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By Diana Diamond

Can we ever improve our schools?

Uploaded: Nov 17, 2018

When I think about my K-12 education, and I look back at my kids’ and now my grandkids’ education, things haven’t really changed that much. Yes, penmanship, rote learning and civics courses were emphasized more then than now, and the tilt was more toward individual learning, rather than doing study projects in teams, as occurs today. But all in all, our education offerings haven’t changed that much in decades.

I say all this because I recently read an interesting op-ed in The New York Times, “I
Will Miss You, German Schools,” by a Californian who moved with his family to Munich for six years. He described what kind of education his kid was experiencing over there. It was an exciting educational one, and started me thinking why can’t we step out of our traditional learning box here and see what new approaches we can offer our kids. Silicon Valley seems to be the obvious starting point for a more creative thinking.

The op-ed writer, Firoozeh Dumas, author of “Funny in Farsi” and “It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel,” describes his daughter’s education in a part of Munich with top-notch schools, where people only paid a few percentage points more in taxes than in California. As he commented, “Holy Betsy DeVos, do we get more!”

In the elementary school his daughter attended, there was a rich curriculum full of math and sciences, arts and languages. After school, he wrote, in addition to the more traditional offerings of chess, theater and computers, she could take circus lessons -- learning to juggle, walk on a tightrope and ride a unicycle. Since her school did not have a pool, students were bused every week to a nearby sports club for lessons, at no extra charge.”

“We have paid for extras like trips to museums (at $4 each) and $250 for a weeklong class trip to Austria intended to foster independence (a highlight was that each child did a short walk alone at night in a field), but that’s it. On a few occasions the school organized fund-raising efforts; the recipients were in other countries,” Dumas said.

Once in high school the college-bound ones were equipped with sports halls, music rooms, and libraries with ancient books, often equivalent to college libraries. And higher education is free, Dumas repeatedly noted.

I am envious of the wonderful approach Germany seems to have taken to education, and all that it offers students. Now, maybe it’s not as great as Dumas writes, and we need to examine that closely.

Dumas is now coming back to California for cupcake sales by parents to raise money for new school projects, to student walkathons, carwashathons and danceathons, and to schools that want children to go door-to-door to ask neighbors if they want to buy Christmas wrapping paper.

But over the years, I have been besieged by students selling the equivalent of wrapping paper and cupcakes. And in Palo Alto, parents spend enormous amounts their own money ($1,000 each child I’ve heard) “contribution” to each kid’s school, their time and energy to raise money for their kids’ schools and every school in the district. And we are a rich community!

Can we, should we, have a more creative approach to our children’s education here on the Peninsula and in California? Yes, yes, yes!

But the first thing we need to do is get more information on how the Germans and other countries achieve an array of courses and activities for their children for only a bit more money. Of course their countries have lower defense budgets and higher taxes than the U.S., but that’s not the only answer. We have to find out – quickly – how they make it work.

We have to get our teachers to help us. They spend their days caring about our kids, so I assume they want to improve our educational system, too. We have to get our local school boards to start discussing what major changes they want, and how can they achieve them. One big step at a time. Hear me, Palo Alto Unified school board members?

What’s done in Munich and other European countries is certainly not impossible to accomplish here. We just have to try to be more creative and willing to try new things.