Who’s Failing Our Kids

August 20, 2003
“Schools are failing our kids.” “We need to reclaim our schools before ignorance and apathy take over.” When I heard these statements made by individuals in their recent campaign speeches they hit a tender cord inside me. Are teachers holding children ‘hostage’ to the extent that the public perceives the need to “reclaim” their schools? (Where was the ‘public’ at the last Back-To-School program?) I know many dedicated, hard-working educators who go the ‘extra-mile’ outside the classroom to assist students in reaching their full potential. These statements negate all of the efforts of dedicated teachers. In the February 1990 edition of the American Heritage magazine, Carl F. Kaestle wrote in his article entitled “The Public Schools and the Public Mood,” “since the birth of the nation, the public’s perception of the quality of public schools has swung from approval to dismay and back again.” From his article it seems that public schools are destined to be criticized as long as they exist. In my career as an educator, I have seen that pendulum swing and it appears to me that it has been on the “dismay” side since the Russians launched “Sputnik.”There are few absolutes in the teaching process. The number of books on educational theory one sees on bookstore shelves will attest to that. It has been said that if you put two educators, with differing opinions, in a room and ask them to arrive at a single conclusion, they will emerge from the room with at least three conclusions. The students teachers deal with represent a community that has infinite potential that we know little about. The only constant in the educational system is change-sort of like life itself.In some respects, change can be a nemesis to educators. One complaint I have is associated with technology and writing. A decade ago, educators were strongly encouraged to make certain all their students used a computer to write their assignments. Pencil and pen were out. Now, schools are being criticized because students do not write well on an exam that requires them to use a pen or pencil. We have become too dependent on spell check, grammar check and other ‘bells and whistles’ that have done the writing for us.I admit there are many areas in which our school systems need to improve. As an integral component in sustaining our society, schools reflect the mores of the community they serve. In order for schools to change we, as members of our society, need to change. We need to re-examine our values.First, we want a ‘quick-fix’ to everything. It seems that we have evolved to a place where even global conflicts are on a time clock. When these conflicts go into ‘extra innings,’ everyone gets impatient. The conflict could be the result of years (or centuries) of struggle and we think it can be resolved in a relatively short period of time. The adage, “how the twig is bent, so grows the tree,” can be used to describe the educational system’s task. The schools are given the responsibility of making certain all ‘twigs’ grow straight and strong. In too many instances, schools receive children that have been ‘bent’ in a certain direction or broken in their developing years. In these instances, it will take a significant amount of time to make a lasting change in the child. Schools, in their role as secondary teacher, must work with the support of parents, whose role is that of the primary teacher. Studies show that children learn at a faster rate when parents are involved in their children’s education. (duh.)Secondly, we tend to want someone else to fix our problems. If my child can’t read, should I expect the schools to do everything? (I pay my taxes!) Or, will I take the time to study the research on reading or, more importantly, will I take the time to model the importance of reading to my children and actually read to them? The vicious circle of parents blaming the high school, the high school blaming the middle school, the middle school blaming the elementary school, the elementary school blaming the pre-school and the pre-school blaming the parents needs to disappear.
Next, we tend to put labels on everything. We are at ease only when we can put everything and everyone in a category whether they fit or not. As children, most of us were given nicknames by our peers. In many cases, these nicknames highlighted our negative qualities rather than our positive qualities. As adults we continue to put labels on individuals. I worked at a continuation high school for many years. Over the years I saw the tremendous affect these labels had on the students’ feeling of self-worth. Labels are confining. If we must use them, at least use labels that are positive in nature.Lastly, the biggest problem I see with our system is that the educational process is becoming an end in itself. Students and parents are ‘playing the system’ not to gain knowledge but to get the best advantage to attain a coveted place in society. College entrance exams allow accommodations for students that have certain conditions. One of the accommodations could be extra time to take the exam. One study discovered that a certain group of students, white, upper middle class males, had a significant number of medical conditions that allowed them additional time to complete the exam. I am certain most of the corporate leaders who have been associated in recent scandals did what it took to get in the ‘right school’ to get the ‘education’ needed for the position they aspired to gain. Only history will be able to determine if their ‘education’ served society well.Recent federal legislation has been enacted to make certain every child succeeds in our educational system and that our nation will not be at risk of being second to none or caught in the middle when faced with the ‘sputniks’ of the world. Whether this legislation succeeds where previous programs are perceived as failing will be determined by the resolve of our society as a whole. The degree of ignorance and apathy our society chooses to accept for itself will determine the level of achievement for our school system.

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