How serious are we about improving public schools?
I was reading the latest put forward by the respective presidential campaigns about what they would do to improve public schools.
Barack Obama want to increase federal money for charter schools, while McCain supports charter schools but also trumpets No Child Left Behind.
I have some humble ideas about how to improve public schools.
To be blunt, I worry about the educational quality provided to the six kids sitting adjacent to one child (who is expected to do about 1/10 of the work load) who has a melt down and moans and wails and disturbs the other students and the teacher in a crowded classroom of 27. This child expects to receive an A in this class, and her IEP basically mandates it. The other kids in the room, the kids who strain to hear the teacher, aren't so lucky. Frankly, they will be the ones going out and contributing the taxes that will support the sheltered workshop that the child with an "A" will land in for his working career, and they will do it after enduring a school career filled with similar experiments in socialization. To be completely blunt, the parents of the kids who have figured out this serious disconnect in education will push their average children into honors classes merely as a way to be in a classroom without such distractions, thereby inflating the number of honors classes and decreasing the standards and expectations that can be maintained at that level. In such a system, in the end, standards don't exist for anybody. Socialization is a wonderful thing. But is that the purpose of a school?
I worry about the educational quality provided to students who have to deal with the tall kid with impulse-control issues who hurls himself at other students in the hallways before and after classes. Some of them choose not to stay after school because that means that they will have to endure the unpredicatable behavior of this student, who has apparently cowed the assistant principal who is reluctant to give him appropriate consequences and allows him to return again and again to the hallowed halls of academe. Keeping kids in school is a wonderful thing. But if the only reasons this kid is in school is to laugh with his friends and intimidate other kids (and apparently, some adults) and do his parent and his neighborhood a favor by keeping him off the street, are those the real purposes of school?
There once was an assistant principal I knew who defended a field trip to a ski area with the statement: "The purpose of school is to supply children with new experiences that they would not otherwise have." I agree: and let's start with the experience of making school time about learning, about having the opportunity to become familiar with ideas about chemistry and history and coherent expression and algebra, not about sussing the slopes or eating Mexican food as a pretext for trying out our Spanish on school time. "Quisiera un burrito con arroz, por favor," is not really as vital a communication as learning how to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, after all. Is learning how to amuse a waiter at El Campesino Mexican Cantina an adequate use of school resources?
And so it goes. Every time we confuse the message of a school as a place where hard work goes in to crafting an education, we seem to simultaneously bemoan the lack of success of public schools. But when school has become a place to get two meals a day, to hang out instead of being on the streets, to see your social worker, to access counseling, to play football-- in short, a place to do ANYTHING and EVERYTHING but actually be expected to attempt to learn, you can talk about standards and accountability until the sun rises in the west, and all you will do is make it impossible for schools to actually educate the students who actually are interested in attempting to learn and you will drive out the dedicated teachers who foolishly believed that their first priority in the classroom would be to inspire students and encourage the attainment of knowledge.
When the concept of "education is a right" has effectively evolved into a belief in the right of those who have no intention or possibly capability to actually apply themselves to learning to change the tenor and mission of the school, then we are willfully blind if we do not see the disconnect here. Rather than enforcing some basic accountability of students to come to school for the purpose of learning, our politicians talk about how public schools are failing without realizing that their unfunded mandates and misunderstanding of the basic purpose of schools stand at the root of the problem. And if we claim that a subgroup has an achievement gap in education because the whole idea of school "just doesn't make sense to us," as I listened to one overpriced consultant explain to an auditorium full of educators, then is the answer to make school comprehensible by making school not about learning but about socializing?
Could there be a time when the world does not owe people a place to hang out? Could there be paradigm shift that the root of education is learning how to change yourself rather than expecting the world to change to accommodate you?
If you want to make schools more successful at educating, let us make education our priority.