FloMo Diaries, Installment 2: Education

*I mentioned earlier that I was inspired by an idea David Byrne (co-founder of the great Talking Heads) had. He bought a bike and decided to bicycle around the various places his artistic life took him and write a book about. Said he felt biking gave him a connection to cities and places you can’t get in a car or on a train. He also said that the things he noticed tipped him off to the nuances of the culture. I stole the idea, and am going to make weekly Sunday entries about my little suburb of Flower Mound, Texas. For a few weeks, anyway.*

It’s been said that what you spend your money on is an indication of what you truly value. You know, that deal where you sit down, you take a look at your checkbook, and you can tell what is important.

Well, let me throw some numbers at you:

$900 million.
$776 million.
$468 million.
$380 million.

The first number, you ask? Yeah. That’s the value of all the land owned by the Lewisville Independent School District.

That second number, you ask? Yeah. That’s the amount approved in the 2008 bond election.

The third and fourth numbers, you ask? Yeah. Those are the total adopted expenditure budget and the total general fund expenditure budgets for 2008. I’m not that strong in math, but the district website made them two different numbers. Not sure why.

Voters around here can’t get taxed any more to pay for education if we wanted to. The great state of Texas says so. 11 times since 1970, voters have approved a bond package to fund various educational needs and wants. And, when I say “approved,” well, most of the elections I recall were in the 85-90% approval rate. Businesses only create about 30% of the income.

It’s safe to say that we value education, and while we’re saying it, we’re pulling out our wallets and checkbooks and maxing out our property taxes and making sure we put our money where our mouth is.

And, brother, it’s pretty darn good, too. Folks move here for it. We plaster words on the buildings of our schools that say things like “Exemplary” or “Blue Ribbon” which highlight how well we’ve done compared to other Texans or other Americans. Marcus and Flower Mound High Schools combined for 25 National Merit Scholar finalists, and 70 Commended Scholars. At graduation ceremonies, principals crow about how much money the class garnered in scholarships, which usually had the word “million” after the dollar sign somewhere.

I could go on, but I think you get my point. We value education, we’re willing to pay for it, and we’re given a pretty good bang for out buck.

Schools dot our landscape, too. FloMo has two high schools, with about 6,300 students. We have 6 middle schools, and 15 elementary schools. And, because they stagger the beginning and end of the school days (presumably so one parent can drop off/pick up their kids in different levels of schooling) you have to note your speed anywhere you happen to be going from 7:30am-9:15am and 2:30pm-4:45pm. You darn well better not use your mobile phone in those zones, either. All the blinking lights have little cell phone icons with a “Ghostbuster” red circle to let you know that use is “prohibited.” Frankly, we need those signs in pretty much every area of our society…and I view this ban as a good start for that very thing, but I digress.

I also want to kick some shouts out to the very good private schools in our town, and homeschooling is an option that’s likely more prominent here than in other parts of the country.

What they all seem to have in common is that they view themselves as “college preparatory” in nature. What I take that to mean is that they pretty much figure that all of their students will be going to colleges and universities and most of the process of education is geared toward that end. I have no idea if this is because our little burb has a very high percentage of college grads who have the same expectation of their children or if the power brokers making decisions designed it that way–an educational chicken/egg conundrum–but the system promotes that way of thinking.

Both our high schools even have something called a PSAT Team. See, the PSAT is taken your junior year…and the results of that test determine the National Merit Scholars. So, all the sophomores take this test–gets ’em all test-taking savvy. Then, these kids’ll spend a couple of hours every Saturday for about four months “practicing” to take this test. By the time they take the official PSAT, some kids have had about 100 hours of practice. The teams make t-shirts. Not even kidding.

Sometimes I wonder if we’re creating very good test-takers at the expense of creating very good thinkers and learners…but I have no idea how you’d measure that and in some ways you have to find ways to measure what students are “learning.” Maybe actual learning gets lost in that shuffle somewhere.

Another couple of things that get lost in the shuffle are the “trades” and (perhaps) military service. I’m a firm believer that the university route is NOT for EVERY kid (granted, in our community, most probably should go to college), but there’s both subtle and not-so-subtle pressure to get in one to “prepare you for today’s world.” For example, I can point to two students who are very bright, but one LOVED to do woodwork, and the other LOVED to work on cars. Both showed very special aptitudes in those areas. They made good money in high school working for others doing what they LOVED. Their parents badgered and pushed them to go to college and wasted a bundle on a year of books, room, board, tuition, books and fees to discover what the graduates already knew: They wanted to be carpenters and mechanics. They still are…and, oh, by the way, did you know that suburban folks will pay a pretty good chunk of money to have some custom cabinets or deck work? You know how much people are willing to pay for a good, honest mechanic? They make more than their teachers who have university educations, folks.

Now, things have changed a bit in the last few years for the better regarding military service. A while back I was in the DFW Airport, and I saw a dad point to two soldiers who were making a connecting flight. Fatigues & duffel bags. Looking sharp & walking tall. The kind of soldiers you want on that wall. That you need on that wall. Protecting our freedoms while we sleep. You can finish the Jack Nicholson speech yourself.

Anyway, that dad pointed and nudged his son and said, “See those guys, son? That’s your future if you don’t get your grades up.” I wish I’d had the guts to say what I was thinking, which was along the lines of, “When did military service lose nobility? Don’t we want our best and brightest in that role?” Again, I feel pretty confident that mindset is an extreme minority in our community these days, but I wonder if we don’t accidentally foster a “fall back” mindset rather than a “first choice.”

This “university mindset” puts an awful lot of pressure in high school, too. They know their class rank beginning their freshman year, for crying out loud. I didn’t know my class rank until graduation day and we accidentally stumbled on the list some teacher left lying around. This is so they’ll know if they’re in the top 10% of the class, which pretty much guarantees them admission to the state university of their choice. That’s a law in Texas, which the folks in charge claim to be working on because kids can get into Ivy League schools but not the University of Texas (which has 85% of their incoming freshman class as beneficiaries of the top 10% law). I think some of those PSAT Team members that make up the 11%-ers in our community must be pretty smart cookies because their college choices are pretty impressive, too.

Sure, there’s a bit of grade inflation, too. One year, nearly 20% of the graduating class had higher than the equivalent of a 4.0 G.P.A. Yeah. You can have better than all A’s and not be in the top 10%. That’s pressure, man. I mean, there’s a bottom 90% that can’t all be “failures,” can they? Since when did a “B” become bad…or even a “C.” You can finish the Bill Cosby lecture to Theo about making a “hard C” in college here.

One last thing that goes on at high schools which scares me more than any horror movie I ever saw: They have random drug testing at the high school. You have to sign a paper saying it’s okay for your kid to be randomly tested, so I’m sure it’s some kind of legal loophole…but your kid can’t participate in any extracurricular activity without signing the form, so who knows if it’d hold up in court? But nobody really seems to care that this goes on. Not parents–all of who say things like, “Well, it’s good the school is trying to help parents find out if their kids are on drugs.” Students laugh that they got chosen however they choose them and I don’t think the deal is catching very many students, either. Sure, if some kid gives a teacher or administrator just cause to suspect drug use or coming to school drunk, have at some form of “proof” because they’re messing up the educational process. But our community has been eerily quiet that students who are innocent have to surrender their rights (the school isn’t a “private employer” that I’m aware of)? I’m much more fearful of government intrusion than I am of some kid who smoked pot over the weekend while listening to Pink Floyd who sobered up by Tuesday getting “found out” and the ensuing suspension or whatever. Sounds to me like he’d be one who’s cut out for university if you’ve ever been to a university, you know what I mean.

Like I said at the beginning, we put our money where our mouth is on this education that we value for our kids. My guess is we happily do so largely because we love our kids and want the very best for them…all our community’s kids. We’re very blessed to live here because our kids have advantages that will give them every opportunity to succeed in our society. Our kids get more by the end of 9th grade than many in the world get in a lifetime. I’m a big fan of the educators in our community, too…even the “bad” ones are pretty good at what they do, and the “good” ones are often truly great at what they do. So, it works for us.

Commended Scholars.
National Merit.
Scholarships in the millions.

Numbers don’t lie. Darn right it works for us. A blind guy with one eye could see that.

Our biggest danger with our empahsis is what doesn’t get empahsized–even if those are more an oversight than anything else…

…and the reality that many see our formal education system as a panacea when it’s really a placebo.

(next time: extracurriculars and parenting)