Schools are not equal in two Americas

 Email Sandra Nichols

  "...there are definitely two education systems in America. There are schools with the mission of developing advanced cognition and the joy of learning, and there are schools that have shifted to training children to take tests."


ince Katrina, John Edward's concept of two Americas has been occupying much mental space here at Education Matters. Are there two education systems in these two Americas?

A colleague of mine reported that a displaced family from New Orleans has relocated in this area and the daughter is attending the school where he works. This teacher was surprised when the girl expressed amazement about how great the classes were at the local school.

The girl said in New Orleans teachers stood up in front of the class and lectured. The students were expected to shut up and listen! Here teachers actively engage students in their own learning through hands-on projects and interactive lessons. Student silence is not the goal.

Picture this: a conversation between Socrates and Plato. The teacher, standing on the steps of one of those old, stately Greek buildings, in flowing robes, stimulates the student's curiosity by asking questions. They discuss ideas. Both teacher and student grow deeper understandings.

It is a commonly held belief that in the olden days teachers used to teach kids how to reason and now they just teach them how to take tests. Well, in reality, some teachers and schools still emphasize reasoning rather than selecting the correct answer from a field of three. This being the case, there are definitely two education systems in America. There are schools with the mission of developing advanced cognition and the joy of learning; there are schools that have shifted to training children to take tests.

This I know to be true. In serious, modern-day educator training programs, teachers are taught to stimulate thinking skills, appreciate creativity, understand the complexities of their students' lives and develop a skepticism of high-stakes testing programs. How can this be going on simultaneously with No Child Left Behind sanctions for schools dubbed failures based on high-stakes test scores?

Plato, born into a family of politicians, shunned the role of being a city leader and opted for stimulating young minds. He founded a school, "the Academy." Plato's school lasted for ten centuries. What did the students learn at the Academy? Philosophy, the love of wisdom, higher-order thinking. Did you learn that in school? Or did you learn how to fill in the correct bubble?

Educational activism provides an opportunity to work in a meaningful way towards a single education system in which all students are taught such that the fire of curiosity is ignited in each one of them. Leave no mind unstimulated!

Whether the target is what to teach or how to pay for it, educational activism has room for more participants. Jobs are available in this field. It is rewarding work, although the pay is not good!

Recently, my friends in education helped me bring about a public forum addressing the upcoming ballot measures that will affect our schools. That forum airs on Community TV - Comcast 25/ Charter 71 - at 7:00 PM on November 7 and 1:00 PM on Election Day. It was Arnold himself who stimulated me to form CampaignSOS and activate loudly in support of our schools. When the governor reneged on his promise to the education community during his State of the State Address in January, I was compelled to fight back. CampaignSOS has been working for almost a year now in support of public education.

In fact these ballot measures could mean the difference between stimulating minds and filling in bubbles. These ballot measures will influence whether our future teachers are the cream of the crop, whether they have a voice in government, and whether there is enough money to have great schools. You will see these on your ballot in the form of Proposition 74, 75, and 76.

Proposition 74 is "Teacher Tenure." Teachers already go through a two-year probation. This is plenty time for administrators to determine a teacher's skill and decide whether to grant the teacher "permanent" status. Making teachers work for five years before they are granted due process in any firing decision, will not motivate great young minds to choose this career.

Proposition 75 is called "Paycheck Protection" when really it is just the opposite! Prop 75 would cripple unions and that is the very purpose. If you are a worker, your NO vote will help protect your paycheck, and that of nurses, firefighters and police, as well as teachers.

Proposition 76 would cause immeasurable damage to our schools by putting school funding in the hands of a single person, the governor, whoever he or she may be. That is a really bad idea. How can our schools continue to be even as good as they are today, with Prop 76 threatening more funding reductions?

I will appreciate your NO vote on 74, 75, and 76. I will consider it a favor. Not a favor to me! A favor to the students of California public schools and an investment in the future.

Sandra Nichols is a Speech and Language Specialist for Santa Cruz City Schools and a Trustee on the Pajaro Valley USD school board. Her opinions are not necessarily those of the school board or this publication. Previous Education Matters Essays are available online at

© Sandra Nichols 2005