By Bracha Turner.
On Sunday, January 4th, at Young Israel of North Beverly Hills, Harkham Hillel Academy presented a panel with over 60 city officials and educators who addressed the question: “How do we educate our children to succeed in an ever changing world?” The panel, which featured an address by Senator Joe Lieberman, was presented as a series of questions from educators in the community towards community leaders who were formerly or are presently involved in education, at the levels of civic and academic administration, activism, funding or actual pedagogy.
Many voices offered different perspectives on the current trends in education but combining public, private and charter school agendas was like mixing oil with water. Each had a different agenda and focus. Some attendees focused on equal opportunity for disadvantaged students who have fewer options while others spoke about students who are already in good schools.
Questions discussed included, ‘Is the public school system a failure?’ ‘Can government funds be channeled into private schools?’ ‘With universal, equal access to knowledge in the modern day, what is the proposition value of education?’ ‘Do schools really kill creativity?’ ‘Has education become commercialized into a business model where teachers have no power to affect their own curriculums?’
Rabbi Y. Boruch Sufrin, Head of School for Harkham Hillel Academy opened up the panel with an account of parshat Shemot and demonstrated that when each child counts, when each name counts, that’s when education succeeds. But how do you make sure that every child is a name? How do you make sure that each child gets the education that he or she deserves? This is where officials were called upon to seize the reigns of education for the economically underprivileged and create opportunities where they might otherwise dissolve, due to lack of funding. Some panelists emphasized the importance of education which starts in the home, with parents speaking to their children, and continues throughout young adulthood to be promulgated in the home through parents themselves.
The event, moderated by Liebe Geft, Director of the Museum of Tolerance, was well organized and featured an impressive array of city officials and dignitaries. There was no address of the ways students could be engaged on a practical level but instead, there was discussion of ways to improve the institutionalization of education as a whole. Statistics show an astronomical 40% of students who graduate high school are in need of remedial classes upon entering college so there is clearly a problem in preparing students for higher education. Education, rapidly changing in our global world, grapples with the benefits and challenges of improving technology for students. In the midst of this challenge, the web is largely unsafe for children and this also has a devastating effect on children’s ability to succeed.
Senator Joe Lieberman asserted the need to re-divert the greatest resources in education from a trend that was formerly S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering, mathematics,) focused to one of S.T.E.A.M. (incorporating the arts). The key, he pointed out, is to instill in the children a love of learning and the skill of critical thinking that will allow them to thrive in a global economy. Education is moving away from focusing on fields where there’s a correct answer and we are now training children to think creatively when there is no correct answer. He emphasized the significance of children having someone who believes in their ability in order to repair family attitudes that disregard education as a priority. A graduate of the public school system, he asserted his confidence in the public school system, and noted his pleasure at the federal administration which granted double the funding to public schools relative to private and charter schools. However, despite his confidence in public schools, Lieberman suggested the need for a few tweaks, such as adopting the controversial Common Core Standards Approach in a willingness to innovate.
John Mirisch of Beverly Hills City Council spoke of raising educational standards. He also hoped to see the administration reallocate resources, eliminating the problem of lifelong college debt. He contrasted America’s debt problems with Sweden where citizens pay tremendous taxes but are rewarded with free education through college.
Steve Zimmer, the head of L.A. Unified School District, which is the second largest public school system in the country, evidenced that even in the public education system, there are disparities which means that the promise of public education is not realized for all children. He spoke reprovingly of cuts to public education which disproportionately affect children at most risk.
Lisa Korbatov, a proud Hillel alumnus and member of Beverly Hills Unified School Board of Education, described a key measure of the success of learning. This measure requires that by the 3rd grade, children need to be literate and to like reading. This love of learning is essential for keeping education meaningful for life. She described a tremendous mistake that is made with funding priorities: $47K is allocated to house a prisoner for a year in California, while only $10K is granted to fund each student in public school for a year. The problem is that adults are making decisions that are benefitting adults and not children.