Education reform is suddenly all the rage. It seems our public schools
are failing. This is apparently some kind of revelation for the
reporters and politicians, though our schools have been on a downward
slide for about three decades.
According to some, including Michelle Rhee, the controversial
chancellor of Washington, D.C.s bizarrely bad school system, this is
the responsibility of teachers. As the husband of a former teacher,
Ive heard some resistance to that notion around the house.
So, were going to see another wave of education reform. Words like
innovative and revolutionary and commitment will be tossed
around like jugglers clubs. Well be told it is essential in order
to keep our children competitive with the rest of the world. Well be
told our children must attend school longer and be held accountable in
a more rigorous academic environment. Well be told teachers will
also be held accountable and well have student test scores to
establish whether or not those teachers are high performers who should
be rewarded or hindrances to progress who should be fired.
Itll be great. In four or five years well do it all over again.
The our-public-education-is-failing alarm bells ring every few years
as were told our schools are falling farther and farther behind
places like China, Japan, South Korea and a handful of European
countries. But its unlikely were ever going to follow the Chinese
model of 10-hour school days, sometimes six days a week. Nor will we
follow the Japanese model that also includes inordinately long school
days and a societal imperative for excellence that puts so much
pressure on school children that suicide is one of the leading causes
of death for kids. And we certainly are not going to accept the level
of taxation that follows the European model.
Still, we do have problems. Some schools seem to be run by fads,
bouncing from one new program to another, always searching and never
quite finding that magic bullet. Drop-out rates in many schools have
reached an obscene level with barely half the students hanging around
to graduate. In other schools, most notably those in New York City,
the union contracts are so preposterous that bad teachers can almost
hold the entire system hostage. And, of course, there are some bad
teachers and some bad administrators and it has become far too
difficult to remove that dead wood.
Some believe charter schools, public schools given the leeway to think
and act in untraditional ways, are the answer. On balance, though,
charter schools perform no better than traditional public schools. In
Arizona, where the charter school movement took flight, with far more
charter schools per capita than anywhere else, there are a handful of
charters nationally recognized for academic rigor and excellence.
There are also charters that have had abysmal records and been run by
charlatans. The vast majority of charters there perform about the
same as any other public school.
More money is not necessarily the answer, either. Washington, D.C.
leads the nation in public school spending at a whopping $19,000 per
student, yet has a dismal record and little more than a third of
their students can even read at grade level. (Having said that,
Michigans manifestly unfair system of school funding has been a
crippler for many schools in Northern Michigan. At the very least,
every school should receive the same per-pupil financing.)
Whats been lost in this discussion of innovative new programs,
holding teachers accountable and funding disparities is the role of
parents and the disappearance of the teacher-parent alliance of the
past. Too often that relationship is now adversarial.
Parental involvement has to be more than causing trouble at the
next Board of Education meeting or attempting to control the
curriculum or intervening and threatening a lawsuit every time their
little charmer is disciplined for attacking another student with a
hatchet. Parents can help teachers in several very basic but
incredibly important ways. Does your child eat nutritious meals? Get
a good nights sleep? Have a place where he/she can seriously
undertake homework? Do you look at the homework? Do you read the
notices that are sent home with your student? Check on the web sites
of your childrens school and teacher? Do you volunteer at school?
Do you and your child know what is expected both in terms of classroom
work and behavior? Did you ask?
There is a ton of research that indicates those children who do best
at school come from homes that genuinely value education. Those
parents become significant assets to their childrens teachers and
partners in the education process. That allows teachers, the
overwhelming majority of whom are hardworking, dedicated individuals
genuinely trying to help our children, to dedicate their time and
energy to the classroom.
While we search for that magical, mythical combination that guarantees
the success of our students, weve completely ignored what worked only
a few decades ago a classroom controlled by teachers who are
supported by both their administration and parents; students who are
expected to behave and perform and who are subject to consequences
when they do not.
No reform will ever work as long as students can perform and behave
poorly without consequence and administrators quake in fear at the
possibility of a reduced head count or a parental lawsuit. Teachers,
caught in the middle, will be more likely to help our kids achieve
excellence if they have a little help from those now squeezing them.