Books: Education (Opposing Viewpoints)

For a book less than two hundred pages long, this took me a long time to finish (and not only because I mislaid it for two weeks). The subject is interesting and relevant, and each viewpoint is short enough to finish easily in one sitting, even with a dog whimpering for attention (or maybe it’s the food I’m eating while I read) and staring at me with her big dark eyes. But as with the previous book that I read in this Opposing Viewpoints series (on Islam), I felt that the viewpoints were addressing various aspects of the issue without answering the points made by other writers.

Partly that is a result of these books being compiled from previously written materials, rather than essays written for the purpose of the book. The best books I have read that present opposing viewpoints allow each author to directly address the points made by other authors in the same volume – and better yet, to respond to their responses. One article did directly criticize the views expressed in the previous one, which had been written by then-President Clinton and was no doubt widely distributted. But its objection was that too many people would jump on what Clinton said to do without noting that he said one had to go about it the right way.

That probably applies to just about everything written on the subject of education, and accounts for a great many of the problems in the system at all levels. It is folly to take any one recommendation about education and try to apply it across the board, without consideration for how it will work out in a specific situation, and often without heeding the cautions that accompanied the initial recommendation. The best piece in the book, I think, is one that emphasizes the need for each local community to have authority for and take responsibility for implementing educational programs that meet their needs and their goals. That author also stressed that it is a long, difficult process, with no quick or easy fixes.

There are some places where bilingual education is done well. One of them happens to be in a community near ours, where elementary students (whose parents choose to have them participate in this program) learn to be fully bilingual, regardless of whether their first language is English or Spanish. Other bilingual programs have been found to be dismal failures. It is a mistake to say that bilingual education is best based on the success in West Liberty. But it is even more mistaken to say that the whole idea is flawed because of the places where it has been done so badly.

There are schools that shy away from rote memorization because they want students to learn to think rather than just regurgitate facts. There are schools that react to that by making rote memorization a focus of their programs. But good teachers have always known that it is a necessary part, but only a part, of the learning process. There are any number of good ideas that people latch onto as the answer to problems in our schools, but none of the ideas are capable, in themselves, of fixing what is broken.

Some communities provide an excellent education and spend a lot of money on it. Some communities have a very small budget and do very poorly. There is ample evidence that merely spending more does not guarantee a successful program. But those wealthy communities that do have good schools would hardly want to slash their spending, because money does help – when the rest of the pieces are also in place.

Those pieces include parental involvement (the biggest factor), community support, competent and caring teachers, and effective discipline. Trying to fix only one of those areas may bring improvement, but only to a limited degree. No amount of money, standards/testing, or models of what has worked elsewhere will work without those essential components. (In the case of private schools, community support is not an issue, but public schools, by definition, depend on it.)

I am blessed to live in a state that has a history of doing public education well. (Iowa was cited in one viewpoint as an example of low spending and students who do very well.) I know where I live community support is strong and the level of parental involvement is good – though of course never as high as the teachers would like it to be. (I have had my son’s high school teachers request parent-teacher conferences even though it is not necessary in his case, just to get some parents in the door.) I know from my own involvement that my sons’ teachers require both memorization of facts and thinking beyond what the textbooks says. They have a good arts program but not to the neglect of core subjects.

Having tried teaching myself (junior high and high school French and Spanish), I know firsthand how difficult it is. My own struggles were primarily in the area of discipline (a weakness on my part, not the lack of administrative support), as well as the lack of a more experienced teacher in my subject area to coach me. I am grateful for the many competent and caring teachers my sons have had the privilege to learn from, and I wish every child had the same opportunity.

Of course, even within our community, results vary. When we were looking for a house to buy – which would determine which schools our sons attended – I asked around to learn what people had heard about different schools. Not surprisingly, the schools where more parents are recent immigrants and/or live in poverty have more students who score lower on standard tests. There’s a reason that the school where I’m a Reading Buddy was chosen to get this help from volunteers.

(My little buddy was absent this week – all the schools in town have had high absenteeism as the H1N1 flu spreads – no idea how many are flu cases but parents are going to be extra-cautious about sending sick kids to school. So I read to and played games with a very talkative boy whose parents speak Spanish – not that I’d ever have guessed from listening to him talk. I’m not even sure what made him ask me if I speak Spanish – perhaps how I pronounced his brother’s name.)

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