In a recent article in USA Today following up Mitt Romney’s political gaffe in Philadelphia — sitting in a classroom in a charter school that stresses small classes insisting that smaller classes don’t help the kids — the writer makes the broader point that Parental choice is the mantra of politicians who try to deflect attention from the failure of states to provide all schoolchildren with an equal educational opportunity. It’s the alternative many Republicans hawk in response to demands for a stepped up campaign to fix, not abandon, failing public schools. It’s the code words of politicians who offer some children an escape hatch out of troubled schools, while leaving many others behind.
Readers of my blogs know how concerned I am about improving education in this country at all levels. I take a back seat to no one who is throwing stones at a system that is clearly failing our kids while so many of those who try to teach in and administer the schools pretend there is no problem. But my stone-throwing is an attempt to get someone’s attention, not to bring down the house. I have repeatedly listed the steps we should take to remedy the situation, knowing while I do this that my faint, small voice will not be heard — but also knowing that hope springs eternal.
In any event, the attempts by Republicans like Romney to, in effect, abandon the public schools in the name of “parental choice” is simply making things worse. The answer is not home-schooling, or vouchers, or private schools, or charter schools. The answer is to address the problem head-on. And this means that those in education must stop pretending there is no problem, dismissing the fact that Finland has superb schools on the grounds that they don’t teach minorities (not true, by the way), or insisting that standardized tests prove nothing because the student populations these days include greater proportions of minority students than fifty years ago (also not true), or whatever. I have heard all the excuses, and they are lame. The fact remains that American public schools are failing the children they are supposed to teach. As was determined in Massachusetts not long ago, many of the teachers themselves cannot pass the eighth-grade-level tests devised to determine whether their students are learning. And that’s the heart of the matter.
We now draw our public school teachers from the bottom of the college populations because we don’t pay them what they are worth and teachers’ colleges that require outside certification insist on methods courses that turn off the brighter students. In saying this, I note quickly that there are exceptions, outstanding teachers who made it through those colleges and who do a masterful job with little pay and no support from their administrators — or the kids’ parents. There are always exceptions to generalizations, but this generalization stands anyway. The current condition of our public education system is a national embarrassment. We must start by reforming teacher-preparation and allow that if we are to entice the brighter young people (who desperately need work) into teaching we need to pay them well and support them in what they try to do. As parents we must pay the piper and we cannot expect teachers to raise our children; their job is to teach them how to use their minds and they should be paid well for a difficult job.
As I say, I have developed these suggestions (and many more) in earlier blogs and anyone who wants to know what I have said can simply search my blog pages for “education” and find much more than they probably want to read! But the point is that we can still rescue the public schools if we make a concerted effort to deal with the situation honestly, realizing that it will cost money and will also require major changes in the way we now do things. But under the guise of “parental choice,” the alternative of abandoning public schools altogether, which is clearly Romney’s alternative, is unacceptable: there are many successful adults who have been schooled in our nation’s public schools — and there can still be more in the future.