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LETTER: iPads are symptom of bigger problem

To the Editor:

Anyone who has been monitoring the debate regarding the Auburn school budget and iPad initiative over the past several months easily can conclude that there has been frustration on many levels. This frustration not only lies with the budget, but also with the school committee and the city council members.

The iPad initiative, which I believe to be misguided at best, is a symptom of a much larger problem. The program was put in place with no meaningful discussion that included parents or city council members. More egregiously, the program had no sound funding foundation—I find that quite peculiar since it is supposedly the keystone to improving our children’s literacy and mathematical performance by 30 percentage points over the next several years.

The vast majority of available medical literature also clearly shows that increasing screen time beginning at a young age has been directly linked to eye strain, childhood obesity, children’s lack of attentiveness, poor school performance and aggressive behavior. The list could continue much further.

This information was ignored by the school committee and superintendent. While technology does have a role in education, there are many other factors that affect our children’s education, the most important of which is well-qualified teachers.

The problems with the school budget that were heatedly debated this year have been debated for decades on both national and local levels. It is also clear that these same discussions will take place next year, five years from now and decades from now. Why? We keep focusing on the trees, and we miss the forest around us.

The frustration is augmented by the fact that the problems with our children’s lack of educational performance, particularly at the middle school and high school levels, will not be fixed in one or two budget cycles. Why? It is because we are focused on each budget line item, and we hold fast to the flawed, misguided and factually incorrect concept that allocating more money will fix the problem.

In reality, we have not been asking the right questions; therefore, we have missed the forest for the trees. It has been known that academic achievement and high school graduation rates have stagnated since the 1970s. This was pointed out in 1983 in “A Nation at Risk, A Governmental Report Card on the U.S. Educational System.” This document urgently recommended educational reform and warned that other nations around the world would outpace the United States in academic achievement.

Three decades later, what has changed? Not much for the better, but much for the worse. On an international scale the United States, in terms of middle school and high school children’s academic performance, ranks either in the middle third or lower third of industrialized nations. This occurs despite our spending the most per child on education in the world.

Locally we have seen stagnant standardized test scores for Maine during this same time frame. Specifically in the last 15 years, approximately 40 percent of seventh- and eighth-grade students are not proficient at grade level in mathematics and in reading, and 53 percent of eighth-grade students are not proficient at grade level in writing skills.

Meanwhile one out of every three to four students will not graduate from high school, and overall Maine has a 57 percent college completion rate for its students. Can we really say that our laptop program has made a difference, given that it has been in place for the past 10 years?

We have failed to ask the appropriate questions for a long time. We should have been asking why the quality of our children’s education is so poor. Are we happy with the fact that Maine is consistently in the top 10 in per child expenditure given the above results? Has the school committee and superintendant been asking these questions? Are they aware of the above results? If not, why not? If so, what have they done to correct the problem?

We as parents have not been engaged in the debate and have failed to hold the school committee and superintendant accountable. Would you go to a mechanic who only fixes the problem with your car correctly 60 percent of the time? Would you buy a product that functions correctly only 60 percent of the time? Why do we tolerate permitting our children to be exposed to an educational system that is mediocre at best?

Those who dare to ask the tough questions are vilified, labeled as haters of children and against education, and they are outright ignored by the school committee and superintendent. I would ask who actually has the children’s best interests in mind? Those who keep advocating for more money to fix the educational system, while blatantly ignoring the fact that our children’s educational performance is lagging well behind many other industrialized and even some third world nations? Or those who acknowledge the problem, start asking the tough questions and want to seek answers?

What has been happening in Maine is a microcosm of what has been happening across the United States for decades. In The mid-1900s, The United States led the world in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and we landed a man on the moon. Today, according to the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine report, “Rising Above The Gathering Storm-December 2010,” for the first time in history, America’s younger generation is less educated than its parents.

We must critically evaluate everything related to our children’s education in an attempt to find what works and what does not work. What programs do schools with much better performance rates use? What curriculum is used in countries with much better educational performance results?

Maybe we should be looking at the educational curricula of the Asian countries, Singapore, Korea, Japan and Hong Kong, where 12 grades are not needed to complete pre-college education.

In the end, we all want our children to have a first-rate education. The only way for this to come about is for everyone to be held accountable for the results, including students, parents, teachers, principals, superintendents and school boards. We need to look at the success of those charter schools that have dramatically improved student performance in the most impoverished cities in the U.S. School choice must be promoted.

We need to critically look at the curriculum currently used. Does a one-size-fits-all approach make sense? We need to link teacher pay to performance to help recruit and retain qualified teachers. We also need to expose teachers’ unions for the fraud they have become.

Carlo J. Gammaitoni M.D..

Auburn

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