By Dwight Owen Schweitzer
Once upon a time the phrase “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” was a quiet joke outside of the teaching profession and rightly condemned by those within. Today, one could just as easily and with greater justification say those who can teach, and those who can’t, administer. In short our system of public education is failing to adequately prepare vast numbers of our children for a very different future than their parents faced a generation ago.
Any critical analyses of American education ought to begin with an examination of the goals our educational system should strive to achieve. The concept of universal education in America was designed in keeping with the tenor of the times when women stayed home, men usually kept one job their whole lives, and children were needed to help with planting and the harvest to come. For them, summer wasn’t a vacation, it was simply a job change in an agrarian society where the skill sets needed to survive if not prosper were as universal as the three R’s. The rest was left to on the job training.
Yes, “all men (and women) are created equal”, but this means political equality, not intellectual, physical, or a myriad of other qualities that go to make each of us unique and very unequal. No one would seriously suggest that everyone is entitled to be on our Olympic team, an admittedly reducio ad absurdum argument and yet curiously to the point. We make distinctions between our citizens every day, some legitimate, some artificial or based on criteria with little intellectual merit. Determining early for each student what career choices will most likely enable them to succeed would be a valuable guide to the student to have an educational experience that is both meaningful and beneficial to society. One size does not fit all and in fact the range of ‘sizes’ keeps subdividing as our society and the needs of its workforce become ever more diverse and complex.
That is not to say it is wrong to leave it to the individual to have the widest freedom of choice of what to do with their productive lives, and as they mature the range of educational choices matching their perceived skill sets continues to widen. Admittedly greater differentiation is being brought into the process earlier with honors classes, wider curriculum choices and in our larger school districts real choices with special public schools for the arts or sciences. While certainly a step in the right direction, this rather elitist approach neglects the mass of just plain kids who demonstrate no great talent or ability and yet are the backbone of our society and it is that group that is being short changed the most. For example most states are in breach of even the most rudimentary requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act which, by federal law, requires the creation of a level playing field for intellectually impaired children, leaving thousands of eligible children with getting at best, too little too late in the process. Bi-lingual education, long the darling of those whose parents were never offered that option and seemed to not only survive but prosper is a financial and ideological drain on a society where a common language is a gateway to common values.
Parents, who used to take up a greater share of the slack in the system, especially when one spouse traditionally remained at home, now rely more and more on the school system to prepare their children for an uncertain future. The frustration levels of parents, teachers and children throughout the country are increasing at a time when the resources necessary to address the inadequacies are decreasing. The scope of the problem was demonstrated when Florida voters, recently endorsed a requirement limiting class sizes. An initiative estimated to cost a billion dollars a year to implement. If class size in and of itself solved even a portion of the problem one might argue that this is money well spent. It is, in fact, throwing out the baby with the bath water. Arizona on the other hand has recently implemented a virtual school system where literally thousands of school children can participate simultaneously and at a much cheaper per student cost freeing resources for other initiatives.
Innovation in education should be our fist priority, and not on an ad hoc basis where each community implements some new strategy or approach to band aid the process. Parents in the meantime are concerned that the quality of life of their children will be worse than theirs. Building more schools to be left empty 25 % of the year is but one of the examples of how we fail to adequately use the resources we have, when having a revolving 9 month schedule 12 months of the year has just increased our plant capacity by 25% at minimal incremental cost. The cost to air condition existing schools where necessary is a lot less than the cost of maintaining empty buildings for 25% of the year.
While the concept of ‘tracking’ students has rightfully fallen into disfavor, there are elements that merit revisiting; the idea that students be tested on individual strengths and weaknesses throughout their school years so that they are better equipped to know what choices they should make for themselves. We do our children no favors when we treat students who are inherently unequal as if they were not.
Although I am of the opinion that it was correct to remove religion from the public schools we ought to remember why it was there in the first place; to keep our children in touch with the value system of our society. Prayer should have been replaced with its secular equivalent, courses on morality, ethics, dispute resolution and values, the non sectarian underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian basis for our civilization and society. Instead we have created a vacuum in the very areas that are increasingly important as our society emphasizes political correctness and ignores the quest for moral correctness.
What is ultimately needed is for the U. S. Department of Education to create a broadly based blue ribbon national commission to study our entire approach to educating our children. They should survey the country to see what works and what doesn’t, what is most cost effective and efficient to deliver both useful knowledge and values to the inheritors of our increasingly fragmenting society. Using the knowledge gained the Federal Government would then have a basis to recommend educational strategies and goals that actually better prepare our next generation for the increasingly complex challenges they will face. Rather than impose solutions, the Department of Education can use its budget to create incentives to help those school districts willing to implement its’ recommendations to have the wherewithal to do so.