We have met the enemy and he is us.
A half century ago Walt Kelly's Pogo used that classic phrase to describe American politics. But that phrase still works today and nowhere else does it fit better than describing America's public schools.
If you want to know the biggest predictor of educational success in the United States it has long been the educational achievement of the parents. The second best predictor is income. In America today, there are some very good public schools. I went to one of them. We held our own (or bested) anyone in the state. Professionals made up the vast majority of my school's parents with advanced degrees common. On parent-teacher night, the parents come to see the teachers. Their kids come to school with reasonable self-discipline.
The Columbus city school system is generally regarded as poor. It has some mismanagement problems, in part because the school board is dominated by people who see it as a stepping-stone to higher political office or by a few cranks who effectively represent the angry but uninformed. But the Columbus Alternative School has the highest percentage of passes on the proficiency tests of any school in the area, public or private. Why?
Because the parents really care about education. It isn't easy to get in there, and if you want a Parent/Teacher conference you sign up the first day because you will be closed out if you don't.
Let me contrast this with some of the other schools in our country. At one school portrayed in NPR, the principle gives out pizzas as a reward in order to get the parents to come on conference night. No, he shouldn't have to, but he figures that if a pizza gets the parents to school it's worth the investment. I know one man whose children all have advanced degrees. He and his wife adopted a foster child and he attended a working class public school. He attended one parent teacher night and he was the only parent who came to see one teacher. I have another friend who lived in a poor neighborhood during her divorce. She herself is a teacher. On parent teacher night one teacher told her that her son was the only 'normal kid' she had. But that she meant he was the only kid who wasn't afraid all the time.
We have some wonderful parents in this country. But there's no secret that we have a parenting problem. We have abusive parents, alcoholic or addicted parents. We have parents who work three jobs just to keep the roof over their heads and food on the table. We have semi-educated parents who can't understand why their kids need a good education, particularly when they hated school themselves. We have parents who are teenagers, parents with psychological problems, and parents who can't afford to feed their kids properly on what they can afford. My friend the teacher sees that all the time, she can see it in their sallow skin, their uncleaned teeth, and their dull. lifeless hair no matter what their clothes look like. In my neighborhood, no one went hungry. In many neighborhoods schools started feeding breakfast because educators realized that was the only way many kids would eat breakfast. For many kids, school is the only decent meal they get.
The far right blames child abuse laws, the liberal media and thinks covenant marriage is the solution. They figure that if people got married and spanked their kids the problem would disappear, and they cite statistics which show how kids do better when the family is together. But those statistics are based on happy families. Have they forgotten about the consequences of living in conflict-ridden household? When my parents were together I got seven allergy shots a week. After they separated the shots dropped to one, and my parents were the sort of people who did everything possible to keep their problems away from their children. If you're an adult you know such scruples are the exception more than the rule.
But instead of looking at these problems squarely we blame the teachers. They aren't teaching. They're burned out. They face incredible discipline problems. Lots of parents don't really discipline their kids, which does not mean spanking them, but paying attention to what they do and establishing early on that when Mommy and Daddy say no, they mean it. Many just go back to the TV and just hope their kids will figure it out. Many do. But many more don't, and when they can't sit still or keep silent in class, class is disrupted. One or two discipline problems teachers can deal with. Four or five and they can do nothing else. And many parents don't want to hear that truth because it means another problem they have to deal with.
To the politicians it's all the teacher's fault. Certainly a truly exceptional individual can overcome these handicaps. And we have some of those people. But truly exceptional teachers are by definition rare. A school system, like any other large organization, lives and dies by its average teacher. Average teachers rise when they are put in a good situation. When you drop them in a situation where they aren't supported, ignored, trying to teach students who don't care, abused by parents who think sticking up for their kid is trying to get the kid's grade raised, and told again and again by society how rotten they are, well how would you like to work in that environment?
The problem is us. Adults don't gang up on the kids any more, because when you tell another adult their kid misbehaved they don't want to hear it. We have too many children whose parents really don't care, or are too tired to care. We have too many kids growing up in neighborhoods where criminals, drug addicts and violence lives right outside their door.
The solution isn't new computers. It isn't ending band or football, activities schools use to hook kids and get them to behave. It isn't making kids take tests, or in teaching to tests. It's in re-establishing discipline and authority. For eight hours a day the teachers, administrators and staff are the parents of our children. They need the support to make up for the other sixteen. So the only solution I see is to throw adults at them. Gang up on them. Establish right away that someone is there watching over them every single minute they're at school. Adults to help them with that math or reading problem they don't understand. Enough adults so the discipline problems cannot disrupt class, and problem kids are given into the structure they need sooner rather than later. Enough so that child abuse problems are caught early on, and so kids know they have a safe respite.
The idea behind our public school system is simple. America needs an informed, educated populace if its political system is going to work. America needs a reliable educated work force for American business to prosper. Our school system is the biggest public tool we have to make that happen. It will be difficult and expensive to address this problem, and we'll have to do it for a generation. Yet, if we do it, the next generation would get easier, the requirements less.
We can continue to call teachers names and come up with slogans and require tests but none of this will really solve the problems of American education. The question is, are we willing to pay the price to fix the problem, or would we simply prefer another coat of paint over the rust?