Can we get serious now?

The recent gubernatorial election was one of the best examples in living memory of being forced to choose between what Captain Jack Aubrey would call “the lesser of two weevils.”

After a campaign waged mainly about Federal issues having little or nothing to do with state government, we’ve chosen a new governor.

Could we now get serious about something governors can actually do something about?

Something like public education?

Education is, after all, the largest function of state government.  In Virginia, education is the largest component of both the state budget and of most city and county budgets.  

Yet we continue to approach the business of educating our children – and our adult citizens – as though we were bailing a leaky lifeboat, rather than trying to design a swift, powerful and seaworthy ship.

I’ve said this before, but bear with me:  The fundamental problem with public education, at least at the K-12 level, is that we don’t know what we’re trying to achieve.  

I doubt there’s a public school official in the country who could provide a clear, specific, actionable mission statement for the schools he or she operates.  If you asked, you’d almost certainly get a lot of buzzwords such as “excellence,” and “all children,” and “preparing for the 21st century.”  

All of which are signals that you’re entering the Desert of Fuzzy Thinking.  

Take “excellence,” for example.  An excellent word, which school officials have been throwing around for at least twenty years.  

Yet America’s public schools are nowhere near excellent.  The most recent international comparison by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – conducted in 2009 – ranked U.S. high school students 17th in Reading, 23rd in Science, and 31st in Math.  

These results are nowhere near those of top systems like South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan.  But, lest anyone complain about cultural bias or the failure of other systems to educate handicapped students, let’s consider the scores for Canada, a country with very similar cultural values, including a similar commitment to inclusion.  

Compared to America’s 17th in Reading, Canada ranked 6th.  Compared to our 23rd in Science, Canada came in 8th.  Compared to our woeful 31st in Math, Canada managed a 10th.
“Excellence” is a nice word.  But it simply doesn’t apply to America’s public schools.

Which brings us to “all children” – the excuse American educators usually offer for failing to match the results achieved by other countries.

The premise – which I don’t for a moment accept – is that America, and only America, attempts to educate children with mental, physical and emotional handicaps.  

I don’t believe that, though it’s certainly true that American schools have assumed too many “babysitting” duties for severely impaired children – as they have for perfectly able kids.

No one who has ever worked in American public schools is ignorant of the degree to which American parents rely on the schools to provide a taxpayer-subsidized day-care.

But babysitting isn’t education.

“All children” also affords a nifty excuse to keep school administrators and school boards from thinking seriously about the fact that different kids have different needs – especially at the secondary level.

America’s determination to offer “all children” a college prep education helps to explain why we are so far behind other developed countries in coming up with genuinely useful vocational alternatives.  

“College for everyone” turns out to mean a watered-down secondary curriculum for many students who would benefit far more from training for real-world jobs.

Finally, let’s not forget the verbal nonsense about “preparing our children for the new century.”  

To begin with, this assumes that educational bureaucrats possess some sort of mystic power to predict what the new century will be like.  Having endured three years of graduate study in Educational Leadership, let me assure you – I never had a single class in fortune-telling.

Besides, trying to predict the future is a mug’s game.  Read up on what people in 1900 thought the late-20th century would be like.  Not even Jules Verne or H. G. Wells came close.  
Think about what you learned in high school.  How much did it prepare you for what you do now?   

I’m writing this on an elderly laptop which would have been considered miraculous fifteen years ago – and science fiction when I left Thomas Dale in 1969.

The simple truth is that we can’t imagine the sort of world our children will face only a few decades down the road.  All we can do is give them good tools – including the ability to think for themselves and to keep learning throughout their lives.

After that, they’re going to be on their own.

Our K-12 schools should focus on developing responsible, self-reliant citizens possessing certain timeless values, key skills, and the ability to think critically – for themselves.

That last paragraph, by the way, comes a lot closer to a proper mission statement than anything a public school administrator will give you.


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