Good schools

After many years of involvement in public education, I am frequently asked about the shortcomings of schools, of the new problems facing teachers, and of the nation’s poor performance on tests. Almost everyone who ever went to school thinks he’s an expert on education. Attacking schools and teachers makes everyone feel like a reformer, but the problems begin long before a child steps through the schoolhouse door.

Questioners often ask about what makes a good school. My response, which school administrators are reluctant to say, is “Good schools have one thing in common: Good schools have good students.” There is sometimes a shocked reaction, “Of course,” and near universal agreement.

Elementary schools, high schools, and colleges that receive excellent ratings have good students. I was on the first Board of the Maggie Walker Governor’s School for Government and International Studies. We knew that it would be a good school because we selected the best students in the Richmond region.

One reason charter schools have the opportunity to become good schools is because the students are selected, and the pupils have parents who made the effort to have their children register for admission and agree to become involved in the school’s program.

Many children of economically able families are sent to private schools for a variety of reasons: special needs, special abilities, special programs,  social relationships, religious and family traditions, and perhaps others. With some of the more  able students taken away from public schools, the remaining students include many from economically disadvantaged homes. The public schools take all children, and test scores from the much disliked No Child Left Behind program, are an average of all students.

Many public school children come from homes which do not provide stimulation for learning. Some are in public housing, some transfer frequently as with the military, some are from homes where English is not spoken or not spoken well. It is not easy to teach reading through phonics if children have a limited English vocabulary when they begin school.

Some area schools have announced they are attacking the dropout problem by putting more money into the middle schools to provide smaller classes, individual mentoring, and more attention to poorly performing students. While these efforts are commendable,  the problems could be better handled earlier rather than by expensive remediating later. I would prefer hiring someone to prevent problems rather than someone who could solve problems.

When a child reaches middle school without the ability to read, when he comes from a broken home, when he has an older sibling who has dropped out of school, when he has had numerous troubles with the law, when he is frequently absent from school, he is identified as a potential dropout.  School dropouts begin at home where early childhood education should begin, but all homes are not able to meet this need.     

Families with low incomes often live in clusters, such as housing projects, where there may be a single mother with several preschool children whose only affluent role models are persons involved in illegal activities and drugs. The “Norman Rockwell” family consisting of a father who goes to work every day, a mother who stays home, a boy, a girl, and perhaps a dog, and who live in a small town in their own house, is no longer the norm.  Attention, love, worthwhile activities, games, traveling, being read to, and handling books and other reading materials are the responsibility of parents and  certainly trump the endless hours of television to which some children are subjected. It is apparent that we have to supply these children with the kind of early education readily available to children from middle class and affluent homes.

Fortunately, the public schools are turning out many fine students who compete with others for admission to the nation’s best colleges.

The real question is: how do we prepare children to become good students?  Studies show that early education programs for at-risk children  go a long way toward meeting this need.

By and large, good students come from families who have made learning important, who encourage good learning practices, have provided opportunities for learning at an early age, and have had the resources to select schools which have high academic standards.

Opponents of pre-K education, base much of their opposition on additional costs. The money would be well spent to prevent failures in school rather than spending for remedial classes. Our Governor is proposing that 100,000 more Virginia students go to college. This is an admirable  goal, but with more students applying for college and taking the SAT, scores will likely drop. Unfortunately, the state budget on which the General Assembly is now working, gives little support to early childhood education.

The Jesuit motto, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” is based on a quotation by Ignatius Loyola. Early childhood education will not solve all of education’s ills but it offers a great potential to raise test scores and prevent dropouts in later years.

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