Krugman: Small schools feel safer for kids

Arn Krugman: Small schools feel safer for kids.
Op-Ed Column, published in Daily Hampshire Gazette, Jan. 4, 2017

In my perfect world, the federal government would spend more money on education and fewer trillions of dollars on ill-advised wars and nuclear weapons.

If education were a higher priority and more money were available for schools, people might not have been so upset about charter schools taking funds away from regular public schools. This was certainly a hot-button topic in the Valley before the election. With money taken out of the equation, would as many people have opposed the creation of more charter schools?

Some important questions are: What is the purpose of education? What constitutes a meaningful and healthy education — an education that will help each child realize his or her full potential — an education that addresses students’ feelings as much as their intellect?

How do schools actually affect our humanness — our very being? Would a different emphasis in public education noticeably affect our culture and society? Can charter public schools help other public schools by presenting innovative approaches? What really makes our country stronger — more weapons than we need, or a more enlightened education system?

After five years teaching in inner-city public schools, I knew I wanted to work with children, but I became interested in other approaches. I read everything I could find about educational philosophy and alternative education — from John Dewey to Summerhill to Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner. Books by Jonathan Kozol, John Holt and Neil Postman also gave me insights into public school reform. I visited different kinds of elementary schools.

I felt then, and I still believe now, that the goals of public schools should not be driven by the demands of the competitive global marketplace. What I found in independent schools, particularly in Waldorf education, was that nurturing the children was a higher priority than imparting information and testing. In Waldorf schools teachers spent a lot of time at meetings trying to gain a deeper understanding of the children’s inner lives. They spoke about the soul qualities of their students. They taught using art, music, movement and story-telling. There’s a reason why there are now 23 Waldorf charter schools in California with more on the way.

Like independent schools, charter public schools are usually smaller. Smaller schools and smaller classes not only mean that each student gets more individual attention, but there’s often more of a family atmosphere.

The mood in the classroom and in the hallways can be palpably different. Mood and atmosphere affect children’s feelings. Students tend to feel safer in smaller, less institutionalized settings. There’s also less bullying and teasing. Outsiders don’t get lost as easily in the shuffle. They have a better chance of being “seen” by their peers.

Of course, public schools, especially in big cities, can’t really be made smaller until we’re willing to spend more money on education, but wouldn’t that be a good place to start, if we could begin to transform the public school system?

I realize that there are wonderful teachers and principals in public schools and that teachers who love children can make a real difference in their lives in any kind of school. I also know that local public schools are highly regarded, as are the independent schools and charter schools in the area. Even in the Pioneer Valley, charter schools are so popular that they have lotteries and waiting lists. Clearly, many parents are looking for alternatives.

However, in poor rural areas and inner cities public school buildings are crumbling and there’s high teacher turnover. There must also be a concerted effort to address socioeconomic challenges in the inner cities, where de facto segregation still exists. There is a direct relationship between underfunded urban schools and the high cost of incarceration.

Over the decades people have said that the public school system is broken. Most now agree that No Child Left Behind didn’t work. High-stakes testing has restricted teachers’ freedom by forcing them to “teach to the test.”

Could a test be devised to measure one’s depth of feeling while listening to the third movement of Debussy’s string quartet — or a wood thrush’s resonant song on a mid-May morning? Could schools test for imagination? Compassion? Kindness? Generosity? Gratitude? Tolerance? Altruism? In this age of constant testing and structured class time, homeschoolers with no standardized tests and more flexible schedules are getting into Yale, Harvard and Brown. They also demonstrate very positive social skills, despite (or perhaps because of) their lack of experience with social dynamics at school.

On Scott Simon’s “Weekend Edition” recently, a star teacher with 25 years experience in the public schools said he finally had to quit because he was forced to teach in a way that he knew wasn’t in the best interest of his students. Teachers teach best when they are inspired, and it’s easier be inspired when one feels free. Teaching should be alive, and the bureaucratic pressures from the system make that harder to achieve.

When money is tight, some public schools cut music and art. Schools are shortening recess, even though research in Japan shows that more recess improves learning and performance.

I wish there were a K-6 charter school where subjects were taught through art and time spent in nature. It could be called The Nature and Arts School. Teachers would strive to maintain innocence and a sense of wonder in the youngest children.

Students are more inclined to respond to climate change and to advocate for the environment when they love the natural world. It’s easier to love nature when one feels a connection with it, and that happens by spending more time outside and less time at a computer screen.

Thankfully, “forest kindergartens,” where children spend the whole morning outside, are popping up across the country. The Hartsbrook School in Hadley has such a program. Who decided that it was best for children to be inside an institution all day long?

While American schools are bringing academics into kindergartens, Finland has the highest literacy rate and they don’t start teaching reading until first grade—like the Waldorf schools. This is highlighted in Michael Moore’s film “Where To Invade Next.”

Bernie Sanders asked for a political revolution. If there were an education revolution, it might lead to a more enlightened citizenry that would then be more inclined to act wisely in politics. Even though high schoolers get excessive amounts of homework, they still don’t seem to know enough about how their own government works, the real history of the U.S., and world geography.

The ballot question is no longer an issue, but in the future, rather than promoting public schools over charter school expansion because of financial implications, why don’t we question the amount of resources available for education in general, at the same time that we reexamine public education and strive to make it more wholistic and meaningful?

Students need such an education more than ever in an age when technology has so much influence on young people that Yuval Harari predicts in his book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” that the human race is actually evolving into a fundamentally different kind of species, more technologically elevated, but less warm-hearted or “human,” in the sense that we now understand that word.

Arn Krugman is an educator and amateur naturalist who lives in Sunderland.

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