Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Public Education: Thoughts From a Rookie Teacher

The other day I read an essay by Joel Turtel in which he waxes eloquent on the problems with public education.


Frankly, the essay was cartoonish. It made ample use of exaggeration and stereotype, and therefore I didn't find it helpful at all. There was no in depth analysis. The only things I found in the essay were the typical characters; a bright, yet precocious child; the proud, protective father; and, of course, the idiotic, prideful teacher who talked about nothing but feelings.


Though no doubt characters like that do exist in reality, they were egregious straw men in the essay.


Even though the author had credentials and had "gotten around" in the education world, he sounded like just another blowhard pundit.


The essay got me thinking, though: there ARE many problems with public education. So many problems, that I am strongly thinking of home schooling my children when I start a family. Teaching in public school has really sealed the deal in that regard for me.

If the essay I read didn't pinpoint the problems, what are they?


I'm no expert. I've only been teaching for 3 years now, so what I have to offer is no expert opinion. I don’t have many hard stats, and I’m not going to analyze any hard-core research studies. I might be (no, I probably am) missing some perspective that those older and wiser than me possess. All that to say: this is just my hunch.

The biggest problem I see in public education is a complete lack of training in classical virtues. Of course, a school might have moral discussions in some classrooms, and we might extol the benefits of honesty and shun cheating, but the foundation that makes efforts and pronouncements like that productive is absent.

To see this, ask any high school student whether a moral statement is an objective or subjective statement. Actually, I take that back; most won’t understand that distinction. Instead, ask them whether a moral statement is a statement of fact/falsehood or a statement about personal taste/opinion. If I was a bettin’ man, I’d go all in that almost every student you ask (unless they’ve been explicitly and repeatedly taught otherwise by some reeeeaaaalll savy and aware parents) will give the latter answer.

I mean, duh, of course morality is just my personal taste.

That is the cultural milieu in both today’s culture and, by extension, today’s public schools. As secular institutions, our public schools have failed to combat that cultural poison. Instead, the powers that be have gone along with the flow. Now most in education assume that morality and religion are matters of feeling and personal taste, not knowledge. This naturalistic worldview completely undercuts any emphasis on virtue. Most teachers and administrators won’t even go near the subject.

Instead, practical matters, rather than virtue, reigns. Why are we surprised, then, when “our kids” cheat and backstab with such ease? To paraphrase C.S Lewis, we laugh at honor and then are shocked when we find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

If you combine this with the rampant fascination with empty, baseless self-esteem in our schools (which is another facet of the problem. Actually, it comes closer to narcissism. See Jean Twenge's book Generation Me), it is no wonder that according to a recent study by the Josephson Institute, 64% of students cheated on a test in the last year, 38% cheated twice or more, and 36% used the internet to plagiarize an assignment, yet 93% are satisfied with their personal ethics and character, while 77% said that "when it comes to doing what is right, I am better than most people I know."

Some educators attribute this not to a loss of character in our nation, but to the notion that students are facing more pressures today than in the past....Awwwww, po' babies. I think a case can be made that pressure to succeed is greater today than in the past, but to lay the primary blame at the foot of temptation is willful blindness. But that's for another discussion.

Relativistic and naturalistic inclinations is not the whole problem, though. An analysis that focuses on this alone is not complete.

The more I get into public education, the more I see that the institution is simply not fit to address the problems being foisted upon it. We are asking a very crowded (you try keeping a room full of 40 freshmen under control for two straight hours. Go get em, Tiger!), understaffed secular institution, with a million miles of red tape, encumbered by countless silly laws designed to avoid lawsuits (all too often these laws instead empower the rabble rousers), to address all the problems created by the breakdown of the family and the coarsening of culture. It is like demanding that a 80-year old geezer in a walker win the 100M dash in the Olympics.

elderly-man-walker-caregivng

When a boy has divorced parents, an absentee/distant father (or no father at all), no male role models that are men of virtue, watches a steady diet of MTV and VH1, and is constantly filling his ears with music that extols the manliness of treating women as smutty objects, that's a mess that the big, obese, slow-moving, clunky institution of public education can't clean up. Individuals within the system might be able to reach the boy (that's why I'm teaching, after all), but putting hope in the institution itself is a fool's bargain.

Another thing is that those that control the money don't know how to manage it. I know for a fact that most schools can spend their money better. I have stories that would perplex you. I won't tell them, because calling out a school in a public forum like this would be unprofessional. Just trust me. I have to shake my head when teacher's unions cluck about budget cuts. Of course we could use more money; but it's a hollow plea when I see the money we do have being managed so poorly. I see this all over the place.

I also marvel at the fact that people who LOOOOVEEE paperwork are all too plentiful in public ed. Like the Vogons in A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, they seem to be designed for paper pushing, and they slow things down considerably. They make even the simplest task very complicated.

I swear I see this guy everywhere
A Vogon: I swear I see this guy everywhere

Last, but perhaps most damning, the adults in the institution suffer from a lack of backbone. Rather than buckling down and doing the hard but right thing--disciplining consistently--we instead take the path of
short-term ease and look the other way. We are weenie teachers, parents (we've all heard and seen the parent who insists that her little devil-of-a-child can do no wrong), administrators, and counselors.

As always, there are exceptions to the generalization above, but there are enough weenies to drag the whole system down.

In conclusion, no one issue is paramount, and these aren't the only issues that face public ed. But if you add them together, you have quite a problem.

Those are my thoughts, at any rate...what have you seen? Can you add anything?

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