Steve Wood's
View from the Classroom

Making Schools Better?
October 31, 2000

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This column is usually focused on the use of computers in the classroom. Unfortunately, most of the really neat things that I've worked on through the summer either don't have anything to do with the classroom or are topics I'm not comfortable or ready to share with the world (wide web).

Getting my folks (aged 87 and 84) online with their first computer has been a wonderful experience. It also brought me back to what it's like to be a computing and internet newbie. Setting up our most recent college-bound daughter with a new iMac was also an interesting learning experience. An incredible deal late in the summer on some LC IIIs helped begin a computer take-home project for all of my special education students. (Suddenly, it's cool to be LD!!:-)

When I move past those things, the educational topic that is most on my mind is the state, or the perceived state, of public education in the United States. Almost daily, there is some news report of a tragedy in one of our nation's schools. If not that, the current presidential campaign features an ongoing public discussion of the shortcomings of our public schools. From the press and politicians it would appear that the pervasive national opinion is that America's public schools are bankrupt and without redeeming merit.

It's a wonder teachers even admit to being part of the profession, considering the daily pounding education is currently taking. Conservative columnist William Rusher recently enumerated problems facing America's schools to include "the breakdown of school discipline, the prevalence of drugs, the dumbing-down of the curriculum and such grotesque practices as 'social promotion.'" Rusher lays the blame at the feet of the national teacher's unions:

I have come to believe that a substantial part of the problem with America's public schools today is the rapacious greed and liberal political bias of the two huge unions that claim to represent America's 3.1 million teachers: the National Education Association (the biggest union in the United States) and the American Federation of Teachers.

While Mr. Rusher's allegations are probably purposefully inflammatory, his observations may be accurate in whole or in part. Rather than being upset when I read his column, I had to give his words a wry grin. In my first meeting with my building administrator this fall, we discussed a case where we'd both made a maximum effort to protect a special education student's rights, including my filing the second dissenting opinion of my teaching career to an outrageous conclusion and misplacement of the student. The opinion was a roadmap for the student's parent to sue the school system and special education cooperative for denial of services to the child. My principal remarked, "If they (the powers that be) could have gotten rid of either one of us on this one, they would have!" Many of the reasons why "they" couldn't are due to the efforts over the years of the National Education Association and the Indiana State Teachers Association.

A highly respected Macintosh columnist concluded the "educational experts" are at fault:

We turn over responsibility for teaching our children to educational experts. Result? Between 30 and 50 percent of North Americans are functionally illiterate. We have a population unequipped to think for itself, ignorant of literature and history, and sitting ducks for the cynical manipulations of advertisers, politicians, and other demagogues.

Sadly, one can find references for the 30-50% figures. Possibly more impartial figures for adult functional illiteracy may run as high as 20-25% -- certainly not an overwhelming refutation of the author's figures. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy only measured 12 states in 1992 and won't be given again until 2002. The implication by the author that those of us who have dedicated our careers to teaching children may be the core of the problem is inflammatory in the least, if not outright outrageous. It also illustrates one view of the public's perception of public education.

During a placement conference last spring, a concerned parent asked, "Shouldn't an expert in dyslexia be brought in?" It was a fair question, but also illustrates the current view of our public schools brought on by all the misinformation in the press. An educator with proven expertise and an excellent track record of success in the field was sitting at the conference table! The parent just jumped to the conclusion that we didn't have the personnel or expertise to address the problem.

Since this is a presidential election year, we have two candidates both trying to outdo the other in their "vision" for education. Republican Presidential candidate George W. Bush proposed a program last summer to "help...cure" the nation's reading problem. Under the proposal, a welcome huge investment would be made in Title I reading programs throughout the nation's first grade classes. A telling comment in the proposal added that some additional funding might be necessary at the second grade level to clean up any "lingering" reading deficiencies. Mr. Bush's educational proposals also include plans to "punish" schools not meeting as yet unspecified standards by removing some of their funding and moving it to a voucher system. I'm sure that diverting resources away from public schools will help them "get better." Right!

While Democrat Albert Gore's education proposals are considerably more acceptable to most public educators, they too fall far short of being a cure-all for education. While his Education Blue Book speaks of many needed items for education, Gore will first have to sell his proposals to Congress. And as with George Bush's rhetoric, there's that thread in Gore's proposals that all is wrong with public education in America. The underlying words seem to call out, "Something is wrong with public education and it's the school's fault!"

Here in Indiana we endure constant negative radio announcements from a supposedly nonpartisan organization. They are apparently dedicated to undermining our state's public schools through the dubious concept of private school vouchers. One of the strengths of the United States of America has been the availability of a "free" public education to all. Enabled by state compulsory attendance statutes, this guarantee has been appropriately extended in the last generation through federal legislation and court case to include the special education students I currently teach. Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) is now one of the catch phrases of the profession.

Like "Mom, apple pie, and the American Flag," improving schools has become one of the buzzwords of today. Everyone wants our schools to be better. Everyone seems to have a cure in mind for the ills of our public schools. Everyone is an expert on schools, because everyone has gone to school.

So...do I think Mr. Rusher, Mr. Moore, Mr. Gore, Mr. Bush, and others are completely wrong? Absolutely not. They are expressing a national frustration with our educational system as a whole. Many, many schools -- possibly a majority -- are doing an excellent job of educating students. Unfortunately, many other schools do have some serious problems that must be solved in the next decade or so if the guarantee of a Free Appropriate Public Education for all is to have any meaning.

Destroying the current public school systems with vouchers for the affluent and leaving the economically depressed who can't afford the difference between voucher value and private school tuition in a second class educational system won't cure our nation's school problem. Leaving failing schools alone doesn't address the problem as well.

What it all comes down to is a matter of personal responsibility for those of us entrusted with raising children, teaching children, administrating educational programs, and making enabling legislation for education. The dirty little secret that no politician wants to publicly state is that education won't appreciably improve until our nation adequately deals with a number of social ills. The problems with education in America don't begin or end with the front steps to our schools. They go to the homes and parents that should be providing a safe, healthy, wholesome environment for their children. The problems reach to our federal and state capitals with politicians more concerned with reelection and personal gain and power than serving those who elected them. The same may be said for some local school board members who find once elected, there is no "quick fix."

Teachers must continue to practice their "missionary zeal" in educating all students. I think most, or many do, but I also know of many good folks who've simply given up and are putting in their hours, days, and years until retirement. While each group has its own set of reasons for things being as they are, I more intimately know the problems of classroom teachers. Even in "good" schools, the constant wrangles with administrative bureaucratic myopia, a blizzard of self-defeating paperwork created to ensure quality education (or pad someone's job), hostile parents who insist we either ignore or accept responsibility for their child's misbehavior, all tend to leave educators worn out before they even attempt to do what they have chosen and love -- teaching children.

In a career now spanning some 30 years, I've been fortunate to always teach in "good" schools. They often weren't in affluent communities. Other teachers have considered them "problem" schools, but by and large, I've had the support of most of the parents and my family. During much of that time, I've also had at least the tacit support of the school administration.

A sizable number of America's homes with school aged children are in a deplorable economic state. We have children being raised by parents who had to practically raise themselves. They have had no example to emulate of a home that provides a safe, healthy, wholesome environment for young learners. Those that do realize what is necessary for their children's upbringing often labor simply to provide a basic roof over their head with little more. The political climate in America today suggests that little will be done at a federal, state, or local level to improve these conditions.

Who wants to state a problem that has repeatedly defied a cure? Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore should both know better. The minion of candidates for state and federal legislatures ignore the personal responsibility and social ills issues as well. For the most part they just rephrase and restate the party line of their political party on education.

What does all of the above leave us?

We need to think for ourselves in evaluating our local public schools. Conditions in our schools vary from community to community. Let's not throw the baby out with the bath water. Many schools are doing an excellent job. How will the proposed changes at the federal level impact those schools' effectiveness? A good bit of what has been proposed has not been very well thought out when it comes to "good" schools. For the "bad" schools, some of the proposals sound more like a death sentence than an improvement plan.

Finger pointing at others isn't going to help. More than anything else, we, as parents, teachers, administrators, voters, and concerned citizens, must accept the personal responsibility that goes with each of those roles. It's too easy to just blame the schools. Teachers also share this problem, as we too easily just blame "bad" homes. It's very easy to buy into the party line of a political party or special interest group. It's too easy to just give up on the problems of public education and social ills.

What we can do is each do our part to make sure the elements of education we impact are done to the best of our ability. It won't change what the Republicans or Democrats or other groups say about education. But it will have an impact.

Odd thoughts while shaving between paragraphs:

Welcome back to the second year for View from the Classroom. View has usually been a column about computers in the classroom. Obviously, from the column above, I needed to get a political monkey off my back before I could begin to focus on computing in the classroom.

If you're a previous reader of the View series, you probably noticed that the column is now appearing on my personal web site. A second change is that View will be published monthly, rather than weekly. While I've taken most of the summer and fall off from publishing columns, I certainly haven't stopped using my Macs, researching promising educational programs, or even writing. Now that I've had my little rant, I'll see if I can get back to the business of publishing a monthly education and computing column.

For those of you outraged by this column, you may receive some comfort from what happened while my wife was proofreading a print copy of it. Annie thought the column was okay. Our parrot, who was out of his cage at the time, took great delight in grabbing, dragging, and tearing the pages. He also broke it in as bird cage liner:-)!  

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©2000 Steven L. Wood