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Why America's Schools Fail: Part I

Updated on March 31, 2008


America is a funny country, a behemoth situation comedy where nobody knows that they are in a comedy. Through its written Constitution and governmental system of checks and balances, it has survived and prospered to unprecedented levels while many another nation has fallen into civil war, oblivion or poverty. The U.S. seems to succeed in many instances in spite of itself. In both the Revolutionary War and War of 1812, the U.S. prevailed over larger and far better trained adversaries. In the Civil War and through the Civil Rights crisis it has fought itself and managed to maintain its Constitutional principles. Perhaps the history of American success has lulled the affluent "baby boomer" class of the 1940s and 1950s into thinking that the country will take care of itself, no matter the problem, no matter the input of its citizens. Just leave her alone and she'll be right. But if it takes too long to correct, or if it affects my life, well, then, I can sue someone.

Hardly a week goes by without a newspaper, magazine, or television report on yet another failure of American schools to measure up. This measurement can reflect dissatisfaction by parents who feel that their children aren't getting enough academic material, or it can showcase American student's lackluster performance when compared to scores of other nations. The public is outraged, for example, to see America place 17th among fifty nations for middle school math and science skills, beaten out by countries like South Korea. But outrage is assuaged as we flip to the sports pages, and completely faded by the time tomorrow's paper comes. Yesterday's news, even if it affects our children and the future of the nation, is like yesterday's fish-something to be forgotten quickly, lest the smell become annoying.

Like most tracts that try to deal objectively with truth, this book will have something in it to offend almost everyone. Parents will take the frontal assault of my criticism, followed distantly by politicians and school administrators. Teachers unions will also take direct hits, but the teachers themselves are almost universally absolved of wrongdoing. The classroom teacher, that person who has more daily contact with your children than most of you have, who has incredible power to shape young lives, who is entrusted by the state with awesome responsibility, is also something of a eunuch, stripped of the very stuff needed to present and enforce an academic environment in the classroom. The American teacher has been reduced to a lowly, powerless scapegoat, responsible for everything but with the authority for almost nothing. This sad status is the primary and enduring reward of the American parent.

So where do I come off to make these accusations? After all, I am not a parent, though I am an uncle several times over. My authority stems from being, and having been, a front-line troop in the war to educate the next generations. I have taught private kindergarten and grammar school, public and private middle and high school, private college and state university. I taught in two of the five richest per capita income counties in America, and I have taught in a school where gangs had more authority than the faculty. I have taught teachers how to teach at two state universities and as a private consultant, and I served as a student teacher supervisor: I was the final hurdle for student teachers before they could qualify for a California teaching credential. In these roles I have seen schools from many angles, and I was able to supplement my perspective while I was reading for my Ph.D. in Britain, getting a close-up look at schools in England, Scotland, and Germany. These systems have much to offer the U.S. system, and I believe that failure to implement some of their successful tactics is the result of American distrust of anything foreign, even if it is superior. But of course, the decision to implement anything always rests with the American parents, and so they must once more take the blame for the inadequacy of the system.

As a veteran teacher, I embrace a slogan: "I care, therefore I teach." Even with hands tied, blindfolded, and gagged, I have believed for nearly three decades that even with these restrictions a teacher can make an important difference. Maybe the effort is too much like swimming upstream against a strong current, and maybe small positive differences do manifest themselves in my students. In any case, when I use this opportunity to castigate parents, it is not merely to assign blame, but to sincerely hope that the next generation of teachers will obtain real parental support, and not the insincere lip service to which I have long been accustomed. In the end, parents, we are talking about your children and grandchildren; are they worth your time to help fix the problem, or do you truly believe that their education is someone else's problem?

The educational ball is now in your court.


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      JB 7 years ago

      Very True. Yes, there are bad teachers, but too many good ones are leaving due to this madness. Teachers will have to take a stand against accepting lower and lower standards from weak leaders who pacify these irresponsible parents. Pathetic parents will reap the benefits of their failure.