In today’s papers, there are three articles worth reading. In the New York Times, Frank Bruni writes on, Teacher’s on the Defensive and Bronwen Hruska writes on Raising theRitalin Generation. In her Washington Post blog, Valerie Strauss writes on OnObama’s Call to States to Save Teacher’s Jobs. All three articles are addressing today’s crisis in education from different points of view (note that the article on Ritalin starts with the fact that the original recommendation for medication came from the school).
The issues involved in these three articles are complicated, but the consistent theme is a relationship between society and its teachers which has gone awry with each placing blame on the other in some way. Society has its ills and they go beyond education. We have a nightmare of disparity in educational opportunities that coincides with huge differences between the rich and the poor. This widespread unfairness causes parents to compete with each other to get their kids the schooling they need. When I was a child, there were parents who sent their kids to parochial schools, for religious reasons, not because they did not believe that the public schools could teach their children.
We have a massive drug problem and an incarceration rate that is so high that inner city parents are desperate to get their children into schools that are not just good, but where their kids might survive. For them statistics about how charter schools mount up against public schools are secondary to the hope that their children will be protected from the violence on the streets.
So what can be done? It’s complicated and goes beyond any simple solution. But for starters, we need to diminish the over dependence teachers have placed on homework as a way to teach kids. Surely, trained teachers are more than capable of teaching children in the 6 ½ hours they have them in class. They do not need to waste their time grading assignments, punishing children, conferencing with parents, and recommending medication all in an effort to get control over things they don’t really have control of.
I have rarely heard of parent/teacher conflicts arising out what is actually taught in school. These conflicts typically develop over what the child is doing in the home, and whether the parent is doing enough to make sure it gets done. It becomes the fuel for fire in conflicts between teachers and parents, unnecessary fuel that diminishes education.
I have read heartwarming accounts of progressive schools for inner city children, largely because the principal and the faculty have learned that they can work directly with the kids without getting overwrought about what happens in the home. It’s not that these kids don’t have caring and loving parents. Rather, it’s that their parents are stressed out enough making ends meet, and need to know they are in charge of their homes and don’t come back from their efforts to support their children to assignments they cannot modify if they choose. Teachers would gain greatly if they gave up authority for things that are truly out of their control. They would be happier. They would be more effective. And they would end up retaining the ones that are really good. And even the weaker teachers, the ones that are good enough, would also rise to the top and show that people can be skilled professionals, even if they are not the mavens of their field, if they work in environments which gives them the support they need.
Seeking less control often paradoxically gives a person more control. Teaches can achieve this, in part, by reducing their expectations about what happens in the home.
Dr. Kenneth Goldberg, is the author of The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Teachers, and Students, published by Wyndmoor Press.