Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Superman May Not Be Coming to Tennessee

Tennessee has two educational systems; one for the rich, one for the poor.

This two-tiered system is not rich people’s fault. It is the result of political cronyism under the thumb of an educational monopoly.  The wealthy are often chastised for removing their children from the schools and blamed for not contributing more to them. But one can hardly fault the wealthy for funding their children’s escape from a system that routinely turns out students who cannot read and write.

Kudos to our governor. He is trying to address the situation.

Davidson County, where our capital city is located, keeps fighting him. The governor wants to bring in first class charter schools to supplement our public school system. He wants poor kids to have the same choice as rich kids: to study in classrooms that are orderly because teachers can actually dismiss the children who won’t behave. He wants poor children to be able to focus on learning the basics of civilized life, just like rich kids. And, he believes he can achieve this by giving working class citizens a choice about how they educate their children, just like wealthy parents.

So the wealthy parents are not the ones trying to stop him. 

Last week, it was the officials of Davidson County who turned down one of the nation’s most celebrated charter school systems, a system our governor had specifically recommended. They said the charter schools in question were not up to their standards. Of course, the real reason is that our teacher's union doesn't want the competition. It is the same reason Bud’s Pretty Good Diner doesn’t want the new Applebys to move into town. And what would it take to live up to Davidson county school standards anyway, pray tell? 

I don't fault our teachers for Tennessee’s shameful educational standards. In many of our counties, the teachers are underplayed and overworked. Many of them can barely keep enough order in the classrooms to even teach. They must constantly placate parents that are either apathetic or who are constantly irate about something. They know when they and a student disagree about something, the parents will nearly always side with their children. They even have to put up with a blog like this, which despite my intentions may come across as unfair to them and their work.

So I don't want to beat up on our teachers. The systemic failure of Tennessee public schools in all but our wealthiest counties is due to a number of factors, many of which stem from changing societal norms.  A teacher can hardly control that. What mostly hinders us from educating our children in this state is an ideological monopoly, informed and maintained by the Teachers Union.

Lets take a look at the underlying ideology of this monopoly.

The Lord of public American education, John Dewey, believed that social engineering ought to be the core component of our public schools. This well-intentioned bit of idiocy gradually made teaching children how to think into (at best) a secondary goal.  The waves of educational reform that have come since him have gradually made subjects like grammar, geography, civics, history and literature nearly disappear in many of our school districts.

Even Dewy would have been appalled.  His original idea, which was, after all, to prepare children for responsible citizenship in a democracy, assumed that students would grasp at least the basics of our civilization. The fruit of his ideas however have not been good. 

I am not an enemy of public education, by the way. I am one of its products. I still remember that not so long ago, American public education was the envy of the world. I acknowledge that numbers of public schools, lead by people who keep fighting to keep their schools healthy and productive, still perform admirably.

I am also aware that caring for multicultural children in today’s schools can be extremely challenging. I am a bilingual person from a multicultural family. I understand the difficulties of leading a classroom of children from different backgrounds. However, given my tenderness toward immigrant children and their needs, I hope I have the right to say that getting an education in this nation involves having a good grasp of English and a deep understanding of the culture that birthed our nation. The globe is delightfully multicultural because its nations are culturally distinctive. Any ideology that prohibits a people from privileging its own culture, especially when educating its young, does nothing to advance unity among the world peoples. It merely cripples the ability of its youth to compete in the world and makes the unique contribution their nation offers to the world unattractive to others.

Teachers must be kind and respectful of the various cultures of the world, but they should also teach, without shame or apology, the values of western civilization. In many school districts, this work is undermined in the name of respect for other cultures but at the cost of dishonoring our own. 

Dewey did not foresee all of this. However, his philosophy of education made much of this educational mess inevitable. It is time to dethrone him. It is time to understand that much of our studies in education at the undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate level are farcical phantoms of ideological orthodoxies that refer back to themselves in endless loops. These vacuous ideas require layers of specialized jargon to hide their emptiness from the unwashed masses. That makes the educational programs seem impressive whether or not they address anything of substance.

Ideology is not our school's only problem.  Their institutionalization of incompetence may be even more damaging. In many districts, administrators cannot dismiss teachers that cannot teach. They are forced to rotate bad teachers within their system, or trade them for other incompetent teachers from other districts. The bad teachers get paid the same as the good teachers. The teacher’s union won’t stand for any evaluation of their teachers except to note the level they have reached in Dewey’s educational catechism.  Paying for all this incompetence doesn't leave enough to pay good teachers enough to keep enough of them in the classroom. 

And speaking of money ...

Finland pays its teachers enormous amounts of money. However, the teachers there are highly trained. They are also evaluated periodically, not only for their knowledge but for their ability to teach. Finland respects its teachers too much to allow a person to impersonate one simply because he belongs to a union. As a result, Finland actually educates its children. That is why Finland's students consistently rank high in every subject when compared to the students of other countries.

As I write this, we are pouring billions of dollars into an election. Both parties are telling us how crucial a choice we face and how it will affect our country's future. But in the long run, the nation has proven that it can survive incompetent or even wicked presidents. But it cannot survive this continual slide into barbarism. If we do not begin to actually educate our children – all of our children – no future president or congress will have the ability to pull us out of the hole.

That's why I stared at the television in disbelief as our county voted down the governor’s request to invite charter schools into our city. To be fair, I had just watched Waiting For Superman on Netflix. So was already worked up.

(Every American parent should see this documentary about America's educational system.  It reveals how the inequality of our educational system is not the fault of rich people not willing to pay for education, nor does it blame the wealthy for pulling their children out of our public schools. It places the blame where it belongs: on the lack of educational choice among the poor and working classes.)

I for one would be willing to pay very high taxes to support a school system that really works. But more money will not fix this mess. Our public schools need competition, not in order to shut them down but to wake them up. Our nation's teachers especially need an alternative to the present plantation on which they are forced to work. If another system can pay them better, give them better control of their classrooms and will respect them more, why shouldn’t they have that choice?

The poor kid in the documentary kept waiting for Superman to come to clean up his ghetto. But Superman couldn't get into his part of town. The ghetto’s guardians kept insisting they could clean it up themselves.

Well, the kids of Davidson country are still waiting. And, if our school boards and teacher's union have their way, the educational monopoly will continue as children keep advancing from grade to grade whether or not they can add and subtract or ever get around to learning what the words in the Declaration of Independence mean. 


Johnny Thompson said...

Bravo!!! Thank you Pastor Dan.

Benjamin Hicks said...

Pastor Dan,
I found "Waiting for Superman" fascinating as well, but I find the problem a bit more complex than just charter schools. Another documentary on school systems also available on Netflix watch now is "The Cartel" on the New Jersey public school systems). Some of the problems Charter schools actually cause is that the "good students" go to them and the "bad students" are rejected and stuck back in the poorer schools. In a way it creates even more inequality and even less accountability in the failing public schools. Both documentaries are very interesting and sort of approach the problem from two different angles. Its worth a watch. My 2 cents,

Dan Scott said...

In my opinion, we need a system of accountability for any publicly funded educational system. So I am not calling for a fee-for-all that competes for public funding at the expense of our children. However within the boundaries of accountability, we need competition.

For example, classical school systems take a very different philosophical approach to education, based on the memorization and regurgitation of material in early grades and then focus on developing critical thinking skills as the students mature. However, if they are publicly funded, they are subject to the same requirements to accept the or developmentally challenged children (or linguistically and ethnically diverse populations) as the public schools.

The private school systems remain important components of our national education as well. They have much more freedom, but of course they do not receive public funding.

One thing for sure, this issue affects us all and is a vital component of our nation's future. In the end, it is much more crucial that we get this right than the health care debate and other issues of national concern.