Fundamental Truths about Public School Education about which we might agree?

Most of our disagreements over the schools, as, for example, the current sharply opposed reactions to the film, Waiting for Superman, would be softened, if not made to disappear entirely, if we could just agree on a few fundamental truths about the schools, an agreement which need not, in my opinion, be super hard to reach.

And what might be fundamental truths about the schools on which we could agree?

Here’s one: A good number of our schools are doing their job well, turning out about a million graduates a year who will go on to college and end up with satisfactory and productive positions in society, thereby contributing substantially to the country’s on-going leadership role in the world. (And interesting question, why aren’t we talking more about our school successes, of which there are many?)

What critics of the schools never seem to take into account is the vastness of the subject matter. There are nearly 100,000 public schools in the country, and there are few conclusions that could be drawn about all of them, or indeed more than just a few of them.

Does anyone even know how many of these schools are successful? Probably not. And we can’t say because most schools, in spite of the No Child Left Behind law, that would label them one or the other, by, say, a determination of adequate yearly progress or not, will always have plenty of individual student successes and individual failures, defying their being placed in one or the other category of failing or successful schools.

Here’s another truth about the schools.  A sizable number of them, particularly of those located in our inner cities and with large impoverished, otherwise disadvantaged, and probably minority student bodies, are not doing well and are often grouped together as failing schools. I don’t think that anyone denies that this is the case, although there will be almost as many prescriptions for dealing with it as there are reformers.

Actually, the myriad, critical voices of the reformers, with so much to say about how things should be done differently, often overlook that the failing schools may be doing their “job” quite well given the circumstances of their students’ lives.

But it’s still the case that whatever they’re doing is clearly not enough for their students, whose needs probably go far beyond the capabilities of the schools alone to provide for them. Although I don’t have a number for the failures I would expect that the school success stories far outnumber them. And most of all we shouldn’t take the failed school environments as being most representative of all our schools.

These first two truths about the schools, the huge number of them and the relatively small number that are failing their students, ought most of all keep us from making global declarations about the condition of the schools, for they probably represent, in their totality, more conditions than you could ever imagine.

We ought to cease applying single descriptive adjectives to all 100,000 individual school environments. It can’t be done and the now much too prevailing global discussion of the condition of our schools ought to be taken off the table.

We should rather be talking about particular schools, particular successes and failures, and about what can be done to grow the successful school environments and shrink the number of failures.

I have two more fundamental truths to mention. The third one I arrive at by trying to answer the question — what is the most important single ingredient in the mix making up a successful school environment?

And the answer most often given is teachers. Schools? why it’s the teachers, stupid. But the teachers themselves, might say no, it’s not us, but the money, stupid. And the teachers say this not necessarily because they’re interested in more money for themselves (although if they’re any good they probably are).

Rather the teachers more than anyone else can see on a daily basis all that could be done, educationally, when the money is plentiful, as, say at a Phillips Academy or a Sidwell Friends School where Malia and Sasha are students.

Well my answer to the question about the principal ingredient in the mix is not the teachers nor the money, but the students themselves, and in particular the level of student motivation, the students’ readiness for learning, that which in the best cases they bring to school with them.

And if this is true, that it’s the motivation, stupid, (and who would deny it?) all our reform efforts, all our discussions about the schools and how we might improve the education of our children, ought to be zeroed in on how to start and then grow student motivation. Most children have it at the start but then lose it by 4th or 5th grade. We’ve known this forever but have failed also forever to stop the loss.

I have for now just one more “fundamental truth” about the schools. And I’m sure that this one will be by far the most controversial of all. And I truly expect not to obtain agreement from my readers. Here is, for this posting anyway, my fourth and last truth.

The schools are terribly mistaken to give so much attention (for many liberals this is almost the raison d’être of the schools) to “teaching” citizenship. I say this even when I’d be the first to admit that good citizenship, with all that this signifies for all of us, may be the ultimate virtue to be cherished and protected by the citizens of a liberal democracy.

So why are the schools mistaken about this? Well, because virtue, even in the more down-to-earth form of good citizenship, can’t be taught. And we’ve probably known this, at least since the time of Plato and his teacher, Socrates.

Instead of trying to make good citizens that which can take up more school time than the teaching of reading and writing, let alone art and music, the schools ought to limit themselves to what in fact we pay them to do with our taxes, to teaching the skills we have learned ourselves, perhaps in school, and the knowledge we have acquired, some of it in school.

This is hard enough and when we fail to do this, and “graduate” 18 year olds possessing verbal and math proficiency levels of 13 and 14 year olds, or less, we ought to own up to our failure and go into rehab.  That which will mean spending a lot of time refashioning and thereby improving our too often less than satisfactory attempts to transfer skills and knowledge, and a lot less time talking “at the kids,” about life and country and what it means to be a good citizen etc., all those vitally important things for our democracy that they won’t learn in school but only in their own time and in their own lived lives and through their own experiences.

I can show you a school that transfers successfully a knowledge of the calculus, the ability to write, how to play a musical instrument, dance moves etc. Can you show me a school that transfers successfully even a part, let alone the  whole, of the behavior that makes up a good citizen? I don’t think so.

Now from all this what might we say about the film, Waiting for Superman? Clearly the film is mostly taken up with my second fundamental truth above. And the film does persuasively show us that at least a small segment of our disadvantaged, impoverished, and minority inner city youth can be encouraged to abandon all their “excuses,” all those reasons why they can’t learn, at the door usually of a charter public school, and begin to take on themselves the principal responsibility for their learning.

What the film is not is a reasoned critique of our public schools. For only the failing schools I mention are the subject, and there are only a relatively few of these even mentioned in the film. The vast majority of the 100,000 or so public schools are left out entirely.

The mistake, made first by the producer and subsequently by the viewers, was to foster the false impression that the subject matter addressed in the film was public school education. It’s not, or at most as I hope I have shown, only in small part.

One thought on “Fundamental Truths about Public School Education about which we might agree?”

  1. I think your third point is spot on. I might state it a bit differently.

    Learning requires effort. Motivated kids are inclined to put forth effort. Many teenagers are not motivated, however, to do this in school.


    1. Many have tried to make school more interesting, as a way to generate more effort. “Progressive.” My sense is this often works with helping reasonably motivated kids put forth even MORE effort.

    However, this method tends to fail with kids who have previously put forward little effort.

    2. KIPP-style coercion. This seems to be reasonably effective, but it is quite hard to do. Most charter schools fail to coerce more student effort.

    Meanwhile, the teaching establishment generally rejects both these approaches.


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