In a mostly sensible column in the New York Times a few days ago, David Brooks talked about education:
“If there is one thing we have learned over the bitter experience of the past 30 years, it is that per-pupil expenditures and days in the classroom are not sufficient to produce superb information-economy workers. They emerge from intact families, quality neighborhoods and healthy moral cultures.”
Seems obvious, doesn’t it?
It’s perfectly clear that kids in chaotic family situations, growing up economically stressed conditions, aren’t going to do as well in school as children who are not similarly disadvantaged.
But Brooks’ corollary assertion — that per-pupil expenditures and increased classroom time are by themselves insufficient — needs to be examined.
As Brooks points out, America’s success in the world is principally the result of the system of universal education, which, when introduced during the 19th century, was unique in the world.
But now, our public schools are no longer among the best in the world. Our cultural problems are not unique, but other countries seem to do a better job of dealing with them and educating their children.
Eventually, inferior schools will create an inferior nation. So what are we going to do about it?
It’s fine to state, as so many political and religious leaders are fond of doing, that we need to remake society, to recreate the sunny 1950s, when families stayed together, kids worked hard and valued education, and our country was not plagued by recreational drugs, all-pervasive pornography, legalized gambling and a de facto national culture of know-nothing hedonism.
But, like it or not, that’s life in today’s USA. And that culture is particularly toxic, and particularly destructive, to lower-middle-class and working-class Americans.
Children growing up in this world are vulnerable. Often, their only refuge is school. It is, or should be, a place of stability, run by caring adults, who model and transmit the values and behavior that enable kids to succeed.
In Colorado Springs, we have many such schools. Almost all of them are located in affluent neighborhoods, serving kids from families that are mostly economically and socially stable. The best teachers and administrators migrate to such schools because they’d rather teach disciplined, educable kids in new buildings that are well-equipped and adequately staffed.
In less affluent neighborhoods, it’s a different story.
Century-old buildings, haphazardly maintained, service a dwindling number of kids, as neighborhood demographics change.
Families are transient, and economically stressed. Kids come to school hungry and unprepared. Homework is difficult for many, because they might be responsible for younger siblings at home or there’s no space to do it.
Mom, Dad and two kids might all share a motel room. Many kids are exposed to drug use, to family violence and to criminal behavior on a daily basis. One — or even both — parents might be serving jail sentences.
That’s just here in Colorado Springs, in the West Side neighborhood where I live. Every city in America has such neighborhoods and in virtually every one of them the public schools are in crisis.
To give such children any kind of chance for a successful, productive life requires that we, as a country, radically change our approach to education.
The liberal left needs to look carefully at the role of administrative and teaching hierarchies, embodied in the so-called “master agreements” that delineate in minute detail what teachers can and cannot be required to do. These agreements tend to reward seniority rather than performance, discourage creativity and establish a “work to rule/not my job!” culture.
Similarly, the conservative right needs to abandon its unreasoning faith in government-mandated tests, school choice and privatization as cure-alls for education and look at the hard reality of dollars and cents.
For disadvantaged kids to succeed, they need motivated, well-compensated teachers working in flexible, businesslike environments where performance is rewarded. And the kids also need modern schools, well-equipped, with extensive pre-school and day care facilities.
Public schools that accept every kid who comes in the door, as they must, can’t function adequately with present funding structures. In Colorado, that means changing the system that relies upon property taxes to fund capital improvements, which simply doesn’t work for poor communities.
But just changing financial structures won’t work. We need to change our way of thinking about public schools.
We need to realize that without superb public schools, our nation will inevitably decline. We need to understand that fixing the system won’t be cheap. But the price of doing nothing, or of adopting politically palatable but largely meaningless reforms (CSAP, anyone?), will be even greater.
And remember, this isn’t a theoretical debate. This is about kids who are in school right now, whose needs are real, and whose lives are at best precarious.
Unless we get to work, and join folks like developer and politicol activist Steve Schuck, who have spent decades trying to fix education, we’ll lose these kids — as we have lost so many through the years to crime, dysfunction and ignorance.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.