Thursday, January 19, 2017

What do Do about Public Schools

The fury surrounding Trump's nomination of  Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education is a good opportunity for me to say that I don't participate much in these debates because I don't have a clue.

I do not have a very high opinion of public education in the United States, and my two older sons hated it with a passion. I gather it is the liberal position to oppose charter schools and such experiments because we are supposed to value community schools that educate everyone, but I have noticed that my acquaintances who live in big cities fight like crazy to get their kids into charters or schools for the arts or some other sort of alternative to the local school. Neither the Clintons nor the Obamas sent their kids to DC public schools.

On the other hand I am suspicious of "reformers" who seem to think that everything will magically improve if we can just get rid of teachers' unions and other liberal impediments to entrepreneurship. Nothing makes me value community schools more than flint-eyed millionaires with plans to sow chaos and thrive on it. All of these schemes seem to rest at some level on paying teachers less and working them harder, and that I will not support.

On some third hand, everyone whose childhood was blighted by a grouchy old adder with unimpeachable seniority, or whose children suffered through one, can sympathize with the idea that we might start our improvement plan by firing the worst teachers. My youngest son had such a teacher in the third grade and I think that rather than progressing he regressed a year.

My basic positions are 1) education is hard; and 2) we in the United States simply don't value it enough to get very good results. Cultures get good at what they value; food in France really is better. Because we don't care as much about K-12 education as the Koreans or the Finns, our schools are worse.

What we can do about that, I have no idea. But some of the rigid thinking and ugly shouting I see in the news about DeVos turns my stomach, as does all such ideological wrangling. Isn't there a better way to debate something we all claim to value?

2 comments:

Michael said...

"My basic positions are 1) education is hard; and 2) we in the United States simply don't value it enough to get very good results. Cultures get good at what they value; food in France really is better. Because we don't care as much about K-12 education as the Koreans or the Finns, our schools are worse."

I agree. Schools that do well are those that involve parents and grandparents who, because of their backgrounds, do value education.

G. Verloren said...

Americans are anti-intellectual and always has been. We've always held higher learning in a sort of general disdain, and wrapped up our collective identity far more in values like being "tough", "independent", or "hard working" rather than "intelligent", "cultured", or "progressive".

The only times schools and education have been highly valued and of high quality has been when it is has helped us to achieve other ends, typically involving boosting our military might or outdoing our political rivals, or both.

We had to be smart to compete with the Soviets in the nuclear arms race and the space race. We had to be smart to deal with the Germans in World War II. We had to be smart at various points during the 1800s to claim and secure our fledgling empire's strategic interests. We had to be smart leading into, and all throughout, our revolution and war for independence.

But whenever we don't have some particular looming threat or crisis forcing us to grudgingly embrace intelligence and education? We go right back to deriding and distrusting those who embrace knowledge, and relying on macho posturing and "salt of the earth" style values.