Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Real Problem in Education

The real problem with public schools is not poor funding. It’s not obstructive teachers unions. It’s not an overemphasis on standardized testing. It’s not a lack of innovative programs. Helpful changes could be made in all these areas, but we would just be dancing around the edges. The real problem in education is the social chaos created by two generations of disintegrating families, entitlement attitudes, failed discipline and misguided attempts to use public schools for social engineering. The failings of our schools reflect deep dysfunction in our society.

My wife began teaching in public schools over 25 years ago. She has taught at both the middle school and high school levels. The district she taught in for most of that time transitioned from a middle class suburban community to a poor, high-crime, heavily minority community. Gangs, drugs and teen pregnancy are significant problems, even among seventh and eighth graders.

Teaching in this environment is not for the faint of heart. Mustering the optimism, the energy and the courage to face the daily challenge for the 4000th time requires more dedication and fortitude than the average person possesses. It is, as Samuel Johnson once said about remarriage, “the triumph of hope over experience.” It’s true that many burned out teachers stay a few more years just to finish out the years of service needed for retirement. But most are still committed to doing what they can to make a difference. They press on, hoping to make an emotional connection with another hurting student, buoyed by the spark of learning in the eyes of the ones who rise above their environment.

The deck is stacked against success. Easily a third of classroom time, sometimes more than half, is devoted to dealing with discipline problems. It’s no wonder the school districts keep trying to add extra class time for remedial work on the basics like reading. But they’re trying to fill a leaky bucket because every year sees fewer classroom minutes spent on instruction.

What kind of discipline problems? Students put their heads down on their desks and sleep. Students get up out of their seats and wander around the room to talk to their friends. Students cheat on tests, vandalize books and equipment, steal supplies, get in fist fights, shout at the teacher and make threats. Most of the troublemakers have no interest in learning and they make sure no one else can, either. They are failing all their classes but they simply don’t care so they don’t try. They are angry, disillusioned and hurting. Sometimes an empathetic teacher can make a connection, but most of the time they can’t.

How did we get into this mess? First and foremost is the disintegration of the family. Most of these students either have no father in the home, or they have a stepfather with whom they have a strained relationship. This affects boys and girls in different ways. The moms lament that they can’t control their sons. Many of the boys join gangs. The girls are often sexually promiscuous. They want to have a baby as soon as possible because they feel that’s what makes you a real woman. In this they have their own mothers as role models.

Today’s students are now the grandchildren of the boomers. They are the third generation of those who made rebellion against authority their defining issue. Parents no longer support the schools on discipline issues. It never occurs to them that their child might be lying or might actually be in the wrong. They leap to their child’s defense and the children learn to have an adversarial attitude toward teachers and administrators. The schools, for their part, are afraid of being sued. They abandoned corporal punishment long ago and will even back down on something as simple as issuing detention if the parent complains.

Overwhelmed administrators dictate elaborate discipline processes teachers must follow before they can send a disruptive student to the principal’s office. Instead of getting the source of disruption out of the classroom as soon as possible so instruction can resume, teachers are giving repeated warnings, documenting misbehavior in writing, taking students aside for verbal correction and phoning their parents, all while the rest of the class waits.

In the name of inclusiveness schools try to “mainstream” special education students as much as possible rather than segregating them in special classes. While this is a laudable goal, when those students are disruptive it is not fair to the other students. Many students are designated special ed not because of learning disabilities but because of behavior problems. Every year my wife sees more special ed students in her classroom. She has had classes in which as many as a third of the students were in this category. When the number of special ed students is high enough a teacher’s aide is supposed to be assigned to the classroom, but due to resource limitations this does not always happen.

The cult of self esteem is so strong in our society that we have raised our children to expect they will always be successful, whether they try their best or not. Students are unwilling to work hard, and they feel victimized if the result is a low grade. They feel victimized if their misbehavior results in negative consequences, like being disqualified to play sports. Instead of understanding that they are being held accountable for their behavior, they imagine that their teachers are “out to get them.”

I don’t know how to solve all these problems. They reflect deeper societal problems that go beyond anything under the control of the schools. What the schools should do, I submit, is focus on educating the educatable. We need to recover the idea that a free public education is a privilege and not a right. We need to clearly articulate to students and their parents what the rules and expectations are for those who want to take advantage of this privilege. Students who cannot sit in a classroom without being disruptive need therapy more than they need instruction. School isn’t going to do them any good until they are sufficiently in control of themselves to listen and learn.

As individuals, we must teach our children the importance of marriage, the need to respect authority and the value of hard work. There is nothing new in that. But too many of us have lost sight of these core values. We thought there might be a shortcut, but it turns out we were wrong.

It’s not enough just to get our own houses in order, either. As Christians we need to be reaching out to the hurting people in our communities. We need to be coming alongside single parents whose kids need positive role models. We need to help families who struggle to feed and clothe their children. We shouldn’t expect the government to step in with billions of dollars and solve all of society’s problems. The biggest problems aren’t solved with money. They are matters of the heart.


MamasBoy said...

Nice post. Thanks for the added perspective in expanding the discussion.

MamasBoy said...

I do have one question for you. Why do you think private schools work, even in the inner city? Also, would it be possible for this success to be replicated on a broader level? What changes would be necessary?


Bill Hensley said...

I think that was three questions.
[Johnny can't count. :-)]

First, I want to be clear that there is lots of room for improvement in public schools. But private schools have several advantages over public schools, some of which might be hard to replicate. First and foremost, they can be more selective about both the teachers and the students they accept. Much of this is self-selection. The very fact that a student is in a private school implies that their family values education and is taking the initiative to ensure a quality educational experience for their children. The implication is that these students probably come from a better home environment, even though the community they live in may be very distressed. Private schools also can have stricter discipline policies because they have an explicit "opt-in" from the parents, who chose to place their childen there. Finally, the teachers and administrators of a private school are much more empowered to decide what is needed and what works on their campus than in public schools. Besides the intrinsic benefits of local control, this pays huge dividends in teacher morale, which is shockingly low in many inner city schools.

Chaotic Hammer said...

Very insightful and well thought out post. You're right about the degree of intestinal fortitude it takes to stay in such a system. Very few people have it.

I had a friend in California who had wanted to be a teacher her whole life, and went off to San Jose State to get her degree in education. She started working as an aide, and within a short time of seeing what it was really all about, left the education field entirely. And this was after having nearly completed her Master's. She was a good quality person, with a kind heart for people.

I don't even know everything she saw and experienced, but knowing what she was like when she started, and seeing how she came out of the experience, I can only imagine.

Bill Hensley said...

Thanks, C-Ham. Attracting and retaining young teachers is actually quite a challenge for many school districts. More money helps, but as your friend probably would have told you, for many people all the money in the world wouldn't be enough.

For older teachers, the prospect of a pension is an effective retention tool, but as I already mentioned there are quite a few older teachers who are just burned out after many years in the trenches. Many of those, however, are still fairly effective teachers because of their experience and their professionalism, even if they "can't wait" to retire.

David Hensley said...

I have both kinds of teachers, the "can't wait to get out" ones who were once good teachers but no longer care, and the "new recruits" who seem disillusioned. But they're not all bad, you can tell they were once or could become great teachers, and some are anyway.