Thursday, August 28, 2003

Missing the Mark

I just read this op/ed piece about how poor or heavy minority communities not only have parents that don't focus on education, but also teachers who, according to statistics, can't effectively teach. The saddest thing about this opinion is that it grossly misses the point of those statistics.

He starts out saying: Ask any teacher why poor and minority students struggle with low test scores and high drop out rates and they'll tell you: it's the parents.

Well, I used to qualify as part of that "any teacher" category. And let me tell you my answer: it's the system.

Overall, parents aren't helping with their children's education nearly as much as they should or could. But that speaks to a larger problem with society, not the public education system. If every parent invested time and energy into supporting their children's education, then we'd have successes despite the public education system. Unfortunately, not every parent has the time or the energy (let's not even get into the inclination) to help a child learn. It's just a fact of the way we've got things set up in this world. A sad fact, but not really one we can get around any time soon. There are many people who make it their job to step in and cheer kids on when their parents can't. Teachers, ministers, volunteers, mentors, outreach groups, friends, neighbors. They all do what they can. To blame the failure of the students on any one group in that bunch or even just on the parents is as ridiculous as saying that the right to privacy "lifestyle" alone is corrupting society. (Wow, with the numerous potshots I lob at Santorum, you'd think I have a problem with the man. *innocently blinks*)

No, blaming parents, teachers, and any other group that at one point or another influences a child's education isn't going to do anything. Looking at the real issue those statistics bring up, though, just might do something. The author of the op/ed piece seems to think that the low "Teacher Preparation Index" in poor and minority communities means that teachers are the reason why students in those areas are struggling. I honestly don't understand how "someone that has been in the classroom and seen what works and what doesn't" can fail to recognize the bigger problems those numbers indicate. Our system is set up so the poor and minority communities will fail. Think about it this way: If you had to take a job that was going to pay peanuts pretty much no matter where you went, wouldn't you want to go to a place where the community support was, on average, better? Where the folks relying in some part on you doing your job right actually donated time and money to help you out? Where the place of business was more likely to have state of the art technology and up to date reference material? Now let's look at it from the other end. Those more affluent, well-to-do communities will have so many applicants to choose from. They can be selective, they can get the more qualified candidates. Leaving the lesser qualified candidates to go to the less pleasant areas.

In any job, you're going to see a variety of competency. Try as we might, we can't eliminate that variety in public education. Improving certification programs, implementing alternative licensure programs for professionals in non-education areas to come and teach in their field, and just in general examining how teachers are brought in and retained will help. For a while, at least. But it's still not addressing The Problem.

There are many problems with the public education system. I'm still shocked at how many I saw in the three months I taught in the system. The biggest thing that I saw was the fact that responsibility for a child's education is placed anywhere but on the child. Poor performance in school is never the child's fault, according to the public education system. That's as ridiculous as saying only parents or teachers are to blame for the same poor performance. And here's the really twisted part: the praise for a child's excellent performance is rarely given to the child as well. Instead, praise gets bestowed on the district, the teachers, the public policy by some public official, the parents, etc. The public education system is wired to remove all requirements from the child. They are numbers, statistics, test scores, but they are not individuals.

I could go on about this for quite some time. And I was only a part of this system for one quarter of a school year. We can't keep putting patches on a system that needs to be remodled (in the "level it and build it afresh" sense). And we can't keep trying to improve learning while telling the learners "Don't worry, learning isn't your responsibility."

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