Nothing Extra about Extracurriculars

I spent Saturday night in Chicago, attending my graduating class’s 45th reunion at St. Patrick High School. It was my first time back at the school since a few months after I graduated. While it was great seeing some of my classmates again, the highlight of the evening was reuniting with my old chorus director, Brother Konrad Diebold. And that made me think about the importance of extracurriculars, both in my own life and in general.

A great friend of ours believes that American schools should drop their emphasis on interscholastic sports and allow cities and clubs to organize recreational sports, as they do in Europe. And with all respect, I don’t think I can agree. Like it or not, extracurriculars are an integral part of the education process, and one of the great tragedies of education today is the obsessive pursuit of high test scores to the exclusion of almost everything else.

St. Pat’s is generally thought of as a fine school. It has been able to continue its mission of providing a faith-based education for young men as it did when it was founded in 1861. And yet, with a few exceptions, what I remember about St. Pat’s isn’t the academics. I was an indifferent student, working hard on things that interested me and not at all on things that didn’t. What St. Pat’s did have was an outstanding lineup of extracurricular activities. I have always had widely varied interests, and I belonged to a lot of extracurriculars in school. I very nearly lived at school, staying late many nights and working there on weekends. Forty-five years after graduating, I am still using things I learned in the extracurricular activities offered by my high school.

  • In our tour on Saturday, one of the sites we visited was the gym. There in a loft above the gym was – as it was then – the TV studio. In the sixties, when videotape was an exotic technology and black-and-white TV cameras were the size of suitcases, St. Pat’s had a TV station that delivered news broadcasts to the freshman building (which had closed-circuit TVs) and televised basketball games to overflow audiences. As a director and cameraman, I had a chance to work with that technology, and it began a romance with photography that continued into college and beyond.
  • How many schools have a Political Science Club? St. Pat’s did, and it was there that I learned about parliamentary procedure. When the club also sent me to interview a Congressional candidate, it led  to my volunteering in the first of many political campaigns.
  • Not enough schools have speech and debate teams, but St. Pat’s did: it was called the Sheen Club, named after the powerful Catholic preacher Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. As a member of the Sheen Club and a speech and debate competitor, I learned to become more comfortable talking in front of people.
  • As a writer and editor for Green and Gold, the school newspaper, I learned to write nonfiction on a deadline, as I continue to do today.
  • When I was a junior, the chorus needed an organist, and Brother Konrad signed me up for the job. Since the chorus already had a pianist and used the organist only occasionally, that meant that I also had a place among the singers, which began a lifetime love affair with choral singing.
  • Later that year, St. Pat’s staged Oliver, our first musical. At Brother Konrad’s request, I learned to play mallet instruments in the percussion section of the orchestra, which re-ignited a love of musical theater that had been dormant since eighth grade. I performed in the cast of Fiorello in my senior year, and those experiences helped me years later when I became a school drama director.
  • (It’s worth mentioning here that the benefits weren’t all professional. St. Pat’s was and is all-male. The chorus performed with nearby girls’s schools, and plays recruited female cast and orchestra members. These extracurriculars in particular were opportunities to meet girls, and I found I liked them.)

You may notice that I pretty much ignore athletics here. As a high school student, I generally avoided physical activity; I enjoyed being a spectator at interscholastic sports, but never participated in any. It’s clear to me, though, that athletics are just as important to many students as my non-athletic extracurricular activities were for me.

So it will come as no surprise that I think of extracurricular activities as critical to the mission of schools, at least for some students. Among the tragedies I see in school today are 1) the replacement of experiential learning with uniform, regimented instruction; 2) the equation of learning with testing; and 3) the epidemic of play-to-play schemes, which are based on the idea that extracurriculars aren’t integral to education.

For many students, it’s the extracurriculars that give them a reason to go to school every day. They did that for me.

Talk Radio

I called in recently to a radio program called The Sound of Ideas, heard on Cleveland Public Radio, WCPN-FM 90.3, weekdays 9:00-10:00. Since then the producer called asking me to appear on today’s show, “Money, Politics and Unions after Issue 2,” and I agreed to be a guest. Other members of the panel–all much heavier hitters than me–were:
  • Harriet Applegate of the North Shore AFL-CIO, with us in the studio;
  • by phone, Peter Overby, NPR’s “Power, Money and Influence” correspondent, who covers campaign finance;
  • by phone, Mark Mix, President of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.
If you’re masochistic, you might enjoy downloading the show’s podcast. If you’re really adventurous, watch the video; if you can take it, so can I.

So how was this experience, you ask? Well, I learned stage fright young: as a music student I would be a complete basket case before each recital. And although by now I’ve spoken, acted, sung, played, or taught thousands of times, I’m still pretty nervous before anything that resembles a performance.

One surprise to me was how quickly the hour went. I had prepared for the session, and had my various papers arranged in front of me at the desk. I wound up hardly referring to any of them, and instead used the top handout mostly to take notes and keep track of my thoughts. In this setting, it seems, it does no good to anticipate what the next question might be or to dwell on the last one: the most important thing is to concentrate on the moment. In little league they called it “keeping your head in the game,” and it’s not something I was or am especially good at; but for an hour at a time, I guess I can.
With stage fright goes that delicious feeling when it’s over, and by 10:00 I was feeling pretty relieved. I’d do it again: the risk of sounding stupid is a worthwhile price to pay for the opportunity to do something you believe in.

Ideas Matter

Ohioans go to the polls tomorrow to determine the fate of Senate Bill 5, which aimed to replace public employee collective bargaining with collective begging. In a series which ends today, I’ve been writing about “three things that matter.” I’ve been working backward from the observation that leadership–particularly local union leadership–matters, and that this was made clearer by this year, in which our members have learned to their sorrow just how much elections matter. Today, I’m writing about the most basic of these: ideas matter.

III. Ideas Matter.

Our leaders and our members had to do such heroic work this year (leadership matters) because we face a political foe who has made it his business to destroy public employee unions (elections matter). But our political foes couldn’t get much traction if they hadn’t been winning an ideological fight for many years. If we can’t figure out how to win that fight, then all the elections and all the organizing in the world won’t save us.

Virtually no intervention prescribed to improve public schools has worked. Charter schools, vouchers, high-stakes testing, merit pay, take your pick–none have worked. American schools continue to be victimized by capricious and inequitable funding, inconsistent academic standards, and indifferent community support. And yet, despite an almost total lack of evidence that they work, each of the interventions I’ve mentioned has its fervent adherents.

All of this would simply be a continuing, nagging aggravation except for the biggest wrong idea of them all–the conversion of public education from a common good to a commodity.

In the late nineties, when the Ohio General Assembly passed the Cleveland “scholarship” (voucher) program, the argument was that the Cleveland schools were in such miserable shape that anything that could be done to help them should be done. But today’s school choice advocates are beyond choice for failing schools. In March, Republican Senate hopeful Josh Mandel, talking to a school choice group on the steps of the Statehouse last spring, argued that taxpayers should pay for whatever education choice parents make, a concept which is embodied in House Bill 136.

HB 136 is the logical fruit of the ideological tree planted in the establishment of the Cleveland voucher program: although it is need-based, it would permit most parents to take tax support and apply it to any school of their choice.

Ohio’s Constitution requires the General Assembly to “secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state” (6.02). The DeRolph suit was about whether Ohio school funding provided a “thorough and efficient” system; HB 136 makes that question irrelevent by forgoing common schools altogether and making education a tax-supported consumer purchase.

Ideas matter. This one is probably the worst idea going, and it has bipartisan support: Representatives Bill Patmon (D- Cleveland) and Michael Stinziano (D-Columbus) are co-sponsors. It has a chance of being passed because the public generally doesn’t understand the importance of public schools.

And that’s the case with all the other bad ideas out there in the education marketplace. Our critics have an open field for their narrative: education consists of what standardized tests measure; public schools are failing; quality teaching consists simply of improving students’ best test scores; educator unions are an obstacle to school improvement; merit pay offers an opportunity to improve teaching by providing incentives for better teachers, who by definition are the ones who get the highest test scores; by empowering parents and using market forces, school choice can fix an ailing system.

Let me connect the dots of the case I’ve been trying to build.

  • Leadership matters: We’ve had to use every organization tool at our disposal because of a crisis brought on by the election of zealots.
  • Elections matter: Those zealots were elected in part because of lukewarm support among educators and others who felt that he hadn’t been strong enough in support of our causes. (The same sort of lukewarm support being expressed nationally for President Obama.)
  • Ideas matter: Governor Strickland endorsed bogus education “reforms” because the public tends to believe in them. (And on the national level, President Obama has done the same thing.)

If we don’t win the ideological battle, then ultimately we won’t win the organizational and political battles. If we make it through Election Day with the repeal of Senate Bill 5, we need immediately to start figuring out how to counter the tidal wave of opinion that made us such easy targets in the first place.