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The Elitist Divide

It seems that only first generation immigrants today enter the nation's public schools with the hunger for knowledge that once defined our system.

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After my 2-and-a-half-year-old stepgrandson points at a sepia-toned photo from the 1930s in a book about machinery and identifies “one, two, three old cars,” I wonder how the children reportedly entering kindergarten without the ability to count or distinguish colors can ever catch up. Van is blessed by three sets of grandparents who all buy books and puzzles in stimulus plans that would make President Obama blush. 

How, I wonder as Van classifies front-end loaders, excavators and bulldozers while distinguishing jets from propeller planes, will his parents ever feel comfortable sending him to school with kids who don't know that sunflowers are yellow — if they even know what flowers are or what the sun is? If they do, Van will likely become so bored that he'll turn from a child who adores learning into a child who hates school no matter how trained or experienced or enthusiastic the teachers.

If he goes to the typical urban or suburban public school, Van's competition simply won't be part of his formal educational equation, at least in his early years. “Good enough for an A” will be half, or less, of what Van can actually do and the situation will almost certainly dumb him down, rather than raise the other kids up, no matter how much taxpayers throw into school buildings, computers or standardized testing.

But if Van's parents, and others like them, don't send their kids to public schools how can America ever get to No Child Left Behind? No tests, no vouchers, no teacher training programs, no Head Start will ever overcome parents and grandparents who don't daily illustrate learning to think.

I don't know what Van's parents will do when the time comes, nor do I think my opinion should have any weight on their decision, but I do wonder why, time and again, America so easily devalues in the short term what is most valuable in the long term.

It seems that only first generation immigrants today enter the nation's public schools with the hunger for knowledge that once defined our system and made it infinitely better than the economically segregated schools of Europe, which we are in danger today of imitating. Over my lifetime, in our amazing haste to bus students, to ensure they're taught in their native tongues, to give every kid a trophy, to eliminate disparities of all kinds, I wonder if we've created even worse disparities?

Have we so dumbed down everything that we've driven the best and the brightest into their own protected environments — like home schools and elite preschools — which keep them from having positive effects on their age peers?

Families today who can afford it — with or without vouchers — are moving their kids into schools with other kids whose parents buy books, who read to children from the moment they can sit up, who turn off the TV and who use computers for thinking, not game playing. Parents who actively illustrate the desire to learn are, in short, individually banding together for the good of their children. The majority of the rest, beginning around the time President Carter formed the U.S. Department of Education, seem to have begun thinking that education is solely the jobs of the professionals.

A decade ago, I remember waiting in a doctor's office in Petersburg while a 4- or 5-year-old ran back and forth from her mother to the magazine rack, asking to be read to from a half dozen different children's publications, until finally her mother pulled her eyes away from the overhead TV and said, “Get the TV Guide, honey.”

And almost two decades ago I discovered the sad story of a program in Georgia where the school district, backed by the area's biggest manufacturing plant, was reaching into hospital nurseries seeking new parents with at-risk characteristics and trying to put free books and educational toys in those parents' hands even before the babies left the hospital.

“We think,” I remember an administrator telling me, “that every parent wants the best for their children but if they don't know anything about loving learning, haven't experienced it in their childhoods, how — unless we help them — can they illustrate it to their children?”

This story is sad because, if memory serves, a lawsuit implying discrimination in deciding who is at-risk shut the program down.

I'm sure there are other factors and I'm sure my thinking is only a small part of a much bigger issue but as I listen to my stepgrandson ask me to identify every letter, every plant, every object — damn near everything — I worry about the country he's growing up in.  

At the same time that I'm proud he might be, I wonder if I really want him to be one of the elite.

Randy Salzman is a former journalism teacher at Virginia Union University and a transportation researcher who lives in Charlottesville.

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