Kids are all different and schools are all the same

Why would anyone want to become a “Secretary” of anything in the government of Donald Trump? For the moment I’ll speak of the Department of Education and Donald Trump’s appointee of Michigan republican Betsy DeVos to the position of Secretary. I’ve been listening to her trial by fire at her confirmation hearing (the fire coming without exception from the Democratic Senators).

The Department of Education, established by President Carter in 1979, is one of three youngest of the now 15 positions in the President’s Cabinet (only Veterans’ Affairs and Homeland Security being younger). But look for a moment at the growth of this single cabinet office —

In the 1860s, a budget of $15,000 and four employees handled education. By 1965, then the Office of Education had more than 2,100 employees and a budget of $1.5 billion. As of mid-2010, the Department had some 4,300 employees and a budget of about $60 billion. Now Education, and by far the smallest Cabinet-level department, has about 5,000 employees and an annual budget of $73 billion!

Again, why would anyone want to head this Department? especially on a voluntary basis, which is how DeVos intends to accept the position. On the one hand the Republicans on the Confirmation Committee had only good things to say about her unselfishness, her willingness to volunteer her time and energy to the job. The Democrats, on the other hand, mostly questioned her obvious lack of experience, her lack of preparation for taking on an office of this size and complexity (Did they discourage what was a generous action on her part?)

The Democrats were probably right in their criticisms in their harping rather. DeVos’s experience up until then had not qualified her at all for the job. Her experience, what there was of it, had only been as a long term and very wealthy (Amway monies) and very active proponent of school choice, charter, and voucher programs in her home state of Michigan. But isn’t that, among many characteristics of our form of government, an indication of our greatness, how every four years thousands of mostly amateurs come to Washington to take over the running of the government, thereby “making us great again”? Always instilling thereby into the always rapidly growing bureaucracy a kind of new blood?

These stories about the Betsy DeVos types, about those wanting to give back and wanting nothing for themselves, and there are hundreds, thousands of them, are really just one of the many things that make America exceptional. These stories probably don’t exist among our friends, in France or Britain. And most certainly don’t exist among our rivals for the crown, in China, in Russia, in Iran.

But about this particular cabinet position what I find truly extraordinary is something else entirely. In just 50 years Federal government expenditures on Education have grown from $1 billion to some $50 billion while the numbers of failing public schools may have grown as much if not more, although I don’t have the numbers to show this. But there is no uncertainty about the numbers of school failures today being no less and probably a lot more than they were some 50 years ago.

What might be a candidate Secretary of Education’s answer to this, all the monies spent with so little result? Betsy DeVos does have an answer. In her preliminary talk to the Senators she had this to say:

It’s time to shift the debate from what the system thinks is best for kids to what moms and dads want, expect and deserve. Parents no longer believe that a one-size-fits-all model of learning meets the needs of every child, and they know other options exist, whether magnet, virtual, charter, home, religious, or any combination thereof. Yet, too many parents are denied access to the full range of options… choices that many of us — here in this room — have exercised for our own children. Why, in 2017, are we still questioning parents’ ability to exercise educational choice for their children? I am a firm believer that parents should be empowered to choose the learning environment that’s best for their individual children.

I actually believe she’s right about this, that the one size fits all model of learning is long out of date. In fact it should never have been. We, our country, made our biggest mistake right at the start. It was Horace Mann’s mistake because he was, and Helas! still is our spokesperson for the “common school”.

Mann spearheaded the Common School Movement, ensuring that every child could receive a basic education. This commitment sprang from his belief that political stability and social harmony depended on education: meaning a basic level of literacy and the inculcation of common public ideals. He declared, “Without undervaluing any other human agency, it may be safely affirmed that the Common School…may become the most effective and benignant of all forces of civilization.” Mann believed that public schooling was central to good citizenship, democratic participation and societal well-being.

Who would find fault with these wise words? And more important who would say that our problems with public education today stem from words such as these? Well they do. We’re still struggling, for example, over the meaning of “basic education.” We don’t know what that means, and we should stop pretending we did. Also we might thank our lucky stars that “political stability and social harmony” don’t depend on education. Any political stability and social harmony we do have is in spite of our educational system, not in any sense because of it.

What Mann is really saying is that virtue can be taught (in the schools). Well we know, and have known for a long time, certainly since the times the Greeks and the Romans, that virtue, good citizenship, democratic participation, societal well-being and all the rest, while highly desirable have shown themselves to be unteachable.

We do go on, don’t we. Well to end it for the moment here’s what I would say about why so many (not all!) of  our schools are failing. Here’s my answer:

The Kids are all Different,
While the Schools are all the Same.

Parents have known this forever, at least until society in the persons of  Horace Mann, and Thomas Jefferson and others told them differently. Until that moment, the moment when they gave up the direction of their own lives and the lives of their children, and listened to the school people, they probably did know that their own children were all different and needed different learning environments. Also they may have known as well that somehow their own children’s education was their own responsibility.

Now I ask you to do just one thing for me, talk to a student, from any school, not any student but one who by all obvious measures is doing well, and then try to find out what the parents are doing to help his or her learning. In other words try to determine the role of the parents in this student’s life. If you speak to enough students I believe you will see that the most successful students will almost always have strong and knowledgeable parents behind them, parents who have accepted in good part their own responsibility for their children’s education.

This is why expensive private schools will have many high achievers. The parents will have made major sacrifices to have their kids there, not to mention all the additional learning experiences they will have provided for their children when not in school.

And this is why free public schools in impoverished rural areas or even more in the inner cities will have many non-achievers. The parents will have made no sacrifices, probably not their fault. In many instances the parents of the low achievers will be the products themselves of failing public schools and will not be able to help their children, will have not an inkling of what to do, certainly not know how to make the right choices.

So whats’ the answer? Well it’s not that of Betsy DeVos who would give to the parents more choices, more schools to choose from for their children. For far too many of the parents she would reach with additional choices probably don’t know themselves how to choose correctly for their children. And it’s not the answer of the public school establishment people either, and has not been for a long time, their answer being always to throw more money into the failing schools.

But the real answer, if we were ever to find it, would probably take a lot more money, money that is probably not available. And it would take more money, meaning more time, because the real answer would mean helping parents to become better parents. And that effort would cost us, and because of that so far we’ve been avoiding doing it.

In other words the real answer to bettering the children’s education is to begin by bettering the education of the parents. For if they would have their kids learn whatever it is, they themselves will need to be helped to learn the whatever it is, be it the meaning of basic education, the meaning of “good citizenship, democratic participation, societal well-being and all the rest.”

Well it is discouraging. I know I’m discouraged. But at least if we could tell it the way it is, which we haven’t done up until now, that might be a good way to get started..

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