Speech to Chicago Women's Aid

"I believe that the board of education is an EDUCATIONAL policy-making body. A large part of its time should be devoted to discussing EDUCATIONAL policy matters, since these control decisions on lesser questions."
Chicago, IL • March 06, 1956

It is a great pleasure to address the members of the Chicago Women’s Aid. Not only are you public spirited citizens in the finest sense, but as MOTHERS, you are interested in our efforts to improve the EDUCATIONAL program being offered in the public schools today. It is not often that one has the opportunity to speak to a group which has such a pronounced interest in our public school system. Consequently, I was particularly happy when Mrs. Seeling suggested that you would be good enough to give me a few minutes of your time.

Unfortunately, most Chicagoans, unlike members of the Chicago Women’s Aid, do not know exactly what a Board of Education does. Our Chicago newspapers give ample space to Board of Education activities; books on education frequently appear on best-seller lists; and PTA activities attract more citizens every year. Yet very few people attend Board of Education meetings. The apparent contradiction between the widespread interest in education, and the simultaneous boredom with the usual activities of the boards of education deserves an explanation. And there is one. It lies, I believe, in the tendency of most school boards to leave discussion of educational problems solely to the professional educators, while contenting themselves with budgets and contracts.

I believe that the board of education is an EDUCATIONAL policy-making body. A large part of its time should be devoted to discussing EDUCATIONAL policy matters, since these control decisions on lesser questions. But how can any board of education fulfill its policy-making function by spending 90% of its time discussing the costs of furniture, pencils, chalk and blackboards, and approving budgets and salaries. The correct answer is simple: — it can’t. It is true that these matters are great importance, but isn’t EDUCATION the essential business of the school board? Or, are all questions of educational policy to be left solely to the professional educators?

I, for one, believe that school board members are TRUSTEES, representing the public’s desire to provide the highest QUALITY EDUCATION for all sons and daughters of all the ...

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... from staff members. Nor can he accept his advice solely from one source. I said these things publicly from the beginning of my service on the Board of Education. Following my selection as president of the school board, I suggested to our able general superintendent of schools that we increase the amount of time given to educational problems.

Briefly, here is what we have started. We have inaugurated a system whereby the staff members will prepare so-called “POLICY-STATEMENTS” for study and review by the Board of Education members. The first of these was devoted to RECREATION. Ten other such reports are now in the making. They analyze such subjects as our junior college program, vocational education, human relations activities, the Chicago Teachers College, etc. These reports will be discussed, accepted, amended, or rejected by the school board. They will provide a year-long program calling for concentration on EDUCATIONAL matters.

At this point, I think it is fair to state that this concentration on educational matters is unprecedented. Because this is the first time this has been done, we should make considerable strides in 1956 toward the solution of many of our educational problems. But let no one make a mistake by assuming that all our educational problems will be solved in 1956. Your present school board did not create these problems. Nor did your present superintendent. Nor will those problems, which have been 20 years a-growing, all be solved in 1956.

For example, 20 years of comparative inactivity in building from 1930-1950, PLUS THE HIGH WAR AND POST-WAR BIRTH RATE, are responsible for the double shift class sessions today. In the decide 1930-1940, only $58 million was spent for new buildings. From 1940-1950, only $46 million was spent. That totals $105 million from an entire generation of Chicago’s history.

Compare that figure of $105 million spent over a period of 20 years with our proposal for 1956 alone. OUR 1956 BUDGET contains the most ambitious building program in the history of 20th century Chicago. Everyone in this room knows of the shortage of colosseums nationwide. Every person here knows that many communities are begging for state and federal aid. But I believe that every Chicagoan can ...

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... Education has not waited for “someone else to do the job,” — but has itself created a program calling for the expenditure of $36 million in 1956 alone. Upon completion of this program, Chicago’s Board of Education will have added 114 new schools and additions to schools in 5 years. Without even counting the millions of dollars spent on the rehabilitation of school buildings, I think Chicago’s record in meeting the shortage of buildings and classrooms equals or surpasses any city in America. If there is a classroom SHORTAGE today, AND THERE IS, let’s put the RESPONSIBILITY WHERE IT BELONGS. It doesn’t belong on your present board of education, or on your present superintendent.

You have heard and read much about alleged WEAKNESSES in our RECREATIONAL program. Let’s TAKE A LOOK at that allegation! From 1921 to 1946, the Board of Education mentioned 63 PLAYGROUNDS. We couldn’t expand the program, simply because we didn’t have the money. For 1956, however, we proposed the biggest expansion of the recreational program in 35 years. Almost $3 million will be spent to improve 114 play areas adjacent to public schools. We plan to fence, drain, grade, and surface these 114 playground areas. THIRTY-TWO of these areas not only will be improved in this manner, but additional EQUIPMENT will be added as well. At 67 of these areas, we plan to provide SUPERVISIONS for the 4 summer months, because our experience in the summer of 1955 indicated that such supervision was most popular with parents.

If there is a RECREATIONAL PLAYGROUND SHORTAGE TODAY, AND THERE IS, let’s put the RESPONSIBILITY where it belongs. It doesn’t belong on your PRESENT board of education or your present superintendent.

You have heard and read that OUR SCHOOLS PASS EVERY CHILD FROM GRADE TO GRADE WITHOUT CONSIDERATION OF ABILITY OR ACHIEVEMENT. It is said we are putting children who lack academic ability through training unsuited to them, and pretending they have learned when they haven’t. The allegation is expressed most simply in the phrase, “Every kid deserves to pass.”

In our schools as of this moment, we have hundreds, if not thousands, of children receiving special educational programs designed for the GIFTED. We have 5,000 children in special divisions for the EDUCABLE MENTALLY RETARDED. We have even started special divisions for the TRAINABLE MENTALLY RETARDED. These 3 groups alone add up to a total of more than 20,000 children who are NOT being subjected to an academic training for which they are not suited. Add to this group all the children now in VOCATIONAL education — add the 5,000 now studying FOREIGN LANGUAGES in ELEMENTARY schools as part of an EXPERIMENTAL program — add the thousands who will be studying this SUMMER in our special classes for the GIFTED — and YOU CAN SEE, that all children are NOT receiving the same RIGID CURRICULUM. ALL children are NOT being forced into an ACADEMIC MOLD unsuited to their abilities.

True, many improvements are needed to provide even greater flexibility in meeting the needs of individual children. But if there are deficiencies in our present curriculum, and if some undeserving children are promoted, it is not the fault of your present board of education — nor is it chargeable to your present general superintendent.

You have heard and read much in recent weeks about the necessity for your board of education to devote more time to EDUCATIONAL matters. I’m pleased every time I hear or read such statements. I believe I was among the first to express such thoughts. But, once again, let’s get this suggestion IN PROPER PERSPECTIVE.

Less than 3 weeks ago, at an informal meeting attended your the 10 members of your school board, one member addressed this question to the General Superintendent: — “Who is responsible for the curriculum at the Parental School?” To which the superintendent replied: “You are. The Board of Education is responsible for the educational program we offer at the Parental School, and in all our schools.” The surprised member responded that he had never known that fact. He said also that the Board had never made any such decisions during the 9 YEARS he has served on the Board.

THE POINT OF THIS STORY IS SIMPLE:— Your present board of education is NOT responsible if at previous times insufficient time has been devoted to educational matters. Nor is your present superintendent responsible if much time may have been lost in years past, but our present system is designed to rectify that situation. Just let us remember that Rome was not built in a day.

In 1956, your board of education will study the Chicago Teachers College, our Junior Colleges, our vocational training programs, our curriculum, and many other aspects of the education we are offering your children. We intend to make policy decisions on these important educational matters. We intend to improve the quality of our education in many ways. But, let no one make a mistake. We shall have PLENTY OF PROBLEMS REMAINING in 1957. Yet, we are not discouraged or dismayed.

We have budgeted $50,000 to commence a large scale effort to teach by TELEVISION. We have budgeted $4,000 to initiate special CLINICS IN READING where SUPERIOR teachers can assist PROBLEM students. We have budgeted $30,000 to employee additional PSYCHOLOGISTS to improve our guidance and counseling program.

We can budgeted $4,000 to enable district superintendents in different areas to transport the UNDER-PRIVILEGED children of those areas to our great cultural and civic institutions like the Art Institute, Museum of Science and Industry, City Hall, etc.

We have planned a FREE SUMMER SCHOOL program for GIFTED children in our summer schools, to teach them ADVANCED physics, ADVANCED chemistry, ADVANCED mathematics, and ADVANCED foreign languages.

We have planned to open 25 SWIMMING POOLS next summer, instead of 20 as in 1955. There were 46 days in 1955 when the temperature was 90 degrees or higher, and our swimming pools operated to capacity. We plan to operate 3 CONTINUING SCHOOLS in the summer of 1956, rather than 2 as in years past.

All of these improvements will take place, we hope, in 1956. For 1957, we are already making plans for a financial program to keep our school building activities rolling in high gear. There is no doubt we shall need MORE money from the NEXT SESSION of the State Legislature.

In 1957 also, we shall want to maintain the high position we have reached among American cities in terms of TEACHER’S SALARIES. TODAY, we are AT OR NEAR THE TOP in wages paid our teachers. We should stay there. In 1957, we shall discover many additional ways of improving educational standards and quality. Our General Superintendent and your Board of Education is determined to make PROGRESS, in strengthening, toughening, and broadening educational opportunities.

If we are successful in raising CITIZEN INTEREST, and IF OUR PROGRAM AND FINANCES are soundly CONCEIVED, EXPLAINED, and EXECUTED, public education will be certain to improve in the years ahead. It has been truly said that “The people of any generation are only the STEWARDS OF THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS — they are not THEIR OWNERS. The schools have been passed down by PREVIOUS GENERATIONS — they will be passed on to FUTURE GENERATIONS.” Let us all take sufficient interest in the affairs of our public schools today so that FUTURE GENERATIONS will have GOOD CAUSE to thank us for the improvements we have been able to introduce IN OUR TIME for the benefit of OUR CHILDREN, and CHILDREN YET TO COME.

Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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