Tuesday, August 22, 2006

What's Wrong with America

For some ungodly reason (I think his Hungarian grandpa, who also belives in hexes, is the responsible party), my boyfriend was sentenced to a subscription to the paragon of baseless conservative outrage-mongering, The Reader's Digest, so when it shows up in our apartment mailbox, I peruse it sometimes, just for laffs.

One article in the September issue examines three case studies of "A+" students, one from a home school, another from a private school, and the third from--and this is supposed to be shocking to the reader--a plain-old public school! Anyhow, the introductory paragraph rattles off a litany of indicators that America's schools are failing: a quarter of students don't finish high school, only a third of eighth graders score at grade level in math and reading, etc.

Naturally these startling--startling!--figures aren't compared to statistics from previous generations' students (thanks, Paul), but rest assured that "[w]hen it comes to education, our children are in trouble." Assuming we're worse off now that twenty years ago (which I doubt), whom should we blame for our crippling moral failure as a nation? Lack of funding from federal and state governments? Increased grade-level standards and AYPs? Atheists and homosexuals? No, silly. Teachers!
There are plenty of reasons for all that failure--from stultifying school bureaucracy to reform-resistant teachers unions to poorly qualified teachers.
Does anyone actually believe this? Are morons across this great nation actually falling for the witch-huntery that the media levy against educators? Do people actually think that waves of unqualified idiots are plucked from local rehab clinics and prison cells to teach American children? Where did all these horrible teachers come from?

In an unrelated story, as reported by the Wall Street Journal this morning (this also arrives into my house under my boyfriend's name--this time it's his dad's fault), bears are bothering people in their homes and recreational areas more than they used to. (They are?) Of course this troubling conflict is because bears are getting too bold, not because humans continue to encroach upon bears' habitat. Uh, yeah.

If I were queen of America I'd pass a law that if you publish supposedly alarming statistics then you have to (a) offer comparative statistics (from either another geographic area or time period, just so we know why we should be pissed off) and (b) actually analyze the causes in a fair, realistic way.

If American schools are failing to do anything it's teaching people how to examine causes when citing an effect.


Kevin said...

No one thinks that individual teachers are stupid... well, Conservatives do.

But SERIOUS people do think there are a lot of problems with the way the educational system is set up. From big macro issues -- no consistent accountability for performance -- to problematic local rules. For example, teachers with seniority get the easy districts -- promotes naive, new teachers in the worst schools.

The DLC people I like, encouraged by the success of Welfare Reform, are generally going for a type of accountability system where you can pick teachers/schools to at least some degree.

The real problem, of course, is that parents expect teachers to do the hard work of teaching their kids. Schools are about socialization. Teaching is best done by committed parents.

Paul said...

I think the real problem with blaming teachers' unions is that being self-serving isn't a bug of the union system, it's a feature. People tend to resent unions, teachers' unions in particular, for advocating for the welfare of their members, but that's precisely what they're for and what makes them valuable.

If people didn't fight teachers' unions tooth-and-nail, teaching would be a much more lucrative profession, and it would attract many more qualified people. But that's almost beside the point; teachers have every right to organize to improve their working conditions one way or the other.

Paul said...

Oh, and what Kevin said about the importance of a certain sort of home life - no matter how good our educational institutions are, there are fairly firm upper limits on what they can accomplish on their own.

One implication of that, though, is that "education reform" isn't really much of a panacea. NCLB, for all its many flaws, does much to facilitate school choice. That sort of thing really depends for its success, though, on...committed parents! America's education problems are largely just symptomatic of underlying demographic problems, and I think it's a mistake to try to significantly alter the demographic picture through education reform.