Poor Elijah’s Almanack: Legitimate concerns over schools

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Peter Berger, an English teacher at Weathersfield School, who writes “Poor Elijah’s Almanack.” The column appears in several publications, including the Times Argus, the Rutland Herald and the Stowe Reporter.

Betsy DeVos is remarkably unqualified to serve as secretary of education, even compared to her notably ill-equipped predecessors in that office. Her campaign on behalf of vouchers and school choice, while spotlighting the benefits that alternatives can offer some students, at best glosses over and at worst ignores the disadvantages and impracticalities inherent in privatizing public education.

Among the former is the further dissolution of American communities, which commonly coalesce around their local schools. As we convene in our separate social and political enclaves, I suspect it won’t help if we also sequester our children in echo chamber schools. Among the latter is the reality that providing alternative schools that serve some won’t remedy the problems troubling the schools that, owing to practical and financial realities, actually deliver education to the many.

Most proponents of school choice aren’t “enemies” of public education. Nor are many of their complaints and criticisms of public education without merit. Ms. DeVos’ inexperience and lack of expertise don’t invalidate those criticisms. The solutions that choice advocates offer may be irrelevant and inadequate, but the problems that plague our schools are real and do need solving.

When it comes to the troubles that roil public education, the society that funds, governs and populates those schools with its children bears considerable responsibility. Self-indulgence, complacency, neglect and narcissism are contagious and crippling. However, public schools themselves must answer as well for the current state of public education. We owe our children and the nation a candid look at schools’ problems and the inadequacy of our efforts thus far to solve them.

It’s been decades since parents, colleges and employers began complaining about the decline in student achievement. That decline has coincided with a consistent, pervasive expert disdain for teaching content, knowledge, and facts. That disdain has infected classrooms. Instead reformers have championed “thinking skills” and “critical thinking.” Unfortunately, you can’t think successfully without something to think about.

Knowledge isn’t something you scavenge from the internet a piece at a time when you need it. Knowledge is something you carry around with you. Too many students carry too little.

Over those same decades during which academic knowledge and skill have fallen from fashion, experts have also drafted schools to assume responsibilities that once belonged to other social agencies and at home. This has bred resentment among many parents who take their responsibilities seriously and find schools’ expansion into traditionally parental provinces a usurpation of their parental duties and rights. It’s also increasingly encouraged and enabled parents to abandon those responsibilities, which has prompted schools to assume additional nonacademic responsibilities and further compromised academic learning by crowding it out.

Until and unless schools address their particular failings, until schools acknowledge where they’ve gone wrong and continue to go wrong, parents’ demands for alternatives to public education will persist and grow.

 

At the same time that classrooms have become less focused on academics, they’ve also become more disrupted, chaotic and even violent. Time is lost. Focus is lost. Learning is lost. Parents are rightly concerned about the threat to classroom order and their children’s safety. Sadly, the misguided crusade against what reformers brand “school-to-prison pipeline” disciplinary standards, the inclusion of traumatized and profoundly disturbed children in regular classrooms, and a return to the permissiveness that characterized schools in the 1970s have rendered too many classrooms hostile learning environments where behavior expectations are set by the most disruptive child in the room. This is just one of the lessons of the 1970s that schools have chosen to ignore.

In 1983 A Nation at Risk explicitly blamed “extensive student choice” in coursework, “diluted, diffused” curricula, reduced homework expectations, burgeoning nonacademic demands, and lax discipline for the nation’s resulting educational “mediocrity.” Yet today student choice reigns, homework is discouraged if not prohibited, “social-emotional education” claims an ever larger portion of the school day, and teachers who maintain disciplinary standards are condemned as “punitive.”

Poor Elijah and his superintendent are old enough to remember the 1970s. From time to time Poor Elijah complains that his district is recycling the bankrupt follies of the past. “Yup,” the superintendent agrees as he recalls the folly by its former name. And yet he does nothing to stop it as ardent reformers, fresh from education school, sing its praises and lobby to impose the past all over again.

In a bitter irony, schools and school officials never learn.

Along with their demands for a renewed focus on academics and safe, orderly classrooms, parents often complain that their children’s school seems unresponsive. This sense of disaffection often lies in the move to consolidate schools and districts. Proponents promise “equity” and lower budgets, neither of which their consolidation blueprints deliver. Meanwhile, parents commonly feel alienated from their children’s school because control of that school resides farther away in anonymous offices. For what it’s worth, principals and teachers often feel the same way.

Parents have also been gulled by promises of individual attention that schools can’t actually deliver. These assurances have sometimes been well-intentioned, and in other cases – many cases – they’ve been deliberately crafted to elicit parental support. Despite ballyhooed mechanisms like “personal learning plans” for every student, there’s a limit in a classroom with 20 students as to how personalized and “individualized” any student’s program can be. Parents nonetheless understandably expect to hold schools accountable for these assurances. The difficulty is I’m a public school classroom teacher, not a private tutor. That makes a difference, especially when you’re the guy who’s expected to keep someone else’s impossible promise.

Parents in the past have been just as loving and just as concerned about their children’s future, and consequently about their education, as parents are today. Apart from religious schools and select prep schools, there was a little demand then for alternatives to public education and minimal demand for publicly funded school choice.

The problems at school aren’t all at school. Many reside at home. But until and unless schools address their particular failings, until schools acknowledge where they’ve gone wrong and continue to go wrong, parents’ demands for alternatives to public education will persist and grow.

I don’t believe that choice and alternatives to public schools can solve our nation’s education problems.

But I also don’t believe that schools can afford to ignore why parents increasingly want to choose something else.

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  • Matt Young

    There is no way for a public (or private) school to do everything “right.” Children are all unique and many don’t succeed in the big homogenized public system. Offering children and families choice is the solution.

  • Pete Novick

    Hear, hear.

    My mother grew up in a Lower East Side tenement just off Broome St in Manhattan. The family was poor and her dad died when she was young. In high school, she took four years of Latin and three years of Greek. The curriculum called for teaching language by reading literature. So my mom read Homer, Virgil and others in the original.

    In public school.

    She figured she would get hired at Macy’s when she graduated in 1933; she already had a part time job there. A teacher encouraged her to take the NY Regent’s Exam, and on the strength of her scores, Hunter College offered her a full scholarship.

    She worked for thirty years as a first grade teacher. She could teach any kid to read.

    But what I remember most is that she knew the meaning of practically every word I ever asked her to define.

    When it came to our kids, we had the good fortune to be able to send them to a high school which offered the International Baccalaureate, a challenging, content-based curriculum which included comprehensive examinations in the 12th grade.

    I talk to a lot of young people I meet around Windham County. I ask them stuff, and in a light-hearted way, I try to see what they know.

    Most of them don’t know where the Mississippi Delta is. When I ask them to solve simple math problems in their heads, I get blank stares.

    What they do know is that at the young and tender age of 18 or 19, they are finished. But before that grim irony sets in, they reach for their smart phones, and the feeling passes.

    • Craig Gilborn

      Impressive are the distinguished careers that got started in New York City at a public high school, followed by a bachelor degree from a tuition-free city college. Some continued their studies in graduate schools, going on to earn Nobels and other prizes for contributions in the sciences and arts. Examples can be found in a half-century of obituaries in The New York Times.

      • Jay Eshelman

        Never mind the hundreds of thousands of students who graduated from or dropped out of public schools and never made it to the NYT obit. pages. Out of sight, out of mind.

      • Matt Young

        Who pays for a “tuition free” college?

  • Michael Olcott

    untill the last half decade or so i can see the criticisms laid out in this as being valid. and even now i kind of understand the anti consolidation sentiment. we dont want to give up local control. i have to wonder though what exactly that means in a state of less than .75M. i mean its not like st j requires a different knowledge base than burlington. if we are talking nationwide then yeah i can see that argument. With the proliferation of tablets,laptops and the price point of desktops dropping year after year though i have a hard time understanding why we have not moved to a near total independent learning path for EVERY student. cost? well i hear all the time about these U.S. tech companies completely outfitting third world schools,why are they not taking care of our own people first? oh yeah profits which burns the taxpayers. and homework? it burned this ol boy dragging B+ to A scores down to D’s and F’s ( i rarely did it and fought every single teacher over it, yeah i lost but then and now i still feel i was right) i agree there is too much social stuff in the curriculum these days,always has been in my view. we need to refocus on the STEM and tech skills that have become a not a add on but a necessity in our modern society. ok rant over.

  • Jay Eshelman

    A. “[Devos’} campaign on behalf of vouchers and school choice, while spotlighting the benefits that alternatives can offer some students, at best glosses over and at worst ignores the disadvantages and impracticalities inherent in privatizing public education.”

    B. “Until and unless schools address their particular failings, until schools acknowledge where they’ve gone wrong and continue to go wrong, parents’ demands for alternatives to public education will persist and grow.”

    It never ceases to amaze me that critics of School Choice persist in expressing these two points of view (A and B) in the same breath. After all, “In a bitter irony, [public] schools and school officials never learn.”

    Never mind that the customary ‘straw man’ of privatization is disingenuously raised as the ONLY ‘alternative’ to the public education monopoly. If Betsy Devos is remarkably unqualified, what does that say for the monopoly, its highest cost per student in the U.S. (in the world for that matter), its continued decline and obfuscation of academic performance, and the continuing migration of students away from Vermont?

    Okay. So we, “.. don’t believe that choice and alternatives to public schools can solve our nation’s education problems.” …and, we “…don’t believe that schools can afford to ignore why parents increasingly want to choose something else.”

    Did it ever occur to anyone that the public school monopoly is ignoring School Choice? Stop defining School Choice in such claustrophobic terms. Give Choice a chance. Public school officials, and everyone else, will finally learn something.

  • Edward Letourneau

    “…and teachers who maintain disciplinary standards are condemned as “punitive.” — We talk about low student performance as caused by poverty, yet there are schools (Catholic Schools for example) that have 98% of their student body from families below the poverty line, and have a 99% graduation rate. The measurable difference is discipline is the classroom. There is the solution, and everyone is afraid of it.

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