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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

I'm from "Away" (Myth of the Local School)

For the first time in my life, I am residing in a state with a strong sense of self. Home-grown Mainers (or Maniacs to some) are from Maine first and America second. Like Texans and Californians, there is a definite identity there, and either you're born with it or not. The state has a thriving tourism industry and welcomes emigration from other states. But I'll never be a Mainer. Now and forever, to the natives I will be from "away."

"Away" is another country, another world in fact, that begins at the state line. It encompasses everything on the planet sans these lobster-laden shores. I have friends who say that even though they were born here, their parents were not, and therefore many locals still consider them to be foreigners. I'm not offended by any of this. It doesn't affect me in the least, and I am quite happy in my new home. I just don't understand it. Never in my life have I identified so strongly with my state of residency. Maine is the third state I've called home, but I've always considered myself an American. Lately, even that feeling of nationalism is dissipating, gradually being replaced by a general brotherhood of man philosophy.

Of my five closest friends, four of them attended K-12 schools in multiples states. Like many students, we moved from suburb to suburb, school to school, and barely noticed the difference. Sure there were new friends and new houses, but the landscape was pretty much the same. The same retail chains and restaurants, same pop music and movies, and more or less the same lives. That seems to be the way of things for anyone born after 1960. Moving is a fact of life, and it becomes unfathomable to identify so strongly with a city or state that is merely a temporary home. The evidence is more than anecdotal. According to the US Census, each year 45% of Americans change their residence. Many of those are school age children.

Also brewing here in Maine is a debate over local control in the schools. There are 5 autonomous public school districts within 10 miles of my apartment. That means that each district has to shoulder separate administration costs, separate transportation costs, and myriad other costly byproducts of isolationism. And for what? So each municipality can maintain local control at the cost of cultural continuity? The problem is that it doesn't work. Local schools are an illusion, a nostalgic remnant of a bygone era. If almost half of the students and parents are from "away," what sense does it make to hold steadfastly to localism? Our communities are revolving doors, as Americans migrate more than any citizens in the developed world. All our efforts to maintain local control only guarantee that children of mobile families suffer the maximum disruption and risk of setback in their education that the system can muster.

There are many valid criticisms of NCLB, and I have complained loudly and often about many of its mandates. But I have never complained about the implied move to centralization. The days when individual communities could legitimately argue a need for unique curricula are over. We must set national standards, so that students in different states can reasonably expect to be studying roughly the same thing at the same time. There is no need to have a truly federalized system, where inside-the-beltway experts make unilateral decisions for the rest of the country. But there's no reason why we can't agree on specific requirements that all American students must meet. Take such common signs of government as the driver's license or license plate. Each state has a DMV that oversees the specifics of licensing, but all tags are the same size and shape, and each ID has the same information. There is a standard there that allows for easy interstate travel. Surely our children's mobility should be at least as trouble free as that of our automobiles.

Even excluding the tradition of legal national immigration that is the backbone of the American dream, the relocation pattern of US citizens is mercurial to say the least. We are a nation of discontents, always looking for greener grasses, and our students would suffer much less if the school system would stop erecting so many fences.


Jenny D. said...

Thanks for popping by. Adding you to my blogroll now....

Arthus Erea said...

As a native Vermonter, I understand the idea of "away" and here. I have never moved in my life and have extremely strong bonds to my community. While new kids come over time, a large percentage of my classmates are natives. Around here is where you can walk into any class and find 5 kids from the same "clan." (The big native families... for generations). Even when someone new moves here, it takes at least 2 years before we stop referring to them as the "new" kid.
In small communities like mine, there is a strong sense of loyalty. If you don't have each other, you don't have anyone.