Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Big Bad Decisions Have Created Big Bad Schools

“Whether you think public schools are mortally wounded (as I do of inner-city schools) or merely history’s largest reclamation project, these temples of gross under learning sit among us as an important cautionary tale: Don’t make the wrong decisions about the national’s most valuable institutions. Building them up is long hard work; tearing them down, is easy.

Most every horror in public schools can be traced to a legally or contractual binding decision made by some other institutional authority. These were the crucial mistakes:

In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution forbids local schools from suspending students who bring political protest within the schools. In his dissent, Justice Black wrote: “This case wholly without constitutional reasons in my judgment, subjects all the public schools in the country to the whims and caprices of their loudest mouths, but maybe not their brightest students.” Now we know he was right.

Two years later, the court established and enumerated the due-process procedures to which a student suspended for less than 10 days is entitled. In dissent, Justice Powell wrote: One who does not comprehend the meaning and necessity for discipline is handicapped not merely in his education but throughout his subsequent life.”

Justice Black and Powell prophesied the conditions and disrespect now decried in the Public Agenda polls. They were in the minority.

You can argue back on the majority’s behalf, but a lot of principals quickly posited their own dictum. Why bother. In the years since, courts and legislatures gave the neighborhood school yet another big legal obligation. : Mainstream and educate severely disabled students. There is a right based argument for doing this, but with many effective principals came up with a counter claim. I quit.

Another bad decision: In 1962, President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 10988. That famous order led to state laws permitting the unionization of public employees, including teachers, who’d previously been protected by civil service law. We know the theoretical arguments here too, but the daily reality is that teacher’s unions in the big cities have become about as subtle as the UMW in the 1960’s. Merit raises for top teachers? Curriculum changes? Don’t even think about it. So no one does.”

I recently wrote a blog “Merit Pay for Performance”, dated 12/13/05, merit pay for teachers is being practiced with success and cooperation of the union in a few school districts. I also blogged on teachers tenure dated 12/112/05. Both are worth reading again.

Curriculum, what students actually learn, is another chipped brick in the institutional edifice of our schools. We now have the “Language Police,” education Historian Diane Ravitch’s meticulous but horrifying narrative of how the major textbook publishers, the testing companies and the state education departments have reduced what public shool kids learn to politically correct, politically laughable pabulum and swill. Mrs. Ravitch’s new book is must reading for anyone who wants to learn why (my conclusion, not hers) so many kids would rather listen to hip-ho songs in their headphones than read what is now in their textbooks. Answer: The rappers use bigger words.

In another of my blogs picked up by DeWayne Bartels of the Observer questioned Dr. Fischer of #150 asking why the books that teachers use are not kept at the administration office of #150 so the public could review. No answer came back from Dr. Fischer or Art Ellis, Curriculum Director, who didn’t return my personal phone call

What all this means among other things, is that politics matter, however aimless it may seem. Wrong political designs can be viral, weakling and killing healthy institutions for years. So let’s end cheerfully on a note of political rancor. For the Democrat Party there is good news and bad news on education. The good news is that the Democrat Party owns the public schools. The bad news is that the Democrats own the public schools-their unions, their curriculum-cleansing, court cases they brought and won. Their solution: Spend more money on what now exists.

President Bush is the latest president to tilt at the broken schools, with a program called NCLB. He wants to hold public money from failure. Some say it’s working but have a hard time proving it does. Bonnie Hughes of Rome, Georgia sent in the following to this column: I keep a tattered copy of “What Works—Research About Teaching and Learning,’cira 1986 from the U.S, Department of Education, William J. Bennett, Secretary. “ We already know what works. I mean how is it that after 12 long years in a seat, children are not physically strong (many obese) nutritionally sound, financially literate, historical literate, mathematically literate and they have no clue how to excel.”

Margaret Spellings doesn’t give me a lot of hope and her letter to the editors in the WSJ today disturbed me more. She basically claims that students, like athletes become better by rote training comparing it to “teaching to pass the test”. That might work in playing a musical instrument, or learning the alphabet or the words to a poem but not in defending our country against terrorists who do not fight conventional wars or as may someday happen, a nuclear or terrorist attack. They do not know how to adjust from the permissive shelter of the education system into the real world. As an ex coach and (teacher) I somewhat disagree with wining by extensive drilling. True, we practiced certain moves but situations changed during the game and the players had to learn how to adjust to the situation. I taught kids the basics of the game and to play to win and learn to accept personally losing but only if they performed well. I taught the kids on individual play and teamwork. And especially how to adjust their game and their attitude to the competition ahead or the competition they were involved in. Not much rote. If we drilled all week on a zone defense and then found out our opponents were playing man to man or kept switching defenses during they game, we all needed to know how to adjust to the situation. I taught our kids how to adapt to the real world where we never know exactly how, when and where we were going to be tested. Each kid was a separate individual and adjustments to fit the kid into a winning team were a major challenge. Those who understood discipline and respect were the ones who could quickly make adjustments, from say a starting role or sitting on the bench being ready to play when called upon.

I do not feel many kids leave their formal training without knowing what it takes to be hired into a position that they can hold and can give them financial security. Let alone learn to budget and care for a family that often comes earlier than they expect and before they are ready to properly care for kids and raise them in a proper manner breaking the mold of failed generations now clogging up our court systems.

I have some hopes for #150 this year but I also had high hopes for the system under the departed Dr Royster. Optimism and well-meaning efforts do not guarantee success.

I see in today’s Observer that all the schools listed have orientation. Noticeably absent was orientation for Peoria Public School System #150. Someone board member reading this blog please tell me when and where these orientation sessions are being held because as a taxpaying citizen of the district, I would like to attend and listen.

Credit for most of this blog goes to Dan Henninger, respected regular commentator for the Wall Street Journal and from and article he wrote on 5/09/06


Anonymous said...

merle, what about bussing? the fact that where you live determines what (good/crappy/mediocre) school you attend is making our inner city crumble.

Merle Widmer said...

I have always favored neighborhood schools. It's been proven many times that you can have good schools in bad neighborhoods. Once a kid reaches the security of the school grounds, the kid can enter a different culture. The most important elements of any school is a strong board, strong administration, good teachers and good princpals.
You can bus kids for special education, vocational training and to the park. When you bus them out of their neighborhoods full time the family connection to the neighborhood school is non-existent. Just because kids are not bortn in the Dunlap School Distreict doesn't make them dumb kids. They will need extra help which is cheaper than prison, pregnancy or incarceration.
Sell the community the idea that its cheaper to make good school effective in not so good neighborhoods than the alternates which they wind up paying anyway.

I've blogged many times on this subject. You can find them but when Bill D. set me up he set me up by date rather than by title. If you know how I can change to title let me know and and will be most appreciative.