In his State of the Union Address on Tuesday night President Obama laid out a wide array of programs and initiatives including many in education. Most of them laudable and important, but I must confess one really got my attention. Roughly mid-way through his speech he proposed a Fix-it-First program, “to put people to work as soon as possible on our most urgent repairs.” To get this done he is proposing a Partnership to Rebuild America which would attract private capital to up-grade the country’s infrastructure including “modern schools worthy of our children.”
Granted infrastructure is not a sexy topic. Making schools safe, sunny and inviting does not inspire headlines. Compared to charter schools, the Common Core State Standards, or whether or not schools should teach creationism school construction sounds like a big yawn.
But consider this: A recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that when they ranked the top 30 industrialized counties according to the well-being of children the United States came in 25th. We are the fifth worst in the rate of children who lack more than 4 of the following 8 educational possessions: a desk to study, a quiet place to work, a computer for schoolwork, educational software, an Internet connection, a calculator, a dictionary and school textbooks.
And these facts don’t tell the whole story. A tour of invisible America where our poor and working poor families send their children to school is a journey through dilapidated school buildings that ought to be retired from service. Between the dark lighting, peeling paint, ancient furniture and flacking asbestos these schools are more befitting as settings for Charles Dickens stories than 21st century learning.
We were once a proud people who built state of the art schools as a matter of public policy. No so much today. Yes, in the wealthier neighborhoods students usually attend swanky schools with all the trimmings including playing fields and theaters, but as you descend the socio-economic scale the school buildings get worse and worse until at the bottom we find crowded, unhealthy, and unsafe 19th century schools unfit for children.
Does it matter that our poorest students attend schools that are essentially inhabitable? You bet it does. Where you go to school matters not only in terms of facilities but also in terms of self-image, and self-efficacy. We respond to our environments and draw life lesson from how we are treated. If I go to a school that is, in reality, a run-down soft prison, what lessons am I likely to draw about my life chances?
There is much talk about public/ private partnerships in education. The President’s suggestion that a Partnership to Rebuild America start to repair old schools and build new ones may not arouse education policy passions, but it might, just might, actually make a difference in the lives of families, teachers and students.
Photo Credit: AP