I’m Young, I’m Positive, I’m Your Future
Rob Ramer, parent, St. Paul, MN
June 2, 2010
Sixty students at JJ Hill (Montessori), an inner city elementary school in Saint Paul, rapped, drummed, played recorders and xylophones, danced, and sang their stories to a rhythm and melody of their own. The school auditorium was alive with excited teachers, parents and other students representing an assortment of wonderful colors of America. The kids were excited about learning and being part of their school community. They were rapping about hard work, perseverance, respect and other good old American values. Lots of people give our public schools a bad rap but this rap exemplified the real treasure that is our public education system and made me proud to be an American and a Minnesotan.
This inner city K through 6th grade school has pretty good test scores but is known for its wonderful atmosphere of respect for learning and for each other. It has a smart and dedicated principal, teachers devoted to their pupils, lots of involved parents and hundreds of bright-eyed students representing many of St. Paul’s 60+ language and ethnic groups. On stage at the Spring Concert you could see it all: little brown-eyed boys rapping about their puppies, blonde kindergartners performing folk dances, almost teenage girls rapping about love and justice. Mostly you could see the children and their whole community powerfully responding to music, creativity, art, communication and self expression. The kids were recognized not only for their singing, dancing and musicianship, but also for writing lyrics, developing the beats, and composing their own songs.
American public schools historically have produced the basis for our democracy and economy. I’m a proud parent in my late fifties. My grandfather never finished eighth grade. My father went on to become an engineer; I’m a computer security specialist. Most of us have similar stories that are the basic foundation for our progression from agricultural to industrial to a knowledge-based economy. And this progress has been, in a large measure, due to our strong, universal public education system. Public education has also brought together people of all classes, nationalities, religions and races to create our vibrant democratic culture.
These positive attributes and skills are often ignored by the drumbeat for educational reform. Many people denigrate our American public schools by comparing test scores to those in other industrialized societies – often falsely portraying US students as dumber than those in parts of Asia and Europe. What these studies don’t point out is that poverty rates and test scores are related, and the US has higher poverty rates than other “developed” countries. When accounting for the differences created by our poverty, US schools compare favorably with other developed countries.
I grew up in India where students excel at taking tests; where fifth graders had to memorize facts that most American college students don’t know, and where high test scores are considered the main goal of one’s studies. India has produced many great scientists, computer engineers and doctors, yet because of the focus on test scores, its public education system does not prepare most students for the tasks a modern economy requires. America’s economic and social development was not pushed forward by the facts students learned but rather by our ingenuity, problem solving, ability to collaborate, and striving for the common good. Testing has its place but learning to pass an exam doesn’t teach vital life skills. Students learn these life skills through sports, music, classroom life, student government, and art and science projects – building and living in a school community.
While there is a lot that needs fixing in our schools, many critics of public education are calling for radical changes on one hand while cutting funding with the other. And these funding cuts are eroding many of the programs that make our public schools the treasures that they are. J.J. Hill’s Spring Concert and music program do not directly contribute to the school’s test scores but they do create the enthusiasm and sense of community that animate young minds. Music and other arts programs produce an atmosphere of enthusiasm, curiosity, mutual respect, creativity, and safety that enable kids to learn geometry, and principles of engineering, algebra, and biology (all things that I never learned in grade school).
About ten years ago, Governor Ventura pushed for a tax cut because Minnesota had a budget surplus. I received a refund of $400 and bought a new lawn mower. That was the last we heard about state surpluses and we have been cutting school budgets ever since. While I liked that tax cut in 2000, my lawnmower is now starting to rust, the funding for music has again been cut, and my son’s school is losing the teacher who built the music program that set his nine-year old heart on fire.
Where would we be if our parents and grandparents had demanded the same kind of immediate gratification rather than struggling through the Depression, World War II, college educations and going on to build our highway, communications, healthcare systems and other modern industries? All along the way they were also paying the taxes to provide for many of those advances. My 8th Grade educated grandpa used to say, “You get what you pay for.” and that is still pretty true. However, when it comes to schools our generation got what our parents and grandparents paid for. And now we don’t want to pay for the kind of public schools that enabled us to get where we are at.
Those kids rapping “I’m Young, I’m Positive” are indeed our future. They are going to be our future engineers, scientists, and technicians or the burger-flippers, car-washers, and unemployed of our economy and the voters of our democracy. So the kind of future we are creating for ourselves and our country depends on keeping them positive about education and learning.
Let’s get our own priorities straight and re-invest in our schools, our future. I’m ready to give up a new tax-return financed lawn-mower to make sure my kids and grandkids have the kind of educational foundation that we did. Now, where are the political leaders willing to tell the truth that we do have to reverse the tax cuts and start paying for a positive future?