Wednesday, March 10, 2004

LittleA - Education Tsar (continued)

The way I see it, most of the problems we talk about with public education aren't problems in their own right, but merely symptoms of a single underlying problem - a root cause, if you prefer.
Education is no longer an opportunity to be taken advantage of, but a right that must be given.
There's a big difference between the two. When education was an opportunity, the outcome was primarily controlled by the person with the opportunity, i.e. the student. In order to get an education, you were expected to do certain things, like attend class, do homework, pay attention and follow the rules (obey authority). If you did those things, you could have some reasonable expectation of success, at least to the level you were capable of achieving. There were no guaranteed outcomes; pass or fail was primarily in the hands of the student. If you didn't do what was expected, you were allowed to receive the consequences of your failure. That's not the way it is today. When education is a right, it is something that must be given by the state REGARDLESS of the wishes of the recipient.

The trend towards viewing education as a right has been around for quite a while, but I don't think it really took hold until sometime in the 1970's. Student grades began to be less and less about the students and more and more about the teachers and administrations. The shift was subtle, yet pervasive. Coincidentally, or not, the 70's are when the teacher's unions began rapidly expanding and flexing their powers. It's also the time when the family structure was changing. Divorce became more and more common and single parent families were not unusual. In addition, the 70s saw the rise of two-income families. Mom was less and less likely to be at home when the kids got out of school and dealing with sick (or unruly) kids became a scheduling hassle with parents.

When Johnny started receiving failing grades, it was no longer because Johnny messed up, it was the SCHOOL'S fault for failing to provide poor Johnny with the tools he needed (like more teachers or special programs). No matter that Johnny had the same opportunity as everyone else, and no matter that Johnny didn't WANT to succeed, the school was still obligated not only to provide Johnny with an education, but to make sure he succeeded. After all, it was his right. And that's where the problems begin.

The first thing to go was any authority the school had to control Johnny's behavior. Since many parents worked, they began to be more upset with the schools for calling them in to help than they were with Johnny for misbehaving. They couldn't be taking time off. The school must handle it on their own - without actually touching Johnny of course. Time to start adding more counselors and administrators. And since Johnny MUST get an education, kicking his sorry keister to the curb became less and less of an option. In short order, Johnny realized he was no longer accountable for his actions. If he goofed up, it was the teacher's fault or the principal's fault or someone else's fault, never his. And of course, Johnny, being such a GOOD boy, never took advantage of this.

The next thing to go were standards. Johnny can no longer fail, so instead of holding Johnny to a standard, we begin holding the standards to Johnny. Maybe there are other reasons why Johnny isn't succeeding? So we start tinkering with curriculum and diagnosing Johnny with ADHD and the like. (I KNOW there are kids who have legitimate problems, but how did all those generations of kids manage to learn before Ritalin?) Anything but admit that Johnny is a ne'r-do-well. And since we can no longer hold Johnny accountable for his performance, we begin to prop up his feelings. Everybody's a winner. Johnny just has low self-esteem. If Johnny insists on under-performing, then Johnny gets promoted anyway. What matters is not that Johnny learns, but that Johnny gets a piece of paper after 12 years saying he succeeded.

And we wonder why public schools churn through teachers? Most teachers I know will tell you their #1 frustration is their inability to control what goes on in the classroom. They are not allowed to discipline students (sending them to the office has become more a REWARD than a punishment), not allowed to fail students, not allowed to teach to the top students level, only to Johnny's level, and not allowed to deviate from the mandated curriculums. I love to teach, but you couldn't pay me enough to deal with the kids and administrators today. My exposure to 7th graders in the mid 90's through a Junior Achievement program was all I needed to see. The inmates run the asylum.

So how do we fix it?

I don't think you can get there from here.

But if I were KING, I'd
Acknowledge that you can't teach kids who don't WANT to be taught.
Mandate that public education must be offered to all children.
Mandate that all children are required to attend school through the 8th grade.
Mandate that after the 6th grade, there should be a trade school option for those uninterested in continuing a traditional education.
Mandate that parents will be held responsible for the education of any children under the age of 14 who are not in school. After 14, let 'em get a job if they don't want to go to school.
Mandate that children who are disruptive will not be allowed to attend public school. They must either find a private school or become home schooled.
I'm sure there are a lot of holes in that, as these things always sound good in theory but are lacking in practice. But my basic thought is to get rid of the kids who are clogging up the system because they have NO DESIRE to learn. No Child Left Behind, my eye. That's exactly the problem. We SHOULD leave some of these kids behind. That sounds harsh, but they are sitting in my kid's classrooms right now acting up and dumbing-down and as a result are making it difficult for the rest of the kids who actually WANT to be there to learn anything. I guarantee, you make education a privilege instead of a right and some of these same kids will be begging to get back in.

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