Educational Straight Talk

While rummaging through my “files” the other day – I’m kind of a pack rat with old news clippings and personal memorabilia – I found two articles and one personal letter addressing the crisis of the day, education. All were from 1988. One was an editorial from the Wall Street Journal touting school choice; another from “Curriculum Update,” the publication for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development  titled “Transforming the ‘Underachieving’ Math Curriculum”; and the third a personal letter from me to the principal of my youngest son’s school complaining that his 4th grade math class was several months behind other schools in the area.

That was 26 year ago and we’re still talking about the inadequacy of a public school education. So much changes that nothing really changes. Kind of a big circle. Except that it’s more than 26 years that we, as a nation, have fussed about the quality of education.

“Why Johnny Can’t Read,” a treatise by an Australian, was written in 1953. He recommended a return to “phonics” from remember-by-sight methods then in vogue. Then there was the 1983 “A Nation At Risk” government sponsored examination of the system that recommended a seven-hour school day, a 200-220-day school year, and significant raises in pay (and training) for teachers.

Now we’re dealing with Common Core whose common core is difficult to assess because it is both broad and detailed and philosophical and filled with educational bureaucrateze and is a top-down pushed into the system. In a quick look at the math program, it appeared daunting and complicated requiring students to draw pictures to illustrate the concepts of numbers. I’m quite certain my quick look isn’t an adequate look, but learning numbers doesn’t have to be that complicated.

My personal perspective does have a broad view. My seven children, over a span of 20 years, all attended elementary public schools in four different school districts; five stayed in the public system, two went to private high schools, and my wife was a school teacher in another district. I also, as a reporter, covered school districts. Since then, the money spent per pupil for teaching, supervision, and building and equipment has soared with little evidence of educational progress.

A quick basic observation: Money helps, and certainly “good” teachers are important, as well as effective methods of teaching. However, the key is pupil and parental motivation tagged onto adequate teaching. That includes discipline and respect for authority – something public schools increasingly struggle with (parental fault and public will). We can talk about new ways to teach, but it’s useless if students come into the system with the attitude: “I’m here. Teach me.” Not going to happen. Don’t want to learn, or waiting for someone to make you learn, you won’t learn.

Besides, we’re not talking about creating educational geniuses. We’re talking about mass literacy in all subjects. In general, we’re not even close to that when achievement rates are at a 70 percent level. And, being left out at less than literate level is a tragedy. I recall writing a story about the importance of remedial reading. The teacher pointed out that not being able to read adequately puts a child progressively behind at each grade, at each step. By the time 8th grade comes along, the student might as well be in a foreign country. He congregates with other outsiders and that’s why there are troubles. That, by the way, was a nearly all-white school. So, we’re not talking about race.

A quick personal experience. I was a grade school kid (1940s) complaining about home work when our local sometime handyman, Joe Charity – a black, barely literate, hard working man who was probably denied an education in the segregated South – jumped into the conversation. “Boy,” he said, “you do your school work. You don’t want to end up like me.” Simple, but straight put down. I never forgot it.

We need some straight talk. We’re making basic education too complicated.


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