Public Education, Who Should We Blame?
Fuji Smith Thursday, August 18, 2011
We are seeing a lot about the quality of education lately, much of it focuses on the quality of our public school system. Everyone wants to point the finger at someone and say they are the one to blame. To leave it at that is over-simplifying the issue ignoring many other factors complicit in the degradation of education throughout America over the past 40 years. It is time to start seriously looking for solutions rather than playing the blame game, to do that we must all admit our own shortcomings that have led to this crisis.
In today’s society the majority of households have two working parents while 26% of children under 21 live in a single parent home (http://singleparents.about.com/od/legalissues/p/portrait.htm). School policies and structure have not evolved to account for this fundamental change in society and culture. In the past at least one parent was able to be more actively involved during normal school hours, today that is not the case. Schools have done little to accommodate this situation other than to take on more and more of the parental responsibilities. We are beginning to see schools use social media to combat this issue but few have taken the steps necessary to create a thriving community that historically occurred naturally in a much slower paced, face to face society. I have written an article about schools and social media that takes an in-depth look at this ( http://myrtle-beach.com/blog/SOCIAL_MEDIA_IN_EDUCATION/ ). Several studies have been done supporting this premise, showing that regardless of family income or background, children do much better when one or more parents are actively involved in the education setting (http://www.nea.org/tools/17360.htm).
Parents are not blameless in all of this. Along with a culture change that has left the parent as little more than a bystander in their child’s education, parents have begun to view educators in a different light. In the past the parent and teacher worked together with the primary focus of ensuring the child was learning what they needed to progress. Today, for many, the parent’s role is more like an advocate for the child, rising to their defense when they feel they are being slighted. No longer is it the ultimate goal to make sure the child has learned what they need to know, now the ultimate goal is to make sure the child gets the grade the parent feels they are entitled. Until relatively recently, teachers were highly respected and were rarely questioned when it came to discipline or evaluation. Today parents often view a negative comment about their child as a personal affront to which they must immediately rise and defend. Our children are taking notice of our actions, they see the lack of respect many parents show to the schools and teachers, and they mimic it. When parents don’t sit down with their children to work on their homework with them starting at a very young age, they see a parent that is placing a higher priority on the TV than their homework, and they begin to shape their priorities based on what they see.
I am reminded of a story from a friend, we will call him Dr. Y. He is someone I have always viewed as a mentor and has had a profound impact on the person I am in my professional life today. Through his encouragement I learned to be comfortable, well a little comfortable, speaking in front of a group. This led to several speaking engagements including national conventions. He was instrumental in helping me understand that Information Technology was as much about the information as it was about the technology. Dr. Y was in semi-retirement but was convinced to take a teaching job at a local college. During his first, and last, year there he had a parent call the department head to complain that he wasn’t explaining things well enough for her “child” and that is why he was doing poorly in the class. Dr. Y felt that others in the class understood him and getting the material, therefore this individual’s difficulty was based on lack of effort. The department head spoke with Dr. Y explaining that while he did not agree with the parent he was concerned about a potential lawsuit. The parent never spoke with Dr. Y personally, she didn’t care if her child was learning, her concern was the grade she felt her son was entitled. I am not sure which part of this story is more disturbing, the fact that the parent was even involved at this level or that she was fighting for an increased grade for her child when he didn’t deserve it. This is just one story among many but it is one that stuck in my head. Dr. Y is a strong believer that school is not just about learning from a book; it is preparation for life in the real world. High School should prepare children for college and college should prepare young adults for a career. At the college level, theoretically, students should begin taking more personal responsibility for their own learning as well developing skills for use in their personal life. Rather than discussing the issue with Dr. Y, this particular student had their parent come to their defense. To compound it further, rather than discussing the problem and possible solutions, this parent created an adversarial situation. Lack of personal responsibility and a desire to achieve something they didn’t earn are two things that go against everything Dr. Y believes in. This along with other similar instances led to his decision to retire at the end of that year, the college and its students lost a great teacher that day.
So who is to blame? No one, and everyone, but that is irrelevant. Who accepts responsibility and steps up to make a difference is what matters. Schools need to find new ways to get parents involved, but parents need to take initiative and get involved. They need to stop viewing the teachers as a babysitter, or adversary, and begin working with them in partnership to educate their child and mold them into intelligent, critical thinking, responsible adults. Parents need to remind themselves that teachers did not choose the career path they did to pursue fame and fortune, they chose their profession because they are passionate about educating our youth and wanted to make a difference. Schools and parents need to come together in partnership to influence change in the education. One way to do that would be social events. Much like a business that wants to improve employee morale, it should be things that are fun and promote interaction on a less formal level. For example, Palmetto Academy of Learning and Success has “Chick-fil-a nights” a few times a year. I am told that some of those outings receive as much as 70% parent participation. This is a great non-formal night where the children get together to play while parents and teachers mingle, all while raising funds for the school. When I talked to a few employees at the Horry County district they were shocked by that level of participation. Clearly there are far too many people to do something like this on a scale as large as most public schools, but outings could be arranged by grade level. These outings should be low cost events where each parent picks up their own tab so as not to create increased financial burden on the school. I am sure there are quite a few larger venues that would be ecstatic to host them.
I am sure many that read this article will ask why I chose to exclude local, state and federal governments, unions and special interest groups. Clearly you could make an argument that each of these entities has had a detrimental impact on the education system. Legislators are passing laws without engaging educators, unions are creating situations that significantly increase cost because their goal is their own survival and not education, and special interest groups attempt to buy politicians to garner special favors that divert focus from basic education. Everyone wants to be the hero, in a hope that they can claim to be the hero because they “solved” the public education crisis in America. In the end, each has participated in its decline. It is the parents and teachers that will make the biggest difference, and it is them that have been left out of the conversation for far too long. It is incumbent upon us as parents to step up and demand real change, focusing our energy not at the classroom but the all too intrusive outside influences that create a difficult environment to teach or learn. It is our responsibility as parents to raise our own children and make sure they understand how important their education will be as they grow into adults. Instead of focusing on grades and test scores as if they are the ultimate prize, we should be focusing on ensuring our children are learning what they need to know to be successful in our ever changing global environment. If we do that, we may begin to see that the tests will do what they were intended to do, prove that our efforts are working.