Parental Choice

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.

Romney Goes To School

Taking a page out of “W’s” book, Mitt Romney was recently in Philadelphia getting close to the folks in the inner city and posing as a friend of public education. Actually, we don’t know why he was there, but he took his jacket off and rolled up his sleeves to show he’s a “regular guy,” and he had some interesting things to say in defense of his claims that smaller classes do not benefit students. In a story in The Los Angeles Times we read that, according to Romney,  The consultants found that, “gosh, in schools that are the highest-performing in the world, their classroom sizes are about the same as in the United States. So it’s not the classroom size that’s driving the success of those school systems,” . . .. Instead, parental involvement and top-flight teachers and administrators make the difference.

I have no idea who “the consultants” were, but the notion that smaller classes don’t make it easier to teach is bullocks, as my English friends would say. The teachers in the room when Romney gave this little speech were quick to object. As the article notes, Romney was challenged repeatedly during a round table discussion with educators to defend his claim that reducing class size doesn’t improve student performance. Anyone who has spent any time in the classroom at all knows that the ideal is one-on-one and the effectiveness of teaching goes down proportionately from there. Classes of 50 are pretty much a waste of time for most (though certainly not all) students and classes larger than that are a bit of a joke. Much depends on what one wants to do in the class, of course, but large classes, as a rule, translate into time wasted. Online classes, as I have blogged about before, are mostly useful for transmitting information and the data suggest that the dropout rate is very high in such classes. One speculates that it might be a function of the lack of personal contact between teacher and students — and among the students themselves. Some of the best classes I taught in my 41 years of college teaching were ones in which I said very little and the students discussed the issues among themselves, with a gentle push from time to time to keep them on topic.

In any event, what Mitt had to say was not altogether wrong. He is certainly correct in saying that it all starts in the home. Parental involvement and top-flight teachers are of immense importance, especially in  the early years. For Romney this is an argument in favor of overhauling the education system, of course, and moving from public to charter schools. To be honest, though I would like to see the public schools be improved rather than, in effect, eliminated,  I am somewhat in sympathy with Romney here. I do think that our schools are failing in part because much of what is done in “teacher’s colleges” is a waste of time and money. And the data suggest that as a nation we are at present drawing our teachers from the lower third of the student population — probably because pay and benefits are so poor. This raises the issue of teachers’ unions.

Mitt contends that pressing for smaller classes is a ploy by teachers unions — one of his favorite targets — to get more teachers hired. But it is the unions that have made it possible for teachers to (barely) keep their financial heads above water and if things are to improve in the profession it will take more money, not less. If we want to upgrade the ranks of the teachers, we need to start paying them a living wage — as they do in Finland which Mitt correctly holds up as a model of public education. In that country competition is fierce to get the high-paying and high-prestige teaching jobs. The contrast with this country is sharp.

So, on balance, Mitt is correct in saying that parents need to become more involved in what their kids do before and especially early on in school. And he is right that we need first-rate teachers. But he is wrong to say that small classes are not a benefit to the kids. And he must realize that teachers’ unions are essential if we are to hope to improve the condition of the chronically low-paid teachers in this country and attract a better quality of mind to the profession, which he admits we need.