Friday, February 25, 2005

From the Horse's Mouth

I don’t really want to beat a dead horse, but it seems that this horse isn’t completely dead yet, it’s not even mostly dead. The poor animal doesn’t realize it’s losing the race. Worse, it doesn’t even know there is a race. The American public education system was a thoroughbred race horse, a real charger, but after long abuse it’s degenerated to the point of being a nag. Last week, Congressman Bernie Sanders hosted a town meeting in Montpelier which, in the words of W-CAX TV, would examine “the recent escalation of attacks on public education.” The congressman wants to “explore what can be done to preserve an educational system that provides equal educational access for all children and young people.” Slated to be with him on the stage were various school officials, the chairman of the House Education Committee, and Vermont State Teachers’ Union president.

I did not attend the town meeting, but I don’t expect there were many original ideas discussed. I imagine it was the tired, hackeneyed litany of “the vast right-wing conspiracy” led by “the moralistic, bible-thumping, homeschoolers” who were manipulated by “the evil Emporer Bush and Darth Rove” into depriving our future leaders of the education necessary to see through their nefarious and insidious (that’s evil for you recent public school graduates) machinations. I’d venture Congressman Sanders hasn’t a clue what’s causing the “escalation of attacks on public education” and his choice of cohorts suggests that the goal was to gloss over the real problems and fluff off the blame. It sounds like a conference of the foxes who guard the hen house. I can see it: the House Education Committee explaining how increased property taxes are better educating the kids, school officials with organizational charts showing the flow of funds down through the system to each student’s desk, and the president of the Teachers’ Union clarifying the relationship between teachers’ benefits and better education for our children. If you want to know why there are more attacks on public schools, ask the people who are making them not the people responsible for creating the problems.

Is anyone but me outraged at being taxed to pay for failure? Are teachers to blame, you betcha! Yes, it is a student’s responsibility to learn and a parent’s responsibility to monitor their child’s education, but it is the teachers’ responsibility to teach and the lion’s share of that is inspiring the kids to learn. The “It-Takes-A-Village-crowd” have appropriated much of the authority of parents, but they won’t take the commensurate responsibility of it. Teachers demanded recognition as ‘professionals,’ but when the students fail, they deny culpability: “there’s too many kids in the class,” or “there’s not enough parent involvement,” or “the kids need to be medicated.” Last time I checked, professionals are fired when they don’t perform and the boss doesn’t accept excuses, but in a school system the rules of life don’t seem to apply.

Ours is an interconnected, interdependent community. We all do our part and contribute to the whole. Teachers are important and deserve respect. But are they more important than the garbage man collecting and hauling their trash away? Or the bank teller? Or the grocery clerk? Or the secretary at any given office? On inservice days parents must lose a day’s pay or pay daycare for that time, in addition to paying the teachers for the day! Most people who work in the private sector, are required to maintain any “continuing education” on their own time. Teachers, on the other hand, rate pay increases that far outstrip others equally qualified and educated who are not in the public employ. They are guaranteed health insurance that a secretary in an office would kill for. Teachers qualify for taxpayer funded forgiveness on portions of student loans, but parents who give up careers to keep a home or homeschool don’t, nor do parents who take jobs and sacrifice time with their families for less pay than teachers get. Last week, Kathy Pellett announced legislation she’s drafting to exempt retired teachers from taxes incurred from “working more than a specified number of days...allowed under the provisions of their pension.” Well, excuse me, but other retirees don’t get that benefit, Representative Pellett.

If you really want to understand the “escalation of attacks on public education” simply look at page 100 of the Town of Springfield, Vermont Annual Report, Fiscal Year 2004. The report tells us that “spring 2004 results on the Vermont State Assessments demonstrate overall improvement of student learning, especially in reading and writing.” But the numbers give the lie to that bit of sophistry. In the tenth grade, 41% of “students met or exceeded the standard of learning” in reading with basic understanding, 39% read with analysis and interpretation, 36% could write effectively, 63% could demonstrate mathematical skills, but only 38% understood the concepts, and only 32% were able to demonstrate mathematical problem solving skills. Science was assessed in 11th grade where only 45% could demonstrate scientific knowledge and skills. The state averages are right around 10% above or below our Springfield students - yes, those numbers are what Springfield teachers are producing. If these teachers were graded according to the work they’ve done, their best grade (63%) would be failing - I think that’s a C-, isn’t it? If they were reviewed in any professional office in Springfield, or anywhere else, they would not be getting a raise or better benefits, but just might find themselves receiving a pink slip.

If inexcusable performance were not bad enough, the teachers tell us that school choice is a bad thing while they take full advantage of it for themselves. “Across the states, 12.2 percent of all families (urban, rural, and suburban) send their children to private schools...but urban public school teachers send their children to private schools at a rate of 21.5 percent,” according to a 2004 study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. In Washington, D.C. it’s 28 percent, 35 % in Baltimore, and 44 % in Philadelphia as reported in The Washington Times and The Chicago Sun-Times. Granted, the percentage is probably not as great here in Springfield, but any public school employee opting out of a public school is sending a thunderous message to parents and it’s being heard.

I homeschool my daughter. I won’t suggest this for everyone, but I know that what I’m doing with her can be done in any classroom in any school. Time-tested, tried-and-true techniques of the three “R”s and repetition. Teachers have told us for years that “mindless rote repetition” doesn’t work - except it’s not mindless, never has been, and so it does work, but it’s not fun, it’s work. At six, my daughter has read - yes, by herself, with minor input from me - Usborne’s Myths for young children and retold them in her own words so I knew she understood, she reads chapter books and does addition with carrying and subtraction with borrowing in triple digits; she has studied basic Earth Science and can explain concepts like plate tectonics, the life-cycle of a rock, and the cycles of air and water. At the kindergarten level she has internalized these concepts because of the “mindless rote repetitions,” and understands the material because we’ve invested the time in learning about these subjects - that’s teaching. I think it’s important to note that in our classroom we don’t have inservice days or snow days, just simple straight-forward reading, writing, and arithmetic. If you want the “attacks on public education” to end, stop using our children and taxes for social experimentation and get the horse back in the race - get back to the work of education.

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