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Published: Saturday, 5/29/2004

Stop using schools, kids, as sound-bite props

BY GEORGE WOOD
George Wood George Wood
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AS THE 2004 election campaigns gears up, here's one lesson I would like to teach every candidate: Schools are not just stages for sound bites.

I know many candidates will find this hard to believe. Crowds of cheerleaders waving pom-poms and bands blasting out patriotic songs provide great backdrops for television commercials.

Nothing looks better on the evening news than the candidate perched on a chair sharing a picture book with some alert and fascinated 5-year-old.

Most certainly we can expect to be flooded with such images this summer and fall. Governors will be visiting science labs complete with protective eye wear; senators may roll up their sleeves and swing a softball bat, the President many even plant a tree or two.

But what the candidates always seem to forget is that after they leave, the school is still there.

In fact, the rest of the school, the part kept hidden from the television crews and print reporters, takes the place of the make-believe school.

You see, we dress it up for the candidate. We make sure that our kids and school look great for the press.

No sense in not putting our best foot forward on those very few occasions when we actually have positive attention paid to us.

We can usually only make the 6 o'clock news when there is a drug raid, or shooting, or criminal charge filed against a teacher. The candidate's visit is our chance to shine.

Maybe that is why, after they leave and are elected, politicians treat schools so poorly.

Here is how it must work.

Since the candidate only reads to clean, neat, and attentive children, he or she believes that all children are like this.

So the candidate-turned-elected official votes for legislation like the No Child Left Behind act that says all these kids will be above average on test scores or else the school will be closed.

Or, since the facilities are cleaned and polished in order to be the best possible stage for the cameras, the candidate thinks the school is well funded.

That leads to voting time and time again against school funding bills or legislation that equalizes funding for all children.

Deceived by the cheerleaders and band uniforms, the candidate thinks all children look alike and are having a great time in school.

So as an elected official it is no problem to pass laws that use only standardized test to measure student success.

Candidates are worshiped like a visiting dignitary from a benevolent conquering nation in the hopes that it might lead to some crumbs from the state or federal coffers.

So as lawmakers, they dictate curriculum to the schools, imagining that we can hardly wait to do their bidding.

Maybe it's actually our fault.

Perhaps we school people should just say no.

No sound bites, no quick visits, no using our kids as props for your election or re-election.

Instead, here's the deal. You are welcome to visit our schools.

But if you come you must stay for at least a week. And during that time you have to do the following:

• Prepare and teach lessons to real kids, including the ones with running noses, lice, dirty clothes, ADHD, ODD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Oppositional Defiant Disorder), and the whole alphabet soup of conditions kids bring to school.

• You must also, if you go to a high school, grade 145 papers complete with comments and suggestions for improvement, returning them the day after they are handed in.

• Meet with school administration and write mountains of reports and schedule endless days of testing that NCLB requires, all the time remembering that the federal government foots only 7 percent of the cost of public education.

• Live on a teacher's salary while also providing all the classroom materials (books, pencils, tissues, snacks) that the school cannot provide due to spending cuts.

• Hold parent-teacher conferences, including meeting with parents protesting rising school fees that are in place to make up for declining real dollars (you know the ones adjusted for inflation) provided by the states.

• Attend staff-development sessions on so-called scientifically proven teaching strategies.

• Learn how to follow directions and wonder why anyone would go to college just to parrot teacher's manuals.

• Participate in at least one fund-raiser (car wash, bake sale, magazine sale, concession stand, or other) to help generate the money for those cheerleader and band uniforms.

• Administer the standardized test to our nontraditional kids, and watch a child with dyslexia sweat his way though a test that determines if he graduates.

Perhaps if we did not allow our schools to be used as stages and pulled the candidates behind the scenes, we would benefit from a more informed and logical set of state and federal education policies.

Or maybe the politicians would just leave us alone.

That would be good enough.

George Wood is principal of Federal Hocking High School in Stewart, Ohio, and director of the Forum for Education and Democracy. This piece was written and submitted before the announcement of John Kerry's appearance at the Bedford High School commencement June 6.



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