Monday, October 27, 2008

A depressing comment to a depressing post

Yes, Friday's post was a downer. It's kind of hard to be upbeat and chirpy when writing about the decline of one's own country.

But I offered a suggestion, something that should, if taken up widely enough, would help reverse this depressing trend: Demand math. Demand that serious mathematics be taught in all our schools so that most kids have a shot at placing Algebra I in high school. All such students would potentially be on track to take Calculus in high school. And it is from students that take Calculus in high school that our increasingly shallow pool of engineers is drawn.

Someone named "mister.thorne" had a different idea, which he left in the comments:
I've got a good solution to this problem, and it goes like this: make public education universal and compulsory.

If the government has the authority to tell 18-year-old men that they have to go to war, then it has the authority to tell 12-year-old boys and girls that they have to show up for public school, whether their parents like it or not!

That way, all the educated folks who care about the education of their children will -- once again -- begin to care about the education of all children (including those that their kids will have to live with).

Also this: if we live in a world where a grown man can make millions playing a game, then a public school teacher should earn at least ten times as much.
There is no Blogger profile for "mister.thorne," but I don't suppose I'd be far wrong if I were to guess that Mr. Thorne is a public school teacher, probably in an urban setting.

A public school teacher in Chicago, for example, has a very tough time. Many of the brighter kids are diverted from the public schools to Catholic schools, like those my kids attended, or Lutheran schools or other private schools. Many of those who are left come from households where education and learning are not valued. Those who come to school to learn must often cross disputed gang territories. Your kid may risk a 'C' in Chemistry; some Chicago kids risk death just going to school.

But instead of trying to lift his kids up, Mr. Thorne would bring other kids down. Instead of excellence, he would opt for uniformity. Mr. Thorne would mandate attendance at our failed public schools in the hopes that they would fail a little less. And perhaps, for a time, they would.

But the decline of America, if steep now, would become precipitous. And for what? So that "educated folks who care about the education of their children will -- once again -- begin to care about the education of all children (including those that their kids will have to live with)."

I like to think I might be numbered among the "educated folks." And you better believe I care about the education of my children. But, Mr. Thorne, if I also didn't care about the education of all children (including those that my kids will have to live with) I wouldn't be decrying the state of education generally. I never stopped caring. Even if you ascribe to me the most selfish, petty motives, and say I only care because I pay your salary already, through my real estate taxes. Even if that were the only reason, Mr. Thorne, you would not actually have to destroy my family's best chance for success -- private schools -- in order to command my attention and concern.

If it weren't already obvious, Mr. Thorne's last comment, about teacher salaries, would have given away his profession. But I do not hold this against him. Mr. Thorne, I agree with you that professional athletes make far too much money. But the highest paid among them don't make but a small fraction of what the CEO's of so many of our recently failed financial institutions made. At least A-Rod had to produce to get his salary.

But, yes, I agree with you, Mr. Thorne, that a wiser society would invest more in its future and pay teachers more than they now receive. Still... public school teachers in Chicago make decent money and, unlike say lawyers in private practice, public school teachers have a public pension. Underfunded, yes, but it is there: And public school teachers can retire young enough to take other jobs and add a second career salary on top of a generous pension.

And Catholic school teachers, like my Long Suffering Spouse, make less than their public school counterparts. (And in Chicago, their pension was just discontinued.) Nevertheless, on average, Catholic schools produce better results: Better test scores, admission to better colleges. You, Mr. Thorne, would argue that they have the cream of the crop to work with and I, believe it or not, will concede you have a point. (But, trust me, some of these supposedly cream-of-the-crop students are pretty curdled.)

My point is that money alone is not the answer. A national commitment to -- a national insistence on -- true excellence, to realizing the maximum potential of every student, is the ultimate answer.

But that's too big to grasp today. Today, young parents, look at your kid. Will he or she place out of Algebra I in high school? If not, why not? Start with this.

And build.


Empress Bee (of the high sea) said...

my grandchildren all go to private schools. my thoughts run the opposite of most too. i feel that tossing more money at public schools is not the answer. we have done that for years. i really think vouchers are the answer. if children had a choice i believe they would have a better chance. remember the r's. reading, "riting" and "rithmatic"?? hmmm. if only...

smiles, bee

Rob said...

Perhaps part of the solution would be to make paying for school resources more personal. Locally, school taxes make up just over 50% of the total property taxes we pay. I've been shelling out for services for 2 decades and yet I've only just become a Dad this year. If the people whose children actually attend school had to take the biggest tax hit, they might tend to be a bit more vested in what's being offered at school and the level of their childrens' involvement in said.

I'd also like to see us get back to focusing on the basics more. Everyone has been swayed by the big computer companies that their children must be using a PC by age 4 or they'll never succeed in life. That's silly and short-sighted. Teach children how to use rational and creative thinking and they'll be able to handle anything that comes their way. We grew up without the benefit of a PC on our classroom desk and yet we're working quite nicely with technology now. We need to focus our monies and efforts on real educational substance instead of well-intentioned fluff.

And yeah, teachers should earn more. Also, school arts programs should be funded at least as well as their athletics programs, if not better.

Unknown said...

No, I'm not a public school teacher. Never was. But I used to teach mathematics at some obscure university best known for its football team. I used to work for a textbook publisher, and I still work on education projects. I'm hip to what's going on with public education.

Like the Curmudgeon, I can remember when the Nelsons and the Cleavers were typical and life was wonderful. But then a disaster known as court-ordered busing came along. Rather than send their white kids to public school with someone else's black kids, the Nelsons and the Cleavers enrolled their kids in private schools. Then they started bitching about taxes. ("Why should we have to pay for someone else's black kids to get an education? We're already paying a small fortune to keep our kids in an all-white school.")

Look -- I'm not going to be shy about it. I have a goal in life; and my goal is to become the first Governor of the United States. I've got a solid platform full of planks that people really like -- except for my notion of universal and compulsory public education, that is. When they hear that, people with kids in private school usually say something like "Yuk!"

Like the Curmudgeon, they don't want to send their precious kids to a school full of kids raised (or not) by who-knows-who. The heck with those kids. The heck with their schools and their teachers.

Well . . . I say . . . the heck with private education for the privileged. And the heck with school vouchers. Those vouchers just make a lousy situation worse.

Here's what motivates my notion of universal and compulsory public education. It's a simple concept and it goes like this -- every child (who can) should receive an excellent education (despite what the Curmudgeon says of my plan).

Here's how it works. First of all, we nationalize public education. We get rid of this nonsense of 50 different boards of education coming up with 50 different curricula. If our children are to compete against nations with national education systems, then we need one.

Each public school would be much like any other. Each would be staffed by well-qualified and well-paid teachers (much unlike the present situation) who have high expectations for their students.

Students wouldn't be all lumped together. Special needs kids certainly wouldn't be mainstreamed as they are now. (What a freakin burden on teachers and a drag on all the other kids.)

Unruly children wouldn't be in mixed in with well-behaved children. They'd receive "special" instruction.

Not all kids would wind up taking Calculus in high school. Not all kids can grasp limits and derivatives and integrals, and there's no reason to make believe that some kids aren't smarter (and more promising) than others.

Upon graduation, mandatory public service.

How does that sound?