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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, October 27, 2002

The bread-and-blueberries business of education

By Walt Novak
Hawai'i public school teacher since 1981

With a title like "Public Education: What Is It?" most writers would probably begin with a description of what public education isn't. Then they'd move toward a larger thematic base of what it is, concluding of course, that, "given the parameters of our modern-day classroom, public education is many things."

Sixth-graders at Makaha Elementary School follow along as a classmate reads aloud passages from "The Wizard of Oz." English instruction time at school is short, so parents who encourage children to read at home each day will help them do better in all subjects.

Advertiser library photo • Sept. 1, 2000

If you're expecting one of those articles, please stop here. If you appreciate strange discourses on the subject of blueberries and bread, please continue.

Oh, before we begin with the blueberries, let me say that (apparently) many writers write to make sense of their world. Then others write to make nonsense of it. A third category uses writing as exorcism: Some demonic experience frazzles their brains until they pin it down on a piece of paper.

Zot! Captured! No more frazzlization.

OK, on to the blueberries.

But wait. How about the president?

I like George W. Bush because he's funny. I mean, I've personally heard him say, "No child left behind!" exactly 641 times, but not once have I heard what will happen to us if we do leave one. I — as a teacher — fail every single year in my attempt to prevent every single student from failing.

Now, on to those blueberries.

There was a story recently (in one of the "Education" publications) about a successful businessman telling a teacher audience that public education should be run like a business. He was famous for making a mint in the blueberry ice-cream trade. So a teacher in the audience asked him if he uses good berries. Only the best, he assured her, and he personally inspects all shipments at the airport or dock or wherever they come in. She asked him what he'd do if he received a massive shipment that was substantially less than ideal. Send it back, he explained. His almighty business only accepts the very best.

At this point, the anecdotal analogy complete, any educator would just roll her eyes and sit politely through the rest of Blueberry's worthless address.

Run public education as a business? That's ripe. We teachers accept all our blueberries.

But then we get this quote from UH College of Education dean Randy Hitz (Island Voices, Aug. 2) which actually makes sense:

"So often we hear that education should be run more as a business. While this is simplistic, there is some measure of wisdom in it. Successful businesses, that depend on a well-educated work force, invest in their employees. They pay them well, help them grow professionally and provide high-quality working environments. Doing so improves employee morale, loyalty, productivity and profits."

I doubt that any classroom educator would object to being paid well, although none of us has yet experienced this. They often say that you can't truly miss something that you've never had. But they're wrong. We educators truly miss good salaries and high-quality working environments. So this part of the ed-as-business discussion makes sense ... although the part about blueberries doesn't.

And now, finally, the bread.

Bread is an excessively interesting topic. I often think about yeast and how it impressively causes a hapless lump of dough to broaden and bulge. I often consider the Dark Ages, Old World mills which miraculously harnessed rivers to grind wheat into flour. I often ponder the events that led bread to become the No. 1 starch on planet Earth.

And I'm now wondering how I can possibly fulfill my promise to relate bread to public education. Oh, here it is. The single largest component of educational success is parental. Parents simply can't possess the idea that sending a kid to school is like sending him to the store for a loaf of bread. You know, "Go to the store. Get the loaf. Bring it back."

This seems to be the most destructive — yet most prevalent — idea. You know, "Go to the school. Get the education. Bring it back." Education isn't like that. Education is weird. Educating a child is actually an unsegmented process in which the parent is the primary educator. Reading is the key to becoming truly educated, so it needs to be promoted at home.

Like, constantly.

English instruction is so short, and the year is so long, that my Duracell-batteried calculator recently proved this astounding fact: a public-school student spends well over 98 percent of any given year outside of English class. If you throw in Christmas, Halloween, Last Day of School parties, special assembly-schedule days, field trips, and the typical amount of student absences, you're seriously flirting with 99 percent. How can we expect a student to improve at anything if he donates only 1 percent of his year to it?

Answer: We can't.

I myself love reading and try to make this enthusiasm infectious to my students. If you parents out there would help me by doing the same, I'd sure appreciate it. How about if Junior read at home 20 to 40 pages per day, on books of his own choice, in addition to schoolwork? I bet it wouldn't hurt a thing. Oh, and you know those school-free days, of which Junior's year has more than 180? Well, apparently those days are fully 24 hours long. Come up with an approximation of how much time should be spent reading. Please call your public-school English teacher on the phone. Ask her for your child's reading level.

Most public-school language arts teachers test their students during the first week of every school year. If you are told that your child is reading several grades above level, then this whole conversation about blueberries and bread is (mostly) moot. But if your eighth-grader's reading comprehension is only at fourth grade, then you may want to do some serious adjustment.

We public-school teachers really need you to help. Or George W. might leave us behind.