Wednesday, June 27, 2007

On the nature and purpose of public education

Warning: long post ahead!

I had reached my limit of blog posts for one day, but I supposes since I have been relatively silent for the past week or two, I can get away with an extra post here and there.

Today, Tito linked to an editorial on public education at the Catoosa County News, to which I believe I must respond. Usually, I am on the same page as the articles to which he links, but this one is (in part, anyway) an exception.

I've been a student and employee of both public and private schools. I've even had a glimpse of tutoring facilities run by corporate management. I have had a chance to see the education system from both sides of the teacher's desk, as it were. Each segment of the education field has its advantages and disadvantages, though many, including myself, would tend to say that the majority of the public disadvantages are with the public system. In fact, one thing that motivated me to become an educator myself was the opportunity to contribute to the solution of the many problems in education. I have spent what was possibly the most grueling and anxiety-ridden year of my entire life so far trying to enter this profession, and I spent my first two certificated years in it completing a master's thesis that is, in many ways, a product of my own lifelong frustrations with the educational system in which I have learned and taught.

Having had such experiences, I completely understand the frustrations of many others who find that the system seems to conspire against them and their ideals. I have had to live with these frustrations on a day to day basis, and on some occasions they have nearly driven me from the profession which I at first pursued with all the enthusiasm and tenacity in my being (and those who know me understand just how stubborn and determined I can be). However, before we throw out the baby with the bathwater, it might be useful to examine the sources of these problems more closely.

I include here, portions of the text of the post to which I am responding, with my comments inserted. The author of said article holds a bachelor's in Education, and another in History. Since my Master's is in Education, I suppose I have as much right as he to comment on the issue as he.

Now here’s an idea that’s time has come: close down public schools and let the private sector take care of educating the young. ... Like nearly everything else it touches, government can ruin what is otherwise good with gross inefficiencies and rampant corruption.

I agree that government has a knack for breaking what's already fixed, but closing public schools altogether is too drastic. would become like other industries: profit driven. And to generate profits you have to provide what people want: a quality product.

Have you seen the cold, impersonal interior of the profit-driven sector of education? I won't touch that again, if I can avoid it. An assembly line approach to teaching human beings reeks of utilitarianism--a child becomes a product, not a person in that atmosphere. When it comes to upholding the truth of human dignity, our culture is already struggling enough as it is.

Even private schools do not generally operate for profit, at least not the way large corporations do. Besides, not everything profit-driven turns out to be high quality. Some things are made to be broken so they'll sell more. Some corporate bodies prefer profits over people, and operate as cheaply as possible, even if it means putting clients at risk. Some companies just get lazy and put out a shoddy product because they know their name will sell it no matter what. By the way, have you tried using Windows Vista lately?

Remove government from the equation and failing schools would vanish as the unnatural life support Washington gives such schools would cease to exist.

The idea that the problem of failure will disappear if the failing schools close is a common conclusion of those who do not understand the fundamental reasons for school failure. One is the communities in which many of these failing schools are located. School staff often have to struggle against sub-cultures in which school success is a social taboo: where high grades will get you beat up, and low grades will preserve your respectability on the street, and even in your own family. Or, they are faced with high populations of students who have only recently entered the country, some of whom can't even read in their native tongue, and most of whom do not yet speak English well enough to understand most standardized tests.

Failing schools are also frequently staffed by the most inexperienced and worn out of our profession, who, despite their inclination to make a difference, quickly learn not to make waves among their colleagues by having expectations, or who have become so cynical and prejudiced that they have begun to believe that their students can achieve nothing. A failing school is not a place where a youthful, energetic , idealistic teacher can survive for long, however highly skilled. Teachers who have the freedom to be picky will often avoid beginning their careers in such places. Teachers who have experience prefer not to add to the existing frustrations they face by choosing a more difficult job. Closing a failing school will not eliminate these problems. It will merely transfer them somewhere else, when the population of a closed school disperses to the ones that remain open.

...If government did not control schools (i.e. schools would no longer be part of the state) then the separation of church and state argument would not apply. Suddenly there could be prayer, Christmas parties, Easter egg hunts and Bible classes in any school that wanted them.

I don't think we can trust corporate America here. So much of it has already become politically correct as it is (domestic partner benefits, generic "holiday" parties instead of Christmas, etc.). If you want to avoid political correctness, you'd better send your kids to a religious school. And those are already available to those who have the funds, and even to some who do not.

I’ve little doubt Thomas Jefferson would be appalled at how the meaning of his words (referring to the wall of separation between church and state) have been twisted to promote not freedom of religion but freedom from religion. After all, nobody truly believes the Pledge of Allegiance is a threat. Nobody honestly thinks that everybody, everywhere, and at all times will get his or her way. No one seriously believes true persecution occurs if someone feels what liberals love to call “offended,” “excluded” or “targeted.”

Citing Thomas Jefferson in an argument against public education may not be so wise, as he was actually a proponent of it. He probably would be appalled at the way political correctness has strangled public discourse in this country. However, I don't think he would wish to abolish public education altogether. In his "Goals for public education, Printed for the consideration of the People" Jefferson proposed that education is a necessary part of a successful democracy: that an informed, thinking citizenry is most likely to make informed, thoughtful decisions when voting and otherwise participating in government. It is therefore in the interest of society to see to it that the population is educated. (Click here to read more about that)

Now, I agree that the public education system as we know it, and particularly as we have known it for the past 20 years or so has in general done little to ennoble my generation or the ones immediately following. If anything, the emphasis of self-esteem over respect, self-improvement and healthy competition (cited in the Catoosa County News Column) has had exactly the opposite effect. People my age and younger are have the greatest sense of entitlement I have ever seen.

Be that as it may, I think it is irresponsible to completely abandon an institution that has the potential to do a great deal of good. It would be a good idea to force the public system to compete more against the private one. I think that this can be accomplished with four strategies applied simultaneously.

1. Eliminate compulsory education after grade six. Students already have the option of dropping out after their sophomore year of high school. What we need is to allow society to re-discover that education is valuable, and it can only do that if it goes without it for a little while. People more often take education for granted if they do not feel the cost of getting it, and the cost of going without it. In a few more years, people who wish they had gone to junior high and high school will start doing whatever it takes to make sure their children go.

2. Charge educational taxes directly to the taxpayer, instead of having the taxpayer's employer deduct it from the paycheck. As any private school teacher can tell you, parents pay more attention to what schools do when they can feel their money parting from them.

2. Fully refund educational tax dollars to parents whose children are not making use of the public school system either because of homeschooling, private school enrollment, or dropping out. Then, create a voucher system for the public schools, so that parents can choose to send their kids anywhere. I do not advocate vouchers that apply to private institutions, as putting public money in private schools only allows hostile politicians to get their grubby, politically correct fingers where they do not belong. But if the public schools actually did lose business to the competition, and even to each other, it might serve to change the atmosphere a bit. We all know that nothing annoys the department of education more than not getting the tax money to which it thinks it is entitled.

4. Return more control of schools to the local level. Let individual districts (or even individual schools) decide how they want to handle issues like prayer and religious holidays. I know of some that would probably accept these, if they were able. And with school choice in the mix, through a voucher system, parents who don't like school prayer can opt for a school that does not have it.

None of these solutions will completely resolve the issue of liberal indoctrination, but it will give parents the freedom to let people know where such behavior will be bad for business, while preserving the availability of education to those who want it. As a bonus, this may be possible without bringing corporate America any more into the picture than it must be.

As much anger and distrust as many (often rightfully) have for the public school system, chloroforming it will not solve the underlying problems behind school failure. The faults of our school system are a product of the long fall of our culture: the weakening of family, the destruction of the notion that standing on principles can be noble, the domination of the "right not to be offended" over the right to free speech, and the tearing down of much of our lingering respect for authority, even that which we impose upon ourselves through the democratic process. Until man is no longer fallen, his educational systems, no matter how ingeniously constructed, will remain fallen as well..

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