What’s special about education

GranddaughterLater this month, my granddaughter will start kindergarten. Over the next dozen or more years, she will be expected to learn her multiplication tables, read A Wrinkle In Time, and learn about the three branches of government like anyone who doesn’t have cerebral palsy.

I’m happy that she will get a public school education at a regular school. She will have an aide and adaptive equipment, but she will get the same curriculum and be expected to meet the same standards so that she can have the same tools and opportunities to pursue her goals.

As I watch my granddaughter start her educational journey, it’s a good time to reflect on the importance of public education and how we can make it work for everyone.

Public education has been a great equalizer in our society. It has enabled poor and middle class people to move up the social ladder. It’s why America has been a leader in technical innovation because we give people tools to invent and discover. It kept America from forming uncrossable chasms between rich and poor that have led to poverty and unrest in other societies.

On a personal level, I appreciate how public education guided me to a satisfying career and gave me the tools to build a good life for my family. The teachers who have helped me the most were the ones who encouraged exploration and creativity.

Yet, we don’t give public education the support that it needs, most especially public school teachers who have the greatest influence in shaping our children. This was a serious problem when our children were in school in the ’00s. They went through “No Child Left Behind” with its “teaching to the test” while teachers had furlough days and budget cutbacks. In those conditions, it was hard to find teachers who had the time or motivation to work with our children.

Public education has also been influenced by various trends from New Math to Common Core. Today, the focus is on STEM. Teaching the sciences is important, especially for girls who have been dissuaded from those subjects for too long. We can also see the problems a lack of knowledge and respect for science can create for our society. But let’s not neglect the arts. Some of the greatest technological and scientific innovations were inspired by them. As an example, we can look at how a calligraphy class inspired Steve Jobs to use fonts on the Mac:

I decided to take a calligraphy class…It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them.

A quality education encourages critical thinking to synthesize what we’ve learned in a wide range of disciplines so we can apply it in new and different situations. I don’t believe that the goal of education should be to prepare children for a specific job. After all, the work I do today didn’t exist when I was in school. The goal should be to give children the tools they need to succeed at work, at home, and in the community.

And a student doesn’t need full physical capabilities to do this.

Each child brings challenges, and physical limitations are just one of them. Some kids have ADHD, learning disabilities, and autism. Some are new English speakers, and some may feel uncertain about their immigrant status. Some struggle with homelessness, food insecurity, and family problems. Children who are gifted have their own set of issues. A good education finds ways to address children’s challenges and identify and bring out the strengths they have.

I don’t want my granddaughter to be treated differently because she has cerebral palsy. I want her to be recognized for her unique talents and abilities. All of us have our own talents. As her family, we want to work with her teachers to find hers and help her be her best.