Maybe we need enemy to force a look at schools

Comment

June 30, 1996|By BRIAN SULLAM

IF WE WANT to solve the problems of our school systems, maybe we should restart the Cold War.

When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into space in October 1957, a complacent attitude about the nation's schools was transformed into one of deep concern.

Almost 40 years later, American school systems are struggling, and very few of us are paying attention.

A good indication of our lack of interest is the decrepit state of our many of our school buildings.

Last week, the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, reported that nearly one-third of American schools are in need of major repair. The price tag to fix the roofs, upgrade the electrical systems, improve the ventilation and lighting and repair worn fixtures from windows to doors is estimated to be $112 billion and growing.

Anne Arundel's situation is not much different. Next year, the school budget calls for spending $2.5 million on building maintenance and repair, the smallest amount appropriated in the last decade. It is no wonder the backlog of school repair projects amounts to $65 million and continues to grow.

No Cold War threat

Since our former adversary has collapsed into a third-rate military power and no longer poses quite the threat we imagined four decades ago when it launched the world's first satellite, we can't call upon it to provide the catalyst to pump money into our deteriorating educational plant.

We are now back to conducting business as usual, which means that schools are not getting the resources and support needed to produce graduates needed to maintain the standard of living we seem to take for granted.

Yes, it's true that we are spending more money than ever on education, but the money does not come close to satisfying the variety of demands we make of schools.

We want the students prepared for the world of work, which increasingly is technology-oriented. Employers want young workers who have been exposed to mathematics, computers, analytical writing and critical thinking. All of these skills require more intensive instruction. As a result, they are more expensive to teach than memorization, the favored method of pedagogy for decades.

In addition, classrooms are no longer equipped with desks, chairs, blackboards and an overhead projector. Many schools have sophisticated computers loaded with up-to-date software, CDs and videos -- or ought to. Almost-instant obsolescence is the other reality of these technology-driven classrooms. Computer labs filled with Apple II computers are only marginally better than ones filled with typewriters.

Anne Arundel's Advanced School Automation Project, designed to place computer work stations in every school and wire them together with fiber optic cables, carries a price tag of more than $37 million.

Installing this program at the current rate of about $1 million a year means that most of today's elementary schoolers will have their own grandchildren by the time all the schools are fully equipped and wired.

Placing expensive hardware in classrooms is the just the nTC beginning of the cost. Without teachers or specialists familiar with the equipment, most of these high-powered computers would just sit and collect dust. It costs money to train teachers or hire the specialists, yet most discussions of school expenditures don't acknowledge this considerable cost.

We not only expect schools to educate children, we expect them to socialize and civilize them. Responsibilities that social workers used to handle -- dealing with aggressive and disruptive children, providing psychological guidance for troubled children and supporting anti-drug and anti-smoking efforts -- have been passed on to the schools.

Why spend money on these non-educational activities? Because addressing these psychological problems should improve students' academic performance, as well as reduce discipline problems.

Clearly the solution is not to just "throw" money at education, but to spend it effectively. Too often, examples of wasteful education spending become a justification for reducing the amount now spent.

An investment

Perhaps it is time to begin thinking about public education as an investment rather than an expenditure.

Educating the young of this county is an investment in the future. Well-educated children become productive, self-sufficient adults. These are the kinds of people we will need to sustain the society we as adults inherited. Denying today's children an appropriate education is not only unfair to them, but will hurt those of us who will depend on them for our retirement.

As with most investments, the more you put in early, the bigger the return when it comes time to cash out. If that approach isn't convincing, we'll just have to create a new enemy.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 6/30/96

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