Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The Education of Our Youth

This was going to be a much different post, specifically concerning the recent movement in various school boards to have the so-called "intelligent design" taught right along side or in lieu of evolutionary theory, but recent comments concerning the "public school system" have made a more general education post more relevant, though I may return to the intelligence of the pro-"intelligent design" folks by the end.

First, some background, I am a publicly educated child. K-12 were spent in public schools in California. I didn’t attend a private school until college, and even then had a choice between public and private schools. To round out my credentials, my mother and grandmother were both public school teachers, and in addition, were both "card carrying" members of their respective teacher unions.

Second, as was pointed out to me by a very well-respected female reader of our blog, (who is also a product of public schools) regardless of what our inner city brethren might think the vast majority of schools in America are "public schools," in large part because a vast majority of America is not (despite what I, and others like to think) urban or even suburban, rather it is rural and home to many productive public schools that educate thousands and thousands of children every year. Thus, the first proclamation with respect to education, public schools are not bad schools, in fact many, if not most of them consistently academically outperform private schools in the same geographical area. (I know mine did for the 4 years I was there, as I have the held the awards plaque and have the pictures to prove it.)

Third, paying top dollar for education does not ensure that anyone gets it. For instance take the members of this blog, several of which went to private schools. Now it is my contention that each of you would have accomplished exactly the same academically (by this I mean graduated at or near the top of your class, gone to the college of your choice, and continued on to the graduate programs of your choosing) had you gone to public school. This fact, of course, is due to your own personalities and work ethics as well as the supporting cast of parents, family, and friends that have made you successful. The fact that your elementary and secondary school educations cost thousands of dollars in addition to what was paid in taxes did not give you a "better" education, it may have given you a different one (like having included religion), but it cannot be said to be objectively better.

Fourth, lumping together all "public schools" and claiming that they teach mediocrity and are the product of a bloated teachers union whining about the amount of funding or lack thereof is just plain silly. Teachers are by and large dedicated public servants who are paid far below their fair market earning potential and yet continue to work as hard as they possibly can because they believe they may make a difference in the lives of their students. The fact that they may belong to the "teacher’s union" and may support the union activities is a small part of their lives and doesn’t in any way detract from what they do in the classroom. Is the union perfect, of course not, no entity is. For what it’s worth, the other labor unions have serious flaws as well, but the union debate is another post and has little to do with education or the educational system. I will, however, say this with respct to labor unions: the objective of unions was to level the playing field between labor and management, prior to unionization of the labor force, non-management personnel could be considered to be price takers, while management could be arguably considered a firm with monopoly power. Despite some of the ire over labor unions, they did accomplish their goal, which was to make labor-relations more akin to a free market situation, where you had actual bargaining for wages and a give and take system that produced happier, more productive employees and as a result more profitable business. Has much of this been lost due to bad union leadership and competition from the largely non-union services sector, most definitely, but unions in their pure, non-political, non-corrupt forms are not negative entities at all and in fact are in my opinion a necessary part of a productive, profitable manufacturing-based economy (which I would argue the United States no longer is, but rather we have become a services-based economy and thus, unions are by and large no longer as important as they may have once been).

Fifth, we need to stop looking at the schools and blaming them for the problems with our youth. Even a freshman sociology student is smart enough to figure out that a school is successful not because it’s private or public, but because of the surrounding community. Take any school in the country, regardless of its location, give it a dedicated staff, teachers, properly functioning buildings, up to date materials, and most of all a supportive, disciplined student body with a strong, determined parental support unit and I guarantee that the school will thrive. Bottom line, charging tuition and fees has nothing to do with whether the school succeeds. The problem with inner city schools is that they lack almost all of these requirements, except for the dedicated staff and teachers. Suburban and rural schools are large, technologically advanced, fully stocked, and well-equipped places to learn, it’s obvious why they succeed. On the other hand, many inner-city, largely failing schools are often in low-income areas and do not have the physical space, materials, or community support required to have a thriving school system. The answer to better urban education is better urban areas, not tuition charges and privatization. Furthermore, lumping in the problem urban public schools with the largely successful suburban and rural schools doesn’t accurately reflect the public school problem or its population. Schools are not parents, nor are they baby-sitters or primary care givers, and we should stop treating them as they are. Parents still are the number one influence on a child’s life and should take that role seriously and should stop complaining when the school teaches, or fails to teach something they hold dear or think is crucial (for example, if you want your child to have religion, teach it to them yourself, take them to church, or pony up the extra money and send them to parochial school. Conversely, if you disagree with the school on an issue, teach your child the opposite and explain to them that they don’t have to believe everything that is taught in school every day.). Bottom line, don’t expect the school to fill all the voids or be the second parent.

Sixth, some potential solutions. I don’t disagree that we need to be pro-active and creative when it comes to education problems and potential solutions. What I do object to and strongly disagree with is the line of reasoning that says education should be subject to the free-market and therefore privatization is the solution. Education is (or should be considered) a public good, just like national defense, and thus, should be provided by and large by the government. Does that mean that people should be required to attend public school, no, an opt-out is always to be available and for many people it has served them quite well. However, I don’t think that we should treat schools like we do fast-food chains, or consumer goods. In other words, while it may be acceptable for fast food chains to compete over price, speed, and quality of food to see who can provide the best for less, that is not what we ought to be doing with education. More schools will not make for more education. We have plenty of schools as it is, what we need to do is ensure that every child who wants and is willing to work for a good education gets one. The potential "race to the bottom" that may eventually arise if you privatize education can’t possibly achieve this goal, and the natural evolution and order of markets is to have some winners, some in-betweens and some losers that eventually are merged with or subsumed by the winners or in-betweens. No child can ever afford to be a loser in the education market even for a short period of time and it is to the benefit of all of us if we ensure that this never happens. Much of my own opinions on how to strengthen schools, especially urban schools, would not be directed at the schools themselves, but rather at the surrounding communities. As I said before, strong communities make strong schools. That being said, a good place to start is with the foundations, namely, make sure all schools are structurally sound, properly stocked, technologically equipt, and have the most effective teachers and staff that can be afforded (this will mean paying teachers more than $25,000 starting salaries). If we accomplish that then at least we can say that everyone starts equally and what they do from that point on is up to them. Strong oversight by local school boards and assistance by the Department of Education is critical to this effort, but more importantly the community must support the changes and be willing to shoulder many of the costs. Fixing the education problem is going to be expensive, very expensive, but the long run benefits greatly outweigh the short terms costs.

Last point, we don’t get anywhere by vilifying the public schools. Private schools are fine, many are wonderful, and all of them should be supported and continue to thrive, but they are not the be all and end all of education. Fact is there are far more public school kids than private and those of us who went to public school have done and will continue to do just fine. I’ve rambled on for long enough so I’ll save the "intelligent design" post till later.


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