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Both Sides of the Fence

A Tosa resident since 1991, Christine walks the dog, cooks but avoids housework, writes and reads, and enjoys the company of friends and strangers. Her job takes her around the state, learning about people's health. A Quaker (no, they don't wear blue hats or sell oatmeal or motor oil), she has been known to stand on both sides of the political and philosophic fence at the same time, which is very uncomfortable when you think about it. She writes about pretty much whatever stops in to visit her busy mind at the moment. One reader described her as "incredibly opinionated but not judgmental." That sounds like a good thing to strive for!

The best of schools, the worst of schools?

Schools

I just may have shed a few tears Saturday as a bunch of lovely young women (and a few men) in green robes sang "Happy Ending" at Wauwatosa West High School. Still, commencement weekend has been a joyful time. George and I topped it off with gyros at Sts. Helen and Constantine Church tonight. We ran into a beautiful woman who was a student of mine years ago and is now a teacher herself. She says it's my fault, and if that's true I've done one good thing in my life. I bet she's a great one, full of enthusiasm and energy.

And that, plus some heated but polite discussions in the Tosa Town Square about the quality of education and administrative decisions about curriculum and classes, set me to thinking about our family's experiences with the school system here.

I want to thank the district, its teachers and administrators, crossing guard Marge at Underwood and patient Betty Marks at West, and all the rest who helped raise my pretty great kids. The school folks don't think of it that way, but that is what they have done. 

There have been some stand-out teachers. Geo and Liz wore golden cords, which means they did better than okay. They also were both accepted at selective private schools, although they decided on state schools. Best of all, they are incredibly solid and well-adjusted people.

But they know they are going to have a lot to overcome in college, because they seldom were really challenged in school. For that, we all share part of the blame; me, the kids, their teachers, and the school district.

The Town Square debates focus on the teaching of reading and math, specifically algebra. Peter Hart's blog already weighed in on the cutting of half the available seats in advanced algebra at Whitman. The underlying question for both is whether a good enough education is good enough, or do we want to give our kids a better shot?

On the good enough side

Parent expectations have changed radically. My parents' generation rarely were involved in kids' school work, and tutors were rare. There wasn't a lucrative industry providing help and enrichment for hefty fees. I don't think there was a demand for it, though there may always have been the need. And yet my cohort, suburban Boomers, were solidly educated. Of course, our parents bemoaned the inferiority of our education and moral character, just as their parents did of them and we do of those who came after us.

Most of us did better in some things than others. The idea was to develop kids who were competent overall. And if they went beyond that, well, that was nice, wasn't it?

Are those who are most disgruntled by the lack of special attention, services, options and so forth suffering from the "keeping up with Joneses factor"? This is the economics notion that as others consume more, we want the same. For us, the Joneses live in Brookfield. They have more Advanced Placement courses, more it seems of just about everything, and their test scores are notably higher than ours.

On the not good enough side

Elmbrook also spends about $1,000 more per pupil each year, according to  GreatSchools.net. While there are school districts that "over-perform" for their revenue, like West Allis and Greenfield Greendale, Wauwatosa isn't one of them. Generally, a little more money spent wisely helps.

Does the Elmbrook school district over-invest in its kids, or do we under-invest? That depends on what you believe about fostering "human capital." The magical law of compound interest tells us that investments made early pay big dividends over time. Apparently our neighbors are banking on that.

What are we banking on, if we don't offer advanced math to all the kids who are up to the challenge? Or if we put educational theories and our desire to be right over children's learning--whatever those theories are?

If I think honestly, and that's hard sometimes, I'd say the Tosa schools are 2/3 good, 1/3 not so good. The basis for that formula? Two of my kids had as good an education here as I had at infamous Nicolet. They learned some of the same lessons, including this: you can get by, even do well, with not too much effort. And if you follow the little rules, you can ignore some of the big ones. That's probably true out of school, too. Not the way to thrive, but you can survive. But my first child was almost lost because there wasn't any interest in helping kids who scraped by, even if they showed great promise.

I leave it to you to decide who we cheat if we try to just get by with our kids. But it seems to me that in the battle between the past and the future, the past is winning.

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