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While I thought Coleman's diary was both interesting and important, I quickly became more interested in the off-topic sidetrack that developed, so thanks for providing space to pursue those thoughts.

My very naive views - I'm an American who knows little about European political systems or daily life. I have traveled there a few times (mainly to France), and I've learned a great deal more in the past year from reading blogs like this one, but I still feel very ignorant.

So some random thoughts. On one trip to Europe, I kept hearing, "Americans are so rich!" which I found very puzzling, in a way. Of course, many Americans are by any measure, rich. And our middle class generally has material possessions beyond those of most countries, even developed countries. But there seemed to be very little awareness of the millions of Americans struggling with deep poverty and how difficult it is for those trapped in poverty here to escape it. People who literally die for lack of health care. The homeless living under bridges. Elderly who die of heat or cold because they cannot afford to pay utility bills. Children who are hungry, young ones who are left home alone for lack of affordable child care. Addicts and the mentally ill who cannot get treatment because they cannot pay for it.

Do Europeans see this, do they have an idea of how many Americans I am describing?

Another thought - education was discussed in Coleman's diary. I am a professor, so this is a topic close to home.

1) The inequalities of our primary and secondary schools: A few years ago, the value of my home dropped $10,000 overnight (I live in a modest home, it's value was about $80,000 at the time, so we are talking about a significant decline). Why? Because the geographical lines that determine which school children will attend, based on their address, were redrawn. Children on my street, who had previously been assigned to go to a "good" high school would now be required to attend a "not-so-good" high school. I should say that even the second school is better than many in our city.

A "good" school is clean and pleasant and well-equipped. A wide variety of advanced courses are offered. Class sizes are small, or at least reasonable. There are teacher's aides and counselors and advisors who are competent and dedicated. Extra-curricular activities are plentiful - sport teams yes, but also drama clubs and debate teams, etc and these are supported financially by the parents. Of course, these schools are located in the affluent parts of town and the children of the well-to-do attend them. Most significantly, most of the best-qualified and most talented teachers prefer to teach in such schools and since these types of teachers are in demand, they usually (eventually) end up in these schools.

The "bad" schools? Well, just reverse all of the above. And of course, they end up with the marginally qualified, or even the truly unqualified teachers. (Many teachers in America are assigned to teach subjects in which they have no training at all - especially, of course, in the "bad" schools. Although laws exist requiring that teachers be "qualified," a temporary teaching certificate can be issued, declaring for example that one with a degree in literature is now authorized to teach algebra or biology and - presto! - this person is now "qualified.")

2) So of course, this has a huge impact on whether or not a high school graduate continues on to the college or university level. Begin with money. When I first attended the state university in my city, tuition and fees for one semester was about $50 for a state resident, and textbooks could be bought for about the same - so after coming up with about $100, all I had to figure out how to pay for was my living expenses while I went to college. I generally had a part-time job and managed to get by (with roommates) without much trouble.

Now? Well the same university charges $3719 for tuition and fees per semester. They estimate $400 for textbooks (a low figure in my experience). So where I could get a college education for about $800 (eight semesters), the charges today would be almost $33,000. Even allowing for inflation, this is a very different situation from the one that existed in the mid-60's.

Well, but there is financial aid for low income students, yes? Umm, yes and no. More and more aid is now "need blind" meaning that it is awarded based on academic qualifications alone, so it is available to the children of the wealthy on an equal footing with the children of the poor. But wait - the children of the wealthy went to the "good" schools, so who do you think will have the better SAT scores? Meanwhile the pool of money available to be awarded based on financial need shrinks.

The financial aid available to those who are not academic all-stars is generally loans. Now a middle or upper class family will likely be comfortable with large loans. They have mortgages and car loans, maybe loans to start a business, so they see college loans as an investment worth making. But the poor are renters who often find just coming up with a month's rent difficult. If they own a car, it is probably an old junker they paid a few hundred dollars cash for. The idea of starting out in life with $34,000 worth of debt is terrifying.

So they try to go to school while working full time. They go a semester and then drop out for a year or two and save their money, and then attempt another semester. It can take ten years or more to get a degree at this pace, and in the meantime, well, mom gets sick and can't work so they have to go back home and support their younger brothers and sisters, or they have a child of their own, or well, life happens. So they often give up before finishing.

And how are they doing academically when they are in school? There are successes, of course, but most struggle. It's hard to do college level work while working full-time. And remember, they came from the "bad" schools, so they had mostly unqualified, mediocre teachers (with, if they were lucky one or two of the dedicated and wonderful teachers that insist on teaching at "bad" schools because they know how needed they are there). There were few or no advanced classes. The school library has gotten no new books in years. The computers are old and there aren't enough of them. There are better libraries in town, but to get there you need bus fare, at least.

Oh good Lord. I just noticed how long this comment is, and how late it is on our side of the pond. Anyway, I'll post it in spite of its length - I'm describing my students here. I see how much easier it is for the children of the affluent and middle class to get a college degree and how difficult it is for my students who come from poverty to use education to escape from it. Even though, by simply being in one of my classes, they are the "fortunate poor." I never even see the vast majority of the children of the poor - those who dropped out of school when they were waylaid by drugs or gangs or teenage pregnancy or the need to leave school and go to work to help support their families before finishing.

So how is it in Europe? Are the poor as poor? Are there as many of them? Are there such great inequalities in pre-university education? Is it as difficult to succeed at the college level for the children of the poor who manage to get in the door of the university? (Yes, I know, every European country is different, and there are great differences here state-to-state, but we have to start somewhere.)

by Janet Strange (jstrange1925 - that symbol - hotmail, etc.) on Wed Oct 12th, 2005 at 01:51:02 AM EST
Indeed it changes from country from country. Off the top of my head, I recall a story about the British system - where Bliar introduced tuition fees, with exemptions ostensibly a vehicle for more equal education, but the opposite happened. (Maybe I can look it up in the evening.)

When I was in West Germany, as far as I remember, parents' income didn't really matter at secondary school level - except for some taunting by peers (for wearing non-trendy clothes, or for being a peasant's child). Being staffed out by the state, I think there were no regional differences either (no parent wanted to take out any of my classmates, nor have those whose family moved recounted a very different school they visited before).

In Hungary, my experience was from before and shortly after the regime change (don't yet have children myself), so I don't know - but it probably changed for the worse both on the equal quality and equal opportunity front.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Oct 12th, 2005 at 07:04:57 AM EST
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You're welcome, Janet.  And thank you for this great comment.  It's a wonderful description of the problems in large segments of the working poor, struggling and marginally poor areas.  I don't know if this is how it's like where you are, but in some of the inner-city areas, just completing high-school is becoming more and more difficult.

Between the drug war, tough on crime, and zero tolerance policies, a lot of kids are getting pushed out entirely.  I had a black friend whose brother was terrified when California enacted the Three Strikes laws.  See, he already had two felony convictions.  He'd been tried as an adult at age 16 for carrying a concealed weapon and being in posession of a controlled substance.

The crime?  His grandma was sick and he had to go out after dark to pick up her perscription.  His area had a lot of gang activity after dark, he was scared and took a butter knife with him.

Now normal, sane people say that that just can't happen.  That surely somewhere in the system from the police to the prosecutor to the judge and jurors someone would come to their senses and say, hey!  He was a scared kid doing a favor for his grandma -- there's nothing really illegal about that!

But technically it is illegal.  We do have laws on the books that make it so.  And it happens all the time.  This was quite a few years ago and things have only gotten worse.

Later in life when I volunteered in an elementary school in a marginal neighborhood I realized where so much of the educational budget goes -- to social, health, and police work.  Our education system is broken because they're the last bastion of a safety net that doesn't exist.  

We were a magnet school, so we had the best and brightest kids from all over the area and we'd gotten a million dollar grant from the Feds.  It was hoped that we could do great things with matching these kids with computers, new textbooks, smaller classes.  I was very much involved in the budget and goals process.  

And we succeeded to some extent because of the windfall.  But most of the "normal" budget was spent on social services.  Free lunches, uniforms, health screenings, vaccinations, counseling, all sorts of things that should be provided by some other entity.

 We did end up getting some good equipment for the kids, but we also hired an extra social worker who could do community outreach to help parents obtain any services such as foodstamps which might be available to them.  We also used part of it to add free breakfasts.  These are things that are being left out of media reports and political rhetoric -- you can't shred the safety net without hobbling the services left.  You can't teach kids when they're hungry and sick.  Our schools are on the front lines.  In some places, they're the only line.

Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding. -Hobbes

by Izzy (izzy at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Oct 12th, 2005 at 05:03:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Janet, thanks for your lovely comment. I would like to answer and will do so, as soon as I find time. Please come back to this thread even in a couple of days, because that's how much I am stretched out to read here and comment.
by mimi on Wed Oct 12th, 2005 at 07:58:37 PM EST
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