correctly anyway or those kids would be learning!

The reality of the situation is that some schools do misuse funds. Many kids go to school hungry or dirty or for whatever reason, not ready to learn. Our social policies meant to address these problems have instead blamed an already burdened school system rather than proactively addressed the needs of people who cannot adequately provide for their families. We are a nation that insists on throwing bandaids on gunshot wounds instead of taking steps to ensure nobody gets shot to begin with.

So back to my interview. In my heart, I have always loved working with kids from at-risk environments. The pay is terrible. Often the materials in these programs are limited, the support is limited, there can be cultural misunderstandings and political and social issues that arise. After doing the math, I've figured that if I take the job I interviewed for today, I'll be able to pay for my family's medical and dental insurance with a little left over each month--possibly enough to pay the rent.

Like I said, nobody ever gets rich in education. For people like me, you walk a fine line between discerning what you need to provide for your family and what you need to do your calling. I have long believed that my students are also my teachers. And despite my concerns about financial savviness, I can say one thing for sure. I'm ready, once again, to learn.

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