"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Sunday, September 5, 2010

A Pedicure, An Expensive School, and What Really Drives Education

One of the luxuries I allow myself (especially in the summer) is a monthly pedicure. I rarely get a manicure because I find gardening and blogging are not kind on nail polish and nails. I've been frequenting new salon near my home and it is quite a trendy manicure/pedicure establishment. The chairs you sit in while you are having your pedicure have a massage capability built into them and the pedicures include a calf massage. You feel quite pampered during the process and your toes look much better when the pedicure is finished! It is owned and staffed by men and women who are Vietnamese. They all speak English; some better than others.

There are two employees at this salon I want to tell you about...I'll call them John and Mary. John gave me a manicure a couple of months ago and we began talking about our families. He has a son in 2nd grade and a daughter who is 4. He is very proud of both of his children, and really opened up when I told him one of my sons was hearing impaired. His son has Down's Syndrome and we chatted about the educational services available to him. His daughter has taken quite a shine to math, and he is understandably quite pleased with her talents. He is delighted his children can receive an education in the United States, and he reads with both of them at night when he comes home from work.

Mary is a beautiful young woman, probably about 18 or 19 years old. She gave me a pedicure in early August and we started talking about her life. She has been in the United States for about 5 years and attended St. Louis City Schools. She said she didn't know English very well when she moved here and high school was difficult. She is determined to better her English and education, and told me she would be working only on weekends starting mid-August as she was starting junior college. Mary loves to read books on biology and science and her dream is to be a nurse. One of her favorite authors in Dr. Andrew Weil, famous for his writings on natural healing.

I made an appointment with her on Saturday of Labor Day weekend and I inquired how she was enjoying school. She goes to two community campuses, one in the suburbs and one in the city, to accommodate her schedule. She is taking American History, physical education, biology and math. Mary said the professors speak very quickly and sometimes the notes are hard for her to keep up with so she tapes the lectures. As she walks around campus, she listens to the lectures so she is better able to understand the English terms.

She wakes up at 6:30 AM to get her brother and sister ready for before school care, and she then starts her day in college. She studies until 1:00 AM and starts the next day again at 6:30 AM. She then works Saturday and Sunday at the manicure/pedicure shop.

What a hectic schedule she maintains! As I was listening to her story, I was impressed with her inner drive. She is determined she will improve her English skills and she is going to be a nurse. She has tremendous responsibility in her own life and in her family. She bubbles with enthusiasm and I don't detect a bit of self-pity in her situation.

While waiting for my toes to dry, I read a piece in the Wall Street Journal about the most expensive school ever built in US history. We've written about this school previously, but this article is the most up to date:


Allysia Finley writes: "The project was abandoned for several years, only to be recommenced when community activists demanded that the school be built at whatever cost necessary in order to show respect for the neighborhood's Latino children, may of whom were attending an overcrowded Belmont High School". I guess this respect includes providing:
  • Talking benches costing $54,000
  • Murals and art costing $1.3 Million
  • A minipark costing $4.9 Million

The district is currently running a $640 Million deficit and has laid off 3,000 teachers. The total cost of this school to show Latino schoolchildren respect is $578 Million or $140,000 per student. I wonder if Mary's inner drive would be more intense if she had demanded respect because she is a refugee. Do any of you believe this extraordinary expense can create the work ethic and appreciation of education John and Mary exude? Does a school system, whether it be local, state or national need to show respect for students? I believe the LA school district has it wrong; the students need to show respect for the republic.

Mary and John are not demanding special treatment because of their ethnicity. They are trying to live the American dream...working hard and improving their life and those of their children. They understand the ticket for upward mobility for their children and themselves is education. They don't need a $578 Million school to work toward those goals. They possess what money can't buy; determination and goals. And the government can't supply or force these qualities by building super nifty multimillion schools, "buying respect", and instituting mandated educational goals.

Happy Labor Day to these two hard working people. They have the day off from work on Monday. They deserve it.


  1. The school is a monument to the corruption of government and the power of unions, and should be treated as such.

  2. This blog post exemplifies a common theme running through some of our veins: looking for short cuts to results that only come through hard work and sacrifice.

    Respect is an important part of relationships because respect grows from trust. I do believe that for learning to occur, there must be some amount of reciprocal respect and trust in the classroom and community between parents, students and teachers.

    However, as your post points out, what does respect look like? Does respect have a monetary value? Materialism has blinded us and cheapened our lives. We've traded "real" hope for "monetary" hope. The nice things are not real signs that things will improve for these children or their future children because of the debt and lack of respect (the idea that one can "buy" it) attached.

    Thanks for sharing this personal stories to help generate more conversations about this unfortunate situation that is only one example of a systemic problem not only in our school systems, but in our personal lives.

  3. You could look at the cost of the new schools in LA from any number of angles. While I recognize the excess, I can't help but see the silver lining. Schools are getting the graft - not Wall Street, not the military, not the private prisons, not highways to suburbia, not the subprime industrial complex (credit card co.'s, banks, pay day lenders, car dealers), or any of the other usual suspects. Instead of being a bitter naysayer, I'm going to look at the bright side and hope this investment in an educational structure leads to true investment in public schools (teacher training, evidenced based curriculum).

    As for John & Mary, good for them. Glad that the work of abolitionists, suffragists, civil rights movements, etc. all paved the way for them to follow the dream.

  4. @Jaz
    Architectural Reflection
    I'd feel much better about the Grand Central Bldg.
    If only the architect had left off the gldg.
    —Ogden Nash

  5. @ dsm
    Today's NY Times article, "As Teams Abandon Stadiums, the Public is Left With the Bill" is an example of what I'm referring to, "the almost mystical sway professional sports teams have over politicians, voters and fans." Why don't our schools hold the same mystical sway? Gilding is standard for all types of other publicly financed projects, but education should take place in a concrete box? Throughout history, the largest, most opulent buildings in a community signified what that society felt was most important. Castles, churches, city/town hall, and now, the glass towers of financial institutions. Gilding on public schools just might be a signal that there is light at the end of this tunnel.

    It will be a great day when our schools have all the money they need, and our air force has to have a bake-sale to buy a bomber.
    Robert Fulghum

  6. @Jaz,

    I would never defend public financing of private enterprises (like sports teams). Socializing costs and risks while privatizing profits is bad public policy.

    As for whether or not children should learn in a concrete box... Well, no, but I think schools are on their way out.

    It's widely assumed that a teacher led classroom is the best mechanism for education. I suspect that the model of the ancients is returning. Alexander the Great was tutored by Aristotle. This is the sort of thing that homeschoolers are doing today because they are empowered by tools and technology that allow them to become the expert tutors in a wide range of subjects.

    Imagine every poverty stricken inner city teenager having access to a Harvard education more or less for free. MIT has already open sourced their courses online, so anyone can read the materials and watch the lectures (though you still have to pay them for a sheep skin).

    And, yes, I know this model wont work for the early grades, won't solve bad parents/home issues, and wont provide day care for duel income or single parent households. But it just seems inevitable to me. The mass unemployment that it will cause will be hard to deal with, but, when was the last time you bought hand woven cloth? Like the Luddites before them, academia will adapt.


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