The history of public education in the United States makes for interesting and somewhat disturbing reading. Much to my shock and amazement, I discovered that our country didn’t emphasize everyone fulfilling Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of an educated populace until the 20th century, coincident with the industrial revolution and a couple of really bad wars.
It finally dawned on the leaders of our society that education was good for the masses instead of just for the elite.
What I also found out was that public education has been used as a political football for just about as long. THAT discovery was most revealing in that it explains much about how shallow and idea-free so many of our politicians are. Teachers and the public school system have had political bull’s eyes painted on them for decades to slake the thirst of the political machines at every level.
I admit I drank the Kool-Aid about tests and test scores as an indicator of the success or failure of our public schools. I recently read a book titled "Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality," by Dr. Gerald Bracey. In that book, Bracey illustrated the facts and fiction of testing and test results.
As a former industrial engineer, I have some grip on statistics and the test results that get published by the media are "scrubbed" just about every way one can imagine. That scrubbing is done to promote political agenda.
During the Reagan Administration, we heard the idea of replacing public schools by allowing public tax money — vouchers — to go to private schools. This tenet was coupled with the notion that the Department of Education should be eliminated; indeed, Gingrich’s Contract with America called for that also.
The idea here was to save the government billions of short-term dollars so they could build another aircraft carrier, or something. As an aside, the Reagan Administration did give the Navy its 600-ship fleet, but ran up a $6 trillion debt (1985 dollars) doing so.
That’s the kind of fiscal restraint we’ve come to know from both Republicans and Democrats since.
Now, we have U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan plucked from the canyons of Chicago to put more testing on our kids while getting them to spend more time in front of a computer. Great. We then have a former Bushite, Diane Ravitch, who initially supported No Child Left Behind, but now says it was the wrong approach. She also adds that 90 percent of charter schools have results equal to, or worse, than public schools, yet Duncan and Obama want to expand charter school funding. So, after billions of dollars spent on high stakes testing with the sword of Damocles hanging on every question, one of the original experts says it’s wrong. In my newly found awareness, I see all this testing as yet another ill-conceived idea to fix what isn’t and hasn’t been broken.
Our schools are NOT broken. They are just underfunded where it matters most. We have and are spending billions of dollars on stuff that is wrong and doesn’t matter anyway. I once saw a travel show that went to a country in West Africa. The scene that stays with me was one of a classroom full of small children learning the English alphabet. The classroom had no chairs or desks, only a ceiling and a small lectern. The teacher and students conducted the lesson with a hand-held slate and a piece of chalk. That was it! The teacher employed the Socratic method to engage the children in pronunciation and application of each letter. She was wonderful. Tears filled my eyes. This is where the money needs to spent: on teachers!
The point here is that the vast majority of our teachers know how to teach. Teachers who also coach need to decide which they’d rather do. Many coaches teach academic courses. We have decided that is what we want. OK, but let’s make sure our coaches can teach the academics with rigor and thoroughness. Then the kids might not feel they are being neglected academically.
The kids know how to learn if they’re given just the least bit of encouragement. The number one cause for dropouts is lack of interest. When the curriculum has been dumbed down to accommodate unnecessary tests and teachers are directed to "prepare students for the test," what else would we expect?
The kids are all right. Put the money where it matters, then watch them soar. Reward them and their teachers for that instead of threatening them with punishment based on bad data.
Turner is a retired industrial engineer and teacher who lives near Marble Falls. His e-mail is email@example.com.