Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Indefensible Public Schools

I was taken to task for slipping some “serious humor” into a recent article. “Serious humor” is making light of a serious subject. In discussing some historical figures and issues, I gave parenthetical explanations “for recent public school graduates.” One reader was so incensed that he feels I owe “the highly qualified and dedicated teachers in the Springfield school system, as well as the well educated graduates of Springfield High School a sincere apology.” Well, I have news for you - it ain’t gonna happen. When I’m wrong I will gladly, even gleefully, retract a statement, correct it, and apologize, but I won’t do so because some one’s feelings got hurt - especially when I’m right.

The facts of the matter suggest that schools in the United States are not performing adequately. We arguably had the greatest school system in the world, it was free for all, comprehensive, and produced a well educated citizen. This is no longer the case and hasn’t been for quite some time. I am a graduate of public school and I have worked in the public school system for many years in a variety of positions: student aide, teacher aide, special education aide, substitute teacher, and as a summer counselor in a High School immersion summer course known as Upward Bound. I dallied with the Education Dept while in college, so I know what it used to take to graduate with an Education Degree and I was not impressed (if you are a parent of a school age child I strongly suggest you take a few minutes and read the course requirements for an Ed degree).

My personal experience aside, a cursory perusal of the state of public education quite eloquently confirms my opinion. Most people reading this should recognize the acronym (for you recent public school grads that’s a word formed from initials, usually a name) ACT or, as it used to be known, American College Testing organization. ACT is a non-profit, non-partisan organization who’s goal is “to help individuals and organizations make informed decisions about education and work” by assessing “what learners have achieved through various stages of education, K-16,” through comprehensive testing, study and analysis. ACT released a report in Oct 2004 which stated “many high school graduates do not have all of the skills to succeed in college-level coursework or workforce training.” It is just that simple. Specifically, the report noted “only 22 percent of the 1.2 million high school graduates who took the ACT Assessment in 1004 achieved scores that would deem them ready for college in all three basic academic areas - English, math, and science.” Of those tested “only 26 percent [were] ready to earn a “C” or higher in their first college Biology course, and only 40 percent” in Algebra. I can see how this information is unpalatable, but I didn’t make it up.

American College Testing changed it’s name to ACT in 1996 because it was not just testing American students, it had globalized, but in fairness, let’s move on from ACT. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) completed it’s triennial testing in 2004 and you’ll be pleased to know that Finland and South Korea have the best students in the world. Out of 39 countries the United States placed 24th - for you recent grads, that’s not even in the middle, much less in the running. PISA measures “the ability of 15-year-olds to solve real-life math problems.” Not too long ago, a recent Springfield High School grad working at a local store needed a calculator to figure my change, is it any wonder? The United States was closer to the middle in last PISA, so we’re not getting better. How would we when we lower the educational standards to raise the performance levels?

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has shown some promise, forcing many schools to perform, but even that is plagued by the very school system it is supposed to repair. The Center for Education Policy released a study demonstrating that “improved test scores are due to changes that 47 states have negotiated with the U.S. Department of Education that make it easier for schools to meet the law’s standards.” Read that again, please and notice that magic number. Forty-seven! Folks, there’s only 50 states in the Union. That means only THREE states have schools that are performing adequately. Any moment now some Bush-Basher is going to shred the paper frothing at the mouth and proclaim the failure of the schools is Bush’s fault for underfunding NCLB and cutting education spending, so let me be clear: in Bush’s first term, “the budget for the Department of Education has grown 58%” - check it out at FactCheck.org.

Is it any wonder why our children aren’t learning? You’d have to be blind, deaf, dumb, and completely disconnected to have missed the rash of school sex scandals. Jeffrey Owens was a middle school Spanish teacher at Camden School District in Oneida County, NY. Joseph Fischer was a Monessen High School (PA) teacher and football coach. Kathy Garrett was a special ed teacher in Seminole County, FL. Faron Grant Carpenter was a teacher of 4-year-olds at the Emmanuel Baptist Child Development Center in Farmington, NM. Christopher Casey was a third grade teacher at Castlemont Elementary School in San Jose, CA. Aaron Mohanlal was a middle school teacher at New Renaissance Middle School in Miramar, FL. Elizabeth Miklosovic was a teacher in South Haven, Michigan. Daniel Eugene Havlik taught at an Orange County (CA) middle school. Each of these individuals was engaged in sexual abuse or relations with students and these are only the ones from December 2004 that I bothered to keep track of. Just last week another three were caught. In case you think it doesn’t happen here, William L. Clark, principal at Plymouth (Vt) Elementary School was arrested in 1994 on a 1992 warrant for child molestation in Alaska. Hofstra University’s School of Education professor, Charol Shakeshaft wrote a report for Congress estimating “that almost one in 10 children, sometime between kindergarten and 12th grade, are targets of behavior ranging from unprofessional to criminal.” In January 2005, at Palo Alto’s (CA) Jane Lathrop Middle School career day event William Fried, a guest speaker, explained to 45 eighth-graders (i.e. 14-year-olds) that exotic dancing and stripping is a “viable and potentially lucrative” career worth upwards of $250,000 per year and that larger breasts “whether natural or augmented” adds to that figure: “for every two inches up there, it’s another $50,000.” Katie Couric just did a nationally broadcast interview of several students regarding their in-school sexual escapades and she wasn’t appalled, but rather flushed with excitement and reinvigorated. Seventeen magazine cavalierly reports that “55% of teenagers have tried oral sex” because (ala Bill and Monica) “they don’t regard oral sex as sex.”

I am not suggesting that all teachers are pedophiles, far from it. I believe the vast majority of teachers are good people and many are excellent teachers. If they would simply teach, I would probably have nothing to say, but there’s another agenda besides education in the school system. The NEA is one of the five largest Political Action Committees and one of the largest unions in the county. In 1996 it spent more than $39 million promoting it’s goals and has spent more each year since. The NEA lobbied Congress in opposition of tuition vouchers for private or parochial schools, in opposition to any Parental Rights Acts, and in support for taxpayer funded services for illegal aliens. According to it’s own resolutions, the NEA promotes education including “diversity of sexual orientation [because] it is the right of every individual to live in an environment of freely available information, knowledge, and wisdom about sexuality.” The NEA also vigorously opposes “merit-based pay” for teachers. “It’s contrary to a school working together and collaboratively,” according to CA Dept of Ed spokesperson, Jack O’Connell. Yvonne Chen, principal of Vaughn Next Century Charter School in Los Angeles, says “merit-based pay” has “helped turn the once failing school into an award-winning, blue ribbon center for learning while spending one-third less money per student than most average schools spend.” Schools regularly engage in education on a variety of other issues with partners like PETA where children are taught to “re-educate” their parents on animal rights and WorldWatch which teaches the children to “re-educate” their parents on global warming and the evils of automobiles. In Massachusetts, a middle school class was taken to Boston to watch the first homosexual marriage certificates being handed out because “it was an historic moment.” In Milwaukee children as young as 11 were excused from school to participate in a “get-out-the-vote” effort as if that were a civics lesson. In Manchester, Vermont, several years ago a teacher took a social studies class to see the Oliver Stone movie JFK as if it were a valuable and accurate portrayal of history and, more recently, a class from a local school here in Springfield went to the movies to see Polar Express - I fail to see the educational value, but maybe it’s just me.

What sums up the failures of the public education system for me and brings it right home to Springfield is my experience this summer. I was canvassing the Summer Festival registering people to vote. Recent Springfield High School graduates asked me how much the registration would cost, where they could register to vote for the national elections, and why they weren’t notified in the mail of upcoming elections. My favorite was one young lady who must have just come from her graduation. We were discussing the right and wrong of our intervention in Iraq, about which she had no clue. I tried to draw a parallel to WWII and when I noticed her vacant expression, I prompted her with a reference to the Holocaust, to which she replied pleasantly, “oh yeah, that’s when the Nazis ended that whole thing.” Yes, Virginia, there are many bright and committed students who graduate from public school, but unless you’re one of them don’t count on getting an education that prepares you for life.

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