Thursday, March 22, 2007

In Defense of Public Education

I just finished reading a laundry list of complaints on a blog I regularly read from Right Wing on the Left Coast. In it I found a series of complaints, concerns and general dithering in regards to education. Some of the more salient points had to do with the status of teachers as union members, and it that regard I do believe that teachers by and large did themselves no favors by aligning with the likes of Teamsters and the AFL/CIO. I understand the why of their organization into union status, I just do not see how the union goals reflect those of their members or how the union has done ANYTHING to improve the lot of the average hardworking teacher. Instead I see huge benefits for union bosses as well as a great deal of support for teachers that have no business anywhere near a child, much less in the classroom. In those things, I agree with the writer.

In other respects, I have to disagree with the writer's disregard for public education. Public schools do a very difficult and very necessary job. The concept of offering a free public education is one of the cornerstones of our nation and what separated the American experience from that of its European roots due to the idea that ANYONE could excel and succeed. Public education is a key part of that concept. By law public schools MUST offer and fulfil the educational needs of any child who comes through the door. When we were ethically and morally a more homogenous society, this was an easier quest. We now have a range from absentee parents who either totally neglect their children in pursuing their own dreams or
through helicopter parents who hover and micromanage their children's education all the while undercutting teachers and destroying their children's ability to fend for themselves. (I have even heard rumors from college professors that some helicopter parents will call the college to dispute grades-and people wonder why kids don't move out until they are forty...)We have become a society that is far to ready too blame others rather than seeking the root of the problem. Perhaps it is that Johnny needs glasses or Sally is diabetic or Gregory has a learning disability. But it also just as likely that Johnny's parents took him out of school for a ski trip, Sally's parents don't check to make sure she has a snack and is on her meds and Gregory is far too overscheduled to pay attention to the work that is involved with schoolwork. And when children fail, too many parents would rather blame the school than look for solutions.

Too many parents, often the more affluent groups at that, are anxiously pointing their fingers at the public school down the road, siting it as the source for all that is wrong in their neighborhood. That may be true. Or just as likely, it may not. Parents like to think that when they enroll their kids in a private school, that their tuition check assures that their children are well and safely educated. In some cases that is true, but any school whether private or public, is only as good as its personnel, its students and its parent support. I see parents selling candy and t-shirts and the ever popular coupon book all the time to support the athletic teams, the band, the choir, the debate team and so on. When was the last time you saw a booster club for academics? Oh there may be the rare case of a Academic Decathalon team getting props, but by and large parents like to support the headliners. And in most schools that has little to do with core academics. Private schools are able to delete programs that impede progress. While some private schools do have extracurricular activities, most of them are student funded and after school-which is the true meaning of extracurricular-outside the normal curriculum. Public schools incorporate them into the school day, the conventional wisdom being that too many kids can't stay after school. As such these programs cut into the academic day, shortening exposure to academic classes. (In one sad sidenote, when a kid at a city public high school got drunk and paid his buddy to ride his motorcycle, without a helmet, and ran into a tree and died, the epithet "Rest In Peace----" with the kid's name were on cars at all the local schools including a very exclusive Dallas Christian school. The moral is, the kids that party all know each other and that boundaries don't exist when you are seeking more and better ways of getting high...)

Another way that school differ is that private schools have charters and rules that allow them to kick out any student that is not performing to the written code and standard. It is a nasty secret, but private schools also demand parental participation. Public schools want that participation, but have no power to demand it. As a high school teacher, I have seen less than ten parents at a "Meet the Teacher" night at our school. (And of course, those are never ever the parents of the problem child that doesn't do work or shows up to class high.) That kind of lackadaisical attitude is frowned upon at private schools where sales of spirit wear, candy and such are daily events. And failure to participate as a parent can cause a student to lose his or her place unless the absence is replaced with cold, hard cash. Public schools do not have the luxury of dismissing students that fail to progress or with parents that never show up, and in fact public schools need every kid in a seat to generate state funding and to account for every penny they get from the state. Since the public schools are mandated to educate every student that comes in the door, a draconian hierarchy of assessment and testing and support for learning disabilities and language acquisition has to be in place. Those types of folks cost money. And that cuts more into the ever dwindling pie of funding. Ironically when I worked at a highly rated private school, they would send their children with disabilities to Scottish Rite Hospital or the nearest public school for help-all the while still accepting tuition from the student. In a further moment of irony, the most notorious pot dealer in the area was in my eighth grade homeroom. So much for safety and innocence.

So the premise that public schools are failing is somewhat biased because not all schools are failing. Some public schools outdo their private counterparts. And some students that fail in private schools excel in public schools. I know that it's popular for conservatives, for the most part, and affluent parents to condemn the public school education as inferior. But I don't think they are looking past SAT and state testing scores when they make these claims. One of my most extremely liberal friends was adamant about staying in their Uptown condo and had their kids in private schools, not considering that many of the inner city and uptown private schools are dealing with the same issues as the public schools. When she realized her daughter had a reading disability which the school couldn't address with a trained professional on staff, they moved to a competitive suburb, where her child flourished. Not all private schools are better, in fact I would say that some of the lower echelon privates are worse due to uncertified teachers and lack of professional oversight. While public school scandals make the headlines due to the public nature of the situation, I have heard my share of equally haircurling episodes from the parents of private school students.

There are many things that a student can learn in a diverse environment. In fact the whole concept of a true university situation is that students from all backgrounds attend and share their perspectives. (That doesn't mean that it happens in today's university setting, but that was the original intent...)And since our world isn't a homogeneous population, its important that students learn to deal with those who come from different backgrounds. This isn't just a liberal rant, because I consider myself fairly conservative. But all my kids went to public schools and although I have had my differences with individual teachers, they recieved a better than average education. I attended a public school and I feel like I had a better grounding in a wider variety of subjects than many of the students I attended SMU with, many who came from very rarified and costly prep schools. But as a parent and a consumer, you have to investigate the schools and pick the right location, whether the school is public or private. My parents,especially my mom who was a teacher, were informed consumers. They looked for a good district and made the sacrifices necessary to allow me and my brother to have a good education. The difference was that when my parents chose to move, they looked at the schools FIRST then made decisions about housing. My husband and I did the same thing when time came for us to move. Many parents are far more entranced by the chichi location or their own personal comfort to address the issues of education until their children become old enough to go to school. And quite often, real estate trends being what they are, the parents end up selling low or not being able to move at all. You have to plan ahead.

As for the intangibles of public education, there is much to be said for having a wide range of friends. My children accept people more readily and learned to function in diverse and competitive environments. They have been able to experience a much wider and more varied range of experiences thanks to being in a public school. My kids all read and can argue and discuss topics from contemporary music to history and politics, as do most of their peers in school because different readings and cultures came together not just to agree, but to learn to defend one's personal beliefs. In our increasingly diverse culture, this is a necessary suvival tactic. Those kids that only hang out with the same group are the kids who never move past the limitations of stereotype. As a society, we must learn to deal with everyone in an evenhanded manner-public education encourages that because if the student wants to excel, they can take action to make it happen. This particular district is an inner ring suburb with a changing and diverse population, yet most of the students graduate, go on to training or college and manage to succeed. How this happens is that parents get involved. Teachers make sure communication lines stay open. Administrators facilitate teachers getting the support and materials and time to adequately teach their classes. And students take charge by being allowed to control their education and become owners of their education plans. I have seen it work. Similar plans work in public and private schools across the nation-but it has to be driven by the students and parents, the schools are only the medium for success.

To simply say that one type of school has failed or succeeded is to ignore the factors that cause this to happen. Any school, no matter the type, will fail if students are absent too often, if parents refuse to support the school and if administrators fail to care and let it show. Everyone has to show up every day ready to rock and roll. I don't see this as an indictment of the public school system, nor praise. There is no doubt that things could be done better. More time in academics core classes and less time on extracurricular programs would impact every school in a positive way. Although this will make many parents cringe, we could spend less money on our athletics teams. Face it, very few of them are worthy of full ride scholarships and in the long run the perceived camaraderie of athletics does become divisive within the student population. Decent and timely materials and smaller classes would allow better student and teacher contact and possibly prevent so many of the problems with drop outs and such. In short, public schools are doing what we can within the limits of our location and budget. Public schools have been the whipping boy for both political parties and that isn't fair when you consider that public schools have been pressed into carrying the load of social programs aimed toward children. That we don't hit homeruns every time has as much to do with the student, the parents and the curriculum as it does the school and staff. There's no question we could do better, but in many ways our hands are tied by regulations that have little to do with teaching a kid to read, write and think. Public schools are necessary. They are essential to our shared culture. And if we allow public education to go by the wayside, we will end up with a caste system that makes feudal Europe look like a cakewalk.

I think in this regard, Benjamin Franklin stated it best
"We should all hang together, or we shall surely hang separately."

1 comment:

curious said...

I found your comments on public schools a bit confusing, because while admitting that public schools are hamstrung by ridiculous policies over which they have no control, policies which make them ineffective, you act like public schools are sacrosanct and above criticism or complaint.

I have three daughters, one was in public school and then was taken out of public school and home schooled, one went to public school till the 7th grade and then was put in private school and one has always been in public school.

My daughter that was taken out of public school and homeschooled was severely traumatized by public school. I filed a lawsuit against the principal of the school and that lawsuit led to the school being taken over by the federal government, the principal was fired and the entire school district was put under supervision of the federal government. I also filed criminal charges against the students involved and civil suits against the parents of those children. I decided to take my daughter out of public school because this was not the first time that such terrible abuse of my daughter had happened either at the hands of public school personnel or because of their lack of concern. The principal I referred to was fired because he stood by and allowed my daughter to be bullied by students who were older and larger than my daughter and when I complained he called me a racist.

My middle daughter has a learning disorder and was labeled in the first grade as a learning disabled student and was supposed to be given special treatment. My middle daughter did not learn to walk at the normal time or speak at the normal time or read and write at the normal time. When she was in the 7th grade I had her tested by Sylvan learning center because I was very concerned about her school work. She tested at a FIRST grade level. I went to the school and after several visits being given the runaround and threatening a lawsuit finally got to talk to someone about my daughter. When I asked how it was possible for a student to be in the 7th grade but fucntioning at a 1st grade level, I was told that she was in a special diploma program and would graduate with her class, but would not recieve a normal diploma but would recieve a "special" diploma, which basically means that you came to school everyday, not that you can actually do the work. I was completely livid at being told this nonsense. I immediately took my daughter out of public school and found a small private school that uses art, music, and theatre as its focus and specializes in teaching children who have been labeled as "learning disabled". The staff at the public school lied to me and told me that I could not take my daughter out of public school without their permission and threatened to call the police if I took my daughter, I told them to go ahead. I had to get a court order to get her records transferred to the private school. We found out that my daughter's problem is that her brain does not make a connection between verbal and written information correctly, so while my daughter could not show in writing that she grasped a subject, she could do it verbally. The private school also found out that my middle daughter is very advanced in mathematics. They found this out by testing her and letting her give oral answers. My daughter is an amazing artist, singer, and writes plays and acts in them. She is now in the 10th grade and Sylvan tested her at an 11th grade level, except in mathematics where she tests out at a college level. Every student in the small private school my middle daughter goes to was given up on by public school and put on this track to get a totally useless diploma. This school is an amazing place, filled with happy, creative, wonderful children. I go there sometimes when I need to decompress and get recharged. The school charges a tuition based on the parent's income, most of the students qualify for a state program which gives vouchers for learning disabled children whose parents feel that public school is not serving them adequately. The stated tuition of the school is double the voucher amount, but the school provides its own grants to parents who cannot make up the difference. The school has 1 teacher and 1 teacher's aide per 8 students. The teachers have a meeting every Friday to discuss each student. The school has a very strict policy about bullying and fighting, if you are caught bullying or starting a fight you are immediately expelled. The students do their homework at school and all the "smart" students are required to tutor the other students. My daughter is the top tutor in the school. Getting into the school requires a series of interviews with the parents first, then with the child. The parents have to show a real committment to the school or the child won't be admitted.

My youngest daughter goes to the middle school and loves the school and has asked us not to put her into private school. This is the same middle shool that treated my middle daughter with such lack of concern.

My point in relating these experiences is that a school is not good or bad because it is "private" or "public" or "home schooling". A school is good or bad based on the RESULTS.

I think that there should be a massive overhaul of the public school system which eliminates school boards, puts running the school in the hands of the teachers, makes the principal role what it has been historically - principal teacher, and mandates that classrooms cannot exceed a teacher student ratio of 10-1. Teachers should stay with their students most of the day so that each teacher has only a few students to deal with. This way each teachers knows all of the students well and can get to know the parents.

I think that any child should be able to attend any school the child can attain admittance to whether the school is public or private or religious or whatever. I think funding should go with the student, not the school, each student shoudl be given a voucher to take to the school the student gets admitted to. We need the best teachers using the best ideas, whether the school is public, private, or religious should be irrelevent. The large warehouses for children should be dismantled. Pschologists have done studies which conclude that teams of more than 10-15 people break down because of the difficulties in communication and coordination. I believe this conclusion because I have managed many projects. I think that schools should consist of no more than 15 teachers each having no more than 10-15 students. Bureaucrats need to be removed from the education system, they just get in the way. Everyone employed by the school should have teaching as their primary function. The students are required to keep the school clean at my middle daughter's school, so they don't have a janitor and don't hire an outside janitorial service. If any student tried to vandalize the school property or put grafitti on the school property the other students would immediately turn that student in and probably make them clean up their grafitti.

I think that bullying and starting fights should be grounds for immediate expulsion. If the 'alternative' school that trouble makers are sent to was discipline centric, run by say former Marine Corp drill instructors as if it was Marine Corp bootcamp then maybe the trouble makers would figure out that they would be better off to study instead of causing trouble.

None of this will happen, of course, because there are too many vested interests who view public school as so sacrosanct that it cannot even be questioned or cricized. And our children suffer for it.