Education – What matters (third in a series)

Here comes the school year, and here come the students from poor families, and there stand too many teachers insisting the students cannot be taught, that so high a mountain cannot be climbed. Given that attitude, the students are virtually done for. Their prospects for learning are dim.

It’s unfair to say the teachers who preach hopelessness have nothing on which to base the sermon. They have sometimes done their best and been beaten back, and if they suffer under incompetent principals or labor in a school district where the bureaucracy is unrelentingly burdensome, their chances for success are thin.

But defeatism, as we all know, breeds defeat; if we assume in advance we cannot make it to the mountain’s summit, we don’t exhaust ourselves and take risks trying. A bit of analysis tells you the assumption in this case is wrong – and then there is the evidence, the exceptional schools and teachers that disprove the supposed rule.

The analysis starts with the simple observation that no two students are exactly alike. There may be one who is malnourished and never gets enough sleep and is beaten and unloved and has a TV as his only babysitter. That child will have a very, very difficult time in the classroom. But imagine another child living next door. While similarly poor, he has a caring mother and a grandmother who visits on weekends and encourages him to make good grades. This child will likely have a far less difficult time.

There are just too many variables and differences among individuals to make judgments based on any group identity, and a child who comes from even horrid circumstances may have something flammable somewhere in his mind, something that can be ignited and shine bright and beautiful if someone finds the right spark.

So says Jay Ambrose, Scripps News Service, a writer whose work rarely contains much I agree with. However, in this first half of his opinion piece, instead I find little to argue with. It is the rest of his piece at issue, but it provides what could be a good starting point to address the question I am often pondering: How is it conservatives and progressives can look at the same world and come up with such different interpretations? Steven Pinker in his new book, ‘The Blank Slate‘ touches on the complexity of this issue explaining that so much depends on one’s view of human nature and society. He compares two world views, one tragic and one utopian, as a means to look at how conservatives and liberals see priorities and solutions. As seen in the struggle to balance economic freedom with economic fairness.

Either way, Ambrose is right we do need to find those sparks. He focuses on individuals, and how on the one hand maverick principals, who buck the system make a difference, and on the other hand, how students need to be given the chance to opt out of a system with a voucher. Progressives look at the larger picture of groups and systems, and wonder how to make them more responsive. They look at the struggling students and the crumbling neighborhoods and wonder how we can engage them to make their lives better; how can we make the systems more responsive to individuals. Smaller schools is one thougth and using the political systems to redirect some of the resources going to those who have the political clout to grab it all, toward these groups. Most agree we have to individualize and pay attention to the particular needs of students. But ignoring the larger problems and assuming the problem can be solved by letting some students use a voucher to escape seems limited.

Many of the problems Ambrose describes can be dealt with in ways that strengthen a commitment to public education rather than abandon it, as he advocates.

Deborah Meier, and

Alfie Kohn,
are both advocates of public education, but in a different way. They both have books on the subject and advocate for smaller more humane democratic schools.

A good resource for this kind of approach, I’ve found is Wisconsin’s . They have published several booklets on the problems with school vouchers.

Howard Fuller has argued on the other side, that if a voucher is the only choice an urban school family has to encourage change in schools, he is for it.

Don Glines, founder of the Wilson School in Mankato, advocated for public schools, that could offer a true choice to parents. His feeling is not that public schools are bad but that we need different kinds of public schools, because students and parents have different needs.

Check out the website of the International Association for Learning Alternatives if you want to read more about this subject.

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