Thursday, March 15, 2007

Education Degradation Part II

My last column garnered surprisingly positive responses from many local school district employees who, it seems, felt I'd said something they couldn't. My hopes that they continue listening with open minds.

This time I promised to discuss ways to shift the status quo in education away from progressive exercises in self-congratulation towards renewed excellence.

Firstly let's note that there are no such things as solutions, only trade-offs of varying favorability to different people. This point could have saved us much trouble as so many of the problems in education today are the result of progressive elites comparing our past educational climate to perfection then finding it wanting. Absent perfection they demanded solutions all the while never asking if it was water or gasoline they threw on the fire only whether it was well intended.

Since I'll be discussing politics I'll mention mine. Firstly my father, many of my friends and virtually all my past co-workers are teachers. Far from harboring anti-teacher sentiments I have much respect for individuals in the profession. Only when teachers act as a group, specifically by proxy as a politicized union, do they fall from my favor. Secondly, I didn't come into to teaching as some hardened ideologue looking to reinforce preconceptions. On the contrary I generally considered myself a Democrat and in 2002 voted for (WI Governor) Jim Doyle particularly because of his opposition to school vouchers. Today I admit I'd sooner stay home than vote Democrat, but that perspective evolved only after years of observing countless progressive myths exposed.

As my last column illustrated, there's been a profound degradation of behavioral standards. Today I'd say that student (mis)behavior accounts for well over half our educational shortfall. Teachers need the power (and the will) to permanently remove disruptive, intimidating, and often violent students from the classroom, but repeatedly find themself running into the law. Unfortunately in this case teachers can be their own worst enemy.

Let me explain. Teachers' unions are hugely influential political forces with massive resources. If they put their weight behind policy empowering them to remove problem students they could have it. Republicans would sign that legislation in a heartbeat and heck, probably throw them corporal punishment to boot.The holdup? That's where the unholy alliances at work inside the Democratic Party kick in.People should not underestimate the influence wielded by special interests like trial-lawyers and well funded socialist-leaning foundations inside the party.

Now the ultimate interest of trial-lawyers and socialists for instance is a society with a forever-broadening concept of justice. More perceived victims, government dependency and relativism translates into billions of dollars and permanent employment for lawyers willing to finesse those gray areas and millions of votes for Democratic politicians selling solutions to problems they also caused. No Democrat dares stir this pot with fundamental reforms.

Certainly many dismay over this politicization of education. Luckily there's a wonderfully favorable trade-off that would largely transfer education from the hands of politicians into those of parents almost overnight: universal school vouchers.

While vouchers are a no-brainer to many, as a former voucher opponent I understand where folks go wrong. You see I was taken by the popular argument that vouchers would be unfair since private schools wouldn't be burdened by the same regulations as public ones. But if public schools are at an admitted disadvantage and we are sincerely dedicated to education it's our duty to steer away from that model. Besides, fairness doesn't pertain to institutions, only people. Institutions, like goods, are only tools to serve people until a better way emerges. Nobody would demand that people begin throwing away their DVD players out of a sense of fairness to Betamax.

Enact universal vouchers then watch bad schools and teachers sink while the good ones swim. It's real world evolution after all and we know who can't get enough evolution.

In closing: teachers must see the NEA for what it has become- a political activist group that puts ideology way ahead of its members- and rightfully shun them. Interestingly over the past 50 years the number of teachers nationwide has increased 300% while the increase in students was only 50%. So the NEA's bottom line tripled while teachers wages understandably stagnated. The NEA national headquarters alone employs more than 350 people with yearly compensations over $100,000. And some are concerned about introducing the profit motive to education?

Likewise voters concerned with education, regardless of their politics, must come to grips with the fact that no positive educational reforms -absolutely none- will come from electing progressivescontemporary liberals. Their long-term goal is a one-size-fits-all socialism where sadly all may be mired in mediocrity just so long as we're equal.Our founders, however, recognized independence and competition as the driving forces behind American exceptionalism and I hope you will consider voting in the interest of competition within education .

Education Degradation Part I

“Ad astra per aspera”, so went the motto of my late grandfather's Kenosha High School's class of '24. Translated it reads: “to the stars through difficulties”. I had to look it up, but the students of that day wouldn't need to. Back then local students received a classical education with study of Greek or Latin considered necessary for full understanding and appreciation of Western Civilization and its works. Every boy wore a tie and every girl a dress for their picture. They apparently didn't realize how politically incorrect they were.

The yearbook staff eloquently dedicated the issue to Colonel Michael Frank, Kenosha's first mayor, noting that Kenosha H.S. was the first free school west of New England. They also stated, “We, the students of the year 1924, are not unmindful of our heritage.” and hoped the yearbook would “recall the spirit of the men and women who made our early history...” So has this noble spirit endured?

Perhaps some foreshadowing can be gleaned from glancing at my father's senior yearbook 45 years later in 1969. The senior class introduction mentioned no class motto, but did say they sold buttons reading: “I Gave 69”. I sensed a shift.

Fast-forward another thirty-seven years to the present where I recently spent three days substitute teaching at my high-school alma mater. Though hardly a dream job, being a substitute in every school, grade, and subject has given me a vantage point that few commentators on current educational matters can claim. This particular three-day stint was illustrative of just how much things have changed.

On day one a student was pointed out to me by a staff member as being mentioned in the paper for throwing a female police officer into oncoming traffic during his arrest at the bus stop four days earlier. Yet he was in class. The next day, upon writing a referral for a student who walked out of my room, a teacher mentioned that the same student pulled the fire alarm only three days prior. Back already. Another teacher told me of a fight earlier that week in which a girl, in the course of assaulting another girl, picked up a hefty overhead projector and threw it at her. She showed up in my class days later bragging about it. Then on my third day a large male student was removed from my class after going toe-to-toe with and threatening to hit a girl. I saw him later that day in the halls.

Remember this was only three days, though my collective stories could fill a book. Now I know this can't be just me. There's been a profound change in what is tolerated, but no equally profound explanation why. Where once fighting was the worst imagined behavior in school now it's a multiple homicide. Nihilism continues to grow among teens as we are reminded by now five local teen suicides this year.

The usual suspects will say we don't do enough. Really? The 1924 Spy didn't list a single school counselor. In '69 there were just three dedicated guidance counselors and several teacher/counselors. Today there are numerous counselors, school psychologists, social workers, Title I liaisons, classroom aides, student helpers, full time security personnel, and a police officer on duty there. Add to that the plethora of behavior modifying medications, advanced technologies, multiplying teachers, skyrocketing school spending and one would think you're describing an educational utopia.

So what in the world happened? Parenting, bureaucracy and popular culture particularly, along with teacher's unions, students and lawyers, all bear some responsibility. But absent a clear villain let's look to the bigger picture of ideas.

Since space is short and these problems urgent, I deal in generalizations fully aware of the inevitable exceptions. The obvious answer is that we are a radically more liberal society today. There's no getting around it. Successive generations of “progressives” have insisted past standards of conduct and achievement are outmoded and “constraining”. They have sneered at tradition while offering no alternatives but intellectual fashion posing as social science and hiding behind the all powerful “It's for the kids” argument. The result? American teens score lower in standardized tests than over half of developed nations tested and occasionally some third-world countries.

Yes, most kids are good as are teachers, but that alone has proven insufficient for progress beyond - or even maintenance of - past standards, both in scholarship and civility. The problem is not that we haven't done enough it's that we've abandoned much of that which worked for that which makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside. We can't turn back soon enough. Until that status quo in education is successfully challenged the news won't change. My next column will focus on how we bring that about.