Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Common Nonsense

Is our children learning?
George W. Bush

Our failing public schools blah blah blah. The children of America deserve blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah teacher accountability. Blah blah blah unions, tenure, and blah blah blah. Blah blah global economy. Blah blah 21st Century. Blah blah blah taxes. BLAH! Blah blah blah America, the blah blah blah.

(Release red, white, and blue balloons. Cue applause.)

There. I've just summarized every speech any politician since Ronald Reagan has given on the subject of education reform. You can thank me later. Now, for my two cents:

The Emperor has no clothes!

Here's the problem: the whole idea of education reform assumes there was a problem to begin with. Well, ok, there were problems. The trouble is they weren't the problems the politicians wanted them to be. Ever heard of the Sandia Report on education? No? I'm not surprised. It was commissioned in 1989 by George H. W. Bush, "The Education President", to provide scientific evidence to support the privatization of the public schools. Nutshell version: it didn't, so it was suppressed. Go ahead, click on the link. I'll wait.

As usual, I'm not entirely blaming Republicans. I haven't heard too much from the other side of the aisle on this either. Well, they've only had about twenty years. Maybe they're slow readers.

From my point of view, it's just a bunch of politicians trying to "look busy" while pretending to give a damn. They don't, of course. This is one of those cover issues that gives them something to talk about while they transfer massive sums of public money into private pockets. Again. Nobody really cares what scientific research says unless it supports their ideological agenda.

Want an example? It is 100% proven that early childhood is the optimal time to learn a foreign language. Why have we not moved our foreign language departments from high schools to elementary schools? Oh, right. English first. We'll let our high schoolers struggle with material they could have learned with ease ten years earlier. So much for science.

Want another? There have been many different studies on what increases educational achievement. There have been many different answers to this question, some answers more sensible than others. Here's the one thing that almost all studies found important: small class sizes. We don't hear so much about that one, though. It might suggest we need more teachers and schools. It might suggest that "throwing money at the problem" is exactly what's needed.

That's one that really gets my quills up: "you can't throw money at the problem." Why not? Money fixes all sorts of problems. If I win Powerball tonight, I can think of a whole bunch of problems that will evaporate. We throw money at Iraq. We throw money at Wall Street. What's wrong with throwing money at a problem?

But our schools are failing. I saw it on TV! You couldn't do that in the business world and get away with.... Oh, wait. If you drive your company into the ground and almost tank the entire economy, you do still get multi-million dollar bonuses. Don't you? Well, not you. Them.

The schools are only failing by measures designed to show that. Here are two points to consider: First, schools are not overly expensive. Here in Rhode Island, we are ranked tenth in per-student expenses and spend, in round figures, $10,000 per student. My son goes to school 6 hours a day for 180 days. That's 1080 hours total. This works out to $9.25/hr. I pay my babysitter more and all I expect her to do is keep him breathing. At these rates, learning anything is a huge bonus.

Second, our current model makes no sense. Schools are not factories turning out product to be consumed. Teachers are not responsible for the entire process, so it is nonsensical to hold them accountable for the results. The only way this would make sense would be to convert all schools to boarding schools and have the teachers in charge 24/7. A child is with a teacher for approximately 12.5% of the year. Should we pretend that the remaining 87.5% doesn't matter?

Consider this simple example: "Johnny" lives with his working mother. Mom has one full-time job, and works part-time some weekends. Mom isn't home much. When she is, she's tired, though she tries to keep Johnny on track. Mom leaves for work early, so Johnny skips school now and then. When he goes to school, he does no work to speak of. He does homework rarely, if ever. At the end of the term, he fails algebra.

Didn't we all know "Johnny?"

How is any of this the teacher's fault?

I could have made my example more extreme. I could have put Dad in jail, made Mom a drunk, had "Johnny" living in a gang-infested neighborhood. I could have made Mom not speak English well, or read any language at all. I could have changed the story any number of ways, all based in reality. I didn't, but I could have. Think about it. Didn't we all know "Johnny?"

The problem with our failing public schools is that they're not failing. At least, they weren't until the "reformers" started fixing them. They're doing more and more with less and less, and being asked to do more still. There are real problems but they are not the problems you hear about in the news. If we intend to fix them, it would be helpful to begin with the truth.

Is our children learning? Yes, they still is. But they won't be if we keep this up too much longer.

Very Truly Yours,




Ananda girl said...

Can you hear me clapping? But then, I am a bit biased. I could go into great detail about what I see as wrong. We do everything in schools from teaching them to comb their hair to higher math.
Everything you have said here is very true.

Pauline said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pauline said...

I've been in the public education system for more than 20 years and have consistently found that when things go wrong for all the Johnnys in the classroom, "teacher" is often spelled
s c a p e g o a t.

"Schools are not factories turning out product to be consumed."

That's the new focus, isn't it, with comprehensive test results being the measure for funding? I'd say they ought not to be factories but they are fast becoming that.

lime said...

thank you. thank you. thank you. as one with her teaching credentials and who is married to a public school teacher i could not agree more. your last point really touches a nerve because we are special ed. teachers and so bear an actual LEGAL responsibility for student achievement. yes, we need to be professionals and do everything in our power to educate NOT parent our students but when the situation at home thwarts our every effort why are we held liable?

Pierre said...

First time here at your blog and wanted to say i enjoyed reading this.