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Protesting trumps learning in California

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra J. Saunders quotes an email she received from Ian Glazman-Schillinger, a freshman at Oceana High School, a nice drive over the Coast Range from my alma mater, Hillsdale High, in San Mateo. His parents, like the others at the school, received a message from school principal Caro Pemberton Feb. 23 saying that instead of having class March 4, the school would participate in a "day of action" to "show support for public education and to demand an end to the deep cuts in funding for education."

The student told Saunders that he would not take part in the protest---including forming a human SOS on the nearby beach--because he saw "no solutions being offered that will give schools more money...It appears to me as if the schools are throwing a temper tantrum instead of protesting." He said he was not opposed to protests, but "there is no money in the already overstretched state budget to meet the needs of California schools."

That is a smart kid, one hopeful sign that good teachers are getting students to listen to and read carefully what is happening. California is my home state; I plan to return before long. My son Joe Mathews and co-author Mark Paul are about to publish a book, "California Crackup," about what has put our state in so much trouble. The notice from principal Pemberton makes no mention of the dysfunctional political system that has made it almost impossible to reach a decision on any important issue. Instead, she just complains about the legislature cutting education budgets and how it hurts schools.

She seems to think a morning on the beach is more important than making use of the precious class time she has to give her students the educations they deserve. I was pummelled when I suggested school was too important to be interrupted by President Obama's televised education speech last year. I am afraid this is another example of well-intentioned people deciding that what we are teaching kids isn't that important, so why not involve them in our latest cause?

Pemberton's message to parents does say that "educational workshops on the budget crisis and the political process" were to be held at the school the rest of the day. I will send a copy of this post to the school and ask if any experts at those sessions gave a contrary view to what the school had just done--taken most of the day to further a campaign supported by various education establishment organizations that think getting money for schools is so important that class time can be put aside. If anyone representing the school or the day of action responds, I will post that message here.

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By Jay Mathews  | March 10, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  California budget crisis, California protests steal class time from students, Caro Pemberton, Ian Glazman-Schillinger, Joe Mathews, Mark Paul, Ocean High School, The California Crackup  
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Jay, I completely agree with you -- class time is too important to be interrupted by every well-intended cause du jour.

Unfortunately, budget protests are just the latest example. The entire "character education" business is just the same sort of thing, except far more time consuming.

Character ed involves frequent school assemblies in addition to daily class time spent discussing the joys of friendship and responsibility. If singing and dancing, making posters, or getting awards actually improved the character ed traits at issue, I'd have less of a problem with it. But for the most part, character ed is just a feel good interruption with no positive impact. If we dumped character ed, we'd probably have time to teach foreign language in our elementary schools. Or maybe orchestra. Or maybe she'd have time to visit the school library. Or maybe we could bring history back into the school curriculum.

Posted by: EduCrazy | March 10, 2010 7:12 AM | Report abuse

Right on, Jay. While the subject is important, there are better ways to address it than to use school-age kids as props to defend excess State budgets. I look forward to your son's book, and expect to read much about the overly generous State and local employee pensions in California. Retiring at 50 with 3% of your final salary - for life - is simply too generous. And the result of all this largess is less money for other things. California is paying the price every day as people leave the state.
I wonder if that Principal made these points after her students got back from the beach?

Posted by: LoveIB | March 10, 2010 8:54 AM | Report abuse

Ok, good point. But here's a question for you: if you're so offended at losing one valuable school day for a protest, why don't you object to the giant time-suck of NCLB-type testing?

Look, I'm not a huge raving anti-NCLB guy. I even like the idea of holding schools accountable for easily-overlooked subgroups. But have you seen how the schools actually do this?

This is my first year with a kid who has to take the MSAs (3rd grade). Oh. My. God. As far as I can tell, the school stopped teaching anything new more than a MONTH ago -- so much for long division; that's not on the test, so it's back to addition and multiplication. Based on what I hear from DD, I am guessing that for about the past month, at least 2 hrs a day, on average, has been pure test prep. Same with the homework; since mid-Jan., about half the homework has been MSA prep packets. This, meanwhile, all over the same period of time where they lost a full two weeks to snow.

Now the next two weeks is all about the tests themselves. First comes prep; then comes two mornings of reading tests, followed by afternoon movies; then we do the whole thing all over again next week for math, followed by a big party at the end of it all.

Meanwhile, DD doesn't even realize that the tests are all about the school, not her -- she's a smart kid, she sees what a big deal the school is making over this, and she's melting down at night because she's worried she's not going to get an "A" on it.

So in sum, she has lost a MINIMUM of 2-3 weeks of real learning time (not counting snow days), and is feeling big pressure to perform, just so the SCHOOL can brag about how well IT does. So, Jay, I'd appreciate it if you can explain to me how you think this is such a good idea, yet can have such a conniption over -- God forbid -- letting the kids take 2 hrs out to watch the President.

Posted by: laura33 | March 10, 2010 10:35 AM | Report abuse

You are right, laura33. That's too much. We need tests, as teachers have known for centuries. We need review, which helps kids learn. But too much is too much.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | March 10, 2010 11:41 AM | Report abuse

If these are really educational workshops, discussion of prison overcrowding and mandatory minimum sentencing seems pretty valuable to me. So does an understanding of California's unique referendum law. And the WSJ had an interesting piece on how pensions for public workers in CA (not just or even primarily teachers) are far more generous than in the states for which California residents are leaving.

I'm not at all sure that skipping a few classes for a day to have a spirited debate about these issues (not simply laying in the grass and making signs) wouldn't be a great use of school time.

Posted by: mct210 | March 10, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

I believe the your whole column was to promote your son's book. You might have gone to Hillsdale at a time when it was mostly white and affluent but the school system has certainly changed, even in San Mateo, CA. California is 48 out of 50 in the funding it gives schools to teach their children.
While well intentioned, I think you need to understand that in some places in California we feel a need to teach the future voters and leaders to take some responsibility for their education. You are quoting one student, from another person's article. How is that informative journalism? Did you personally ask any students about how they felt? Students who were given many learning opportunities that day that did not include just reading someones secondhand information that promoted their son's future book. Maybe you didn't notice, or bother to check, but Oceana is a qualtiy high school that has a waiting list of students who want to go there.
Good luck to your son, hopefully he has done his homework better than you.

Posted by: number2key | March 10, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

One always is amazed at how Americans are so out of touch.

The New York Times printed an article where states are releasing prisoners because they are so pressed by our declining economy.

Everyone likes to focus on California since it is so easy to pick on.

Most of the states in the country will have to cut services in all areas.

Just remember there are not everywhere lines at soup kitchens because of food stamps, continuous unemployment benefits, and banks that did not fail because the deposits were insured by the federal government.

Tell those higher education protesters to stop wasting their time in trying to get money that is not there.

Now is the time for young Americans to think of Canada.

Posted by: bsallamack | March 10, 2010 2:03 PM | Report abuse

By the way how about doing a real story for a change.

The results of the national reading tests of 2009 are still not available and it is over a year since the tests were given.

The Math test for 2009 were released last year.

Why is the federal government taking so long to release the results of a fill in the bubble test given over a year ago?

Has there been a monumental foul up in scoring the tests?

Are the scores of the test so bad that the federal government wants to delay as long as possible releasing the results?

How can the Department of Education be talking about states spending money on computer systems that give teachers instant feedback when the Department of Education can not provide the results of a test given over a year ago?

Is it not great that the Department of Education considers tests so important for educational policy and does not think it is odd that the results of tests given over a year ago are still not available.

Posted by: bsallamack | March 10, 2010 2:17 PM | Report abuse

My son Joe Mathews and co-author Mark Paul are about to publish a book, "California Crackup," about what has put our state in so much trouble.
I believe the your whole column was to promote your son's book.
Posted by: number2key | March 10, 2010
You really did step over the ethical line.

Posted by: bsallamack | March 10, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

Jay, you do know that Ian is a student of CalGal's and that she urged him to write that letter, I'm sure.

Posted by: notation | March 10, 2010 8:42 PM | Report abuse

At least the Oceana students didn't block traffic on a major freeway during rush hour...

I just finished reading the book "Paradise Lost: California's Experience, America's Future" by Peter Schrag. When I checked it out from the library, I hadn't realized it was written back in 1999. It was fascinating for me to read the book, as I was relatively unfamiliar with the political history of the state during the 1960's-1990's (what can I say, I'm 33 and grew up in New England). After I finished Schrag's book, I was left wondering about the most recent decade.

So I'm actually glad that Jay made the plug for his son's book :-)

Posted by: CrimsonWife | March 10, 2010 9:09 PM | Report abuse

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