U.S. Diary: 4 Things I Love About The Public School System In The U.S.

Posted: September 22, 2015

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From assured seats in public schools to free and quality education, here are 4 reasons this mom loves the U.S. public school system, despite its share of problems.

When my Religion in the Media professor at American University instructed me to call him Jack, I visibly and violently recoiled. “But Professor, I can’t call you that! It’s so disrespectful.”

My professor was 70 years old, with a long-white beard. I’d been living in the U.S. for 2 years by then. I was enrolled in a Master’s program in Film, Video and New Media here in the U.S., and was steadily falling in love with the whole American system of education. I never did call my professor by his given name, but my love affair with America’s education system continued way beyond my American University days.

I now have a middle schooler and an elementary aged child, and am experiencing the public school system through them. There are plenty of pluses and minuses, of course, but here’re my top reasons for why I love the American system.

Education is a right

I live in the state of Maryland and here, elementary and middle school education is mandated. Rules vary state to state, but elementary level education is compulsory in most places. Not sending your child to school is actually a prosecutable offense – a child has to be enrolled in a public, or private school, or registered as being homeschooled.

The public school system works according to zones. School boards look at various factors, including population density, seats available in school, and so on, and assign children to default schools every few years. Sometimes, parents have a compelling reason not to send their children to default school. In such cases, they can have the child apply to schools in neighboring zone, magnet or charter schools, which attract children from all over the county. Many of these programs are merit or lottery based.
Because zoning works by a parent’s home address, homes located near high performing schools and districts are often in high demand.
School zones are not set in stone. Every couple of years, there is a county wide review. If there is a sudden explosion in student population, rezoning might be done, so that the load is evenly distributed across all the schools in the county. It happened to us – we bought a town home close to a great elementary school – but there were so many new families with young kids that our original zoned school couldn’t handle the influx. Rezoning was done, and our kids were all assigned to a different school.Yes, life thwarts plans, but the whole zoning system is inherently fair. As a parent, I can be assured that my child will definitely have a seat reserved for her in my zoned elementary, middle or high school. “Sorry, our seats are full” can never be put forward as an excuse by the zoned public school.
As a parent, I can be assured that my child will definitely have a seat reserved for her in my zoned elementary, middle or high school. “Sorry, our seats are full” can never be put forward as an excuse by the zoned public school.
Children with special needs, developmental disabilities, etc. are not neglected. For example, a child with severe hearing problems may be assigned an interpreter who accompanies the child to all classes. If the child’s needs cannot be accommodated in a regular school, s/he may be sent to a special needs school.

It’s free

Not only is education a right, it’s free! If there are reasons why I find absolute joy in paying my taxes on time, they’re these: the public school system, the library and museum networks, the roads.
At the beginning of the school year, we get a school supplies list. Usual stuff – notebooks, pencils, erasers, markers, crayons, hand sanitisers, cleaning wipes, etc. Up until elementary school, most supplies go into a class pool, and all the kids use the class supplies. As parents, we also have the option of donating supplies on behalf of other kids whose parents may not be able to afford these costs.

Not only is education a right, it’s free! If there are reasons why I find absolute joy in paying my taxes on time, they’re these: the public school system, the library and museum networks, the roads.
Apart from the school supplies, everything else is free. There are no text books. School buses are available in our county for all kids who live beyond a certain radius of the school (0.5 miles for elementary, 1 mile for middle and so on. This is not necessarily the case in big cities.)
Breakfast and lunch can be bought in the school cafeteria. Meals are subsidized for families that qualify. In my daughter’s middle school, breakfast is free for all students.
When I see the activities my tax dollars directly fund, I am more than happy to pay my fair share of taxes.

No uniforms!

There are no uniforms. The kids are free to be themselves. Self-expression is valued over similarity.
I grew up in Jamshedpur in a very lower middle class family. To me, a uniform represented comfort. In my uniform, I was the same as everyone else in the school. Maybe someone else had fancier pencils and book bags, but she couldn’t lord it over me when it came to clothes.
When I started blogging in 2004 (on a now defunct site called BlogLadder), I wrote about this in one of my posts. An American woman’s response against uniforms stopped me in my tracks. She said she had had a hard life, and she’d often had to settle for hand-me-downs or buy clothes from thrift stores. She said she embellished these items, and upcycled them into her own creations. If she’d been forced into conformity like everyone else, she would’ve died inside, she said.
An American woman’s response against uniforms stopped me in my tracks. She said she had had a hard life, and she’d often had to settle for hand-me-downs or buy clothes from thrift stores. She said she embellished these items, and upcycled them into her own creations. If she’d been forced into conformity like everyone else, she would’ve died inside, she said.

I see the value of her comment now. In my daughter’s public school, you see kids walking in the door with hair dyed blue, pink, purple with Kool Aid. Older kids have visible tattoos, long hair, piercings. Eventually, when they head out to college, or enter the job market, which values conformity, many of them dial down their looks. Many of them don’t. All of it contributes to creativity, self-expression and ultimately diversity.

Even when there are uniforms, the school will just give you guidelines on colors and styles allowed. Brand names, flashy logos are eschewed. As long as it conforms to the guidelines, you can buy the attire from budget-friendly Walmart, an upmarket chain like Macy’s or Saks, or from the neighbourhood thrift store. The school doesn’t care. Some schools run donation programs, where graduating students can donate their uniforms to others who can take these clothes for free, or at low cost.

Hands-on learning over rote learning

There is homework, and it seems to correlate with the age of the kids. Nowhere as close to what I remember doing as a child (and I’ve been told it’s steadily gotten worse.)
Yes, truth be told, sometimes I feel like the standard of learning is a little, maybe a lot, lower than what it would be in a similar grade in India. For example, my sixth grader doesn’t know her multiplication tables correctly. In her supplies list for this year, we saw a calculator. When we talked to the teacher about the calculator, she said the school would be providing it to the kids, they were not expected to bring their own.The teacher had mistaken our question. My husband and I wanted to know – shouldn’t kids be expected to know multiplication tables by rote, and do all their math calculations by hand? No, said the teacher, we’re okay with that. In the county school system, educators are much more focused on teaching concepts to the kids than on making sure they do everything manually. (I feel old-school and outnumbered because I’m someone who does not use a Tip Calculator app to work out after-dinner restaurant tips in my head. Come on people, 20% of 156.79 is not all that hard.)
My husband and I wanted to know – shouldn’t kids be expected to know multiplication tables by rote, and do all their math calculations by hand? No, said the teacher, we’re okay with that. In the county school system, educators are much more focused on teaching concepts to the kids than on making sure they do everything manually.
The learning that happens in schools is project based. From a young age, kids are encouraged to do/create/make things (e.g. in Engineering camp, they divided into teams and designed several iterations of paper rockets. The idea was to refine the paper rocket construction to see whose rockets traveled highest.)The curriculum tries to relate what kids learn in one subject with what they’re learning in another. Which is how, one year, right around Halloween, my daughter’s 1st grade class read a Dr. Seuss poem in Reading and Learning, and learned to make oobleck, a non-Newtonian fluid that has the properties of both solid and liquids. Oobleck, more popularly,is the gooey mess inspired by Dr. Seuss’s book, in Science class. Most 1st graders might not able to name the chemicals in oobleck, but what they’ve learned early on is how much fun it can be to make some.
The curriculum tries to relate what kids learn in one subject with what they’re learning in another. Which is how, one year, right around Halloween, my daughter’s 1st grade class read a Dr. Seuss poem in Reading and Learning, and learned to make oobleck, a gooey mess inspired by Dr. Seuss’s book, in Science class. Most 1st graders might not able to name the chemicals in oobleck, but what they’ve learned early on is how much fun it can be to make some.

Cons

This is not to say that the American public school is a perfect utopia. Among kids, there is brand consciousness, there is bullying, and the mean girl syndrome that starts in late elementary or early middle school years. Gun violence is a real threat in some schools. In such places, it is not uncommon to find metal detectors installed at entrances and security personnel on duty.
There are parents who try to game the zoning system. The Common Core curriculum, newly being followed in many states in the U.S. is also widely ridiculed. Its focus on teaching students a variety of methodologies which they learn to apply in different situations has left several parents, educators and students flummoxed.

Gun violence is a real threat in some schools. In such places, it is not uncommon to find metal detectors installed at entrances and security personnel on duty.

Activities and amenities at individual schools are largely dependent on funding. If School A has an active and involved PTA whose members show up for school board meetings, and School B doesn’t, it is possible that School A will get way more state funding for optional projects than School B.

Funding for art and sport activities is often cut. My teacher friends tell me that there is constant pressure on them to make their lessons more engaging, while making sure students perform well against state and national benchmarks. Most schools follow letter grades instead of a ranking system. The spirit of healthy competition, that a rank based system encourages, is often lost in a grade based system.
But even with all its flaws, I find the public school system in the US to be a viable alternative to private schools. A country like India, where 29.5% of the population lives under the poverty line, has plenty of bigger problems to deal with. Where the state cannot step in, the gap has to necessarily be filled by private parties or non-governmental organisations.
I’d love to hear from students, parents, teachers, educators about the education system in India, and what we can learn from each system.
 
Please note: This is one mom’s observation based on her experiences in one county’s public school system. Your mileage may vary.
Cover image courtesy Shutterstock.

I'm a writer, wannabe-comic-strip creator, naturalized US citizen, small town desi girl

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3 Comments


  1. When I was growing up even low end schools that my brothers went to imparted good education. Teachers were dedicated and only weak students opted for private tuitions. That was fifty years back. Now private schools offering English as the medium of instruction are mushrooming because teachers in government run schools have no accountability. We have vegetable vendors and dosawallahs paying through their nose to educate their children in such schools and bear the additional burden of sending their children to private tutors because being uneducated they cannot teach their children even while in primary classes. Very often the tutors are teachers from their own school who take up tuitions to supplement their income which is much lower than the salary paid to government school teachers. For this reason teaching is not a preferred career option and ambitious students flood the IT sector.

  2. Kamala Jagannathan -

    Having taught in both in India and US High schools for a considerable period of time I must admit that Math teaching in US public schools leaves a lot to be desired. I was asked to teach Algebra for freshman, the first year in the public school that I taught and I was so aghast to see that students would use calculators to even add simple single digit numbers. The problem may have been more severe in my school but in general most students do not view Math favorably at all. The problem may lie somewhere in the elementary school where students need to be taught multiplication tables.
    More importantly as a teacher I feel we are too restrained by the evaluation methods that are used to assess teachers .These methods are too subjective and lays the blame on the teachers for every student who fails. I don’t want to sound like the bad carpenter blaming the tools but American system of education should learn to place more responsibility and accountability on the shoulders of the students especially in high schools.
    In India however we have over anxious parents trying to do better than their best and over stressing the children.
    We have to learn to do things in moderation.

  3. Valid points all. I don’t know that the American school system pays all that much better. I really have no reference point to comment on that. However, I do see plenty of super-motivated new grads joining in the elementary school system all the time. You can tell from the way they interact that for some, it is a calling.

    I too have a bit of an “ick” reaction when it comes to calculator use. Similarly when it comes to online research vs. actual sitting-in-the-library-poring-over-encyclopedia research. Definitely, in the days calculators weren’t so common, and Google wasn’t a verb, these things had a time and place. Now, I’m not so sure. Are we simply overstressing manual skills over actual concepts?

    Math – wonder if it is a cultural hardsell in the US, reserved for the nerds and geeks. Or boys? Especially with my daughters and a couple of their close friends I interact with – they seem to do well in the subject, but somehow never seem to enjoy it as much as I remember enjoying it at this age.

    Kamala aunty – great point @moderation.

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