Tuesday, October 28, 2003

It was research day for students in my two Communication Arts classes. The first and second hour block spent first hour and half of second researching vouchers in the MAC Lab. The fifth and sixth hour block spent all of fifth hour in the MAC Lab.
The argument for vouchers is a seductive one. Why shouldn't parents be allowed to use tax money to find better schools for their children rather than be forced to attend failing public schools?
Why should students be condemned to spin their wheels in substandard schools when vouchers would give them an opportunity to succeed in life?
If it were that simple, it would be hard to argue with vouchers. Unfortunately, it is not that simple.
The American concept of universal public schooling indicates that this country believes that an educated citizenry is necessary for the United States to survive. This concept is not limited to the sons and daughters of the wealthy. Everyone is entitled to a free public education. It is not limited to those who have high IQs. Education is required for those with serious mental handicaps. This experiment has helped America become the number one country in the world. We educate people who other countries shove into back rooms. We not only educate them, but we make them into contributing members of society.
How many private schools are going to be able to fulfill that need? Very few, if any. And if taxpayer money is diverted to the private schools, how many public schools are going to be able to fulfill that need?
It is easy to extoll the virtues of private schools when those schools are able to cherrypick their students. Take Thomas Jefferson Independent Day School as an example. That school has no interest in vouchers and for good reason. It is able to attract the children of doctors, lawyers, and businessmen who are looking to put their children in the most exclusive schools. Of course, those kinds of parents, parents who challenge their children to reach their full potential, are also going to be providing them with help at home. They probably work with their children on their homework or are able to hire tutors for them. They have subscriptions to newspapers and magazines and have bookcases jammed full of reading material. They provide a positive example for their children that a proper education pays off.
Those children are going to succeed in any school in which you place them. Yes, Thomas Jefferson does an excellent job with educating the children of the rich and the children of people who are willing to go into debt to ensure that their children can do better than they did.
But could Thomas Jefferson succeed using the same teaching methods and techniques with children randomly drawn from the poorer schools in this area. Could the excellent teachers in that institution of learning deal with children who felt the back of their parents' hands the night before. Could they deal with children from broken homes and ones who don't have a day go by in which they do not see some sort of illegal drug-related activity taking place in their homes...usually by their parents.
Could Thomas Jefferson methods work with students who have no positive role models at home, who have never been taught proper respect for adults and who have no reason to believe that their lives will be any better than the lives led by their parents?
There is a place for private and parochial schools in this country. Parents should have access to them, but in order for the children of this country to have unfettered access to a free education, tax money must not be diverted from the public schools.
The public schools have flaws. That is undeniable. Many of the worst and most inexperienced teachers are placed in schools in poorer neighborhoods. These are the students who could most benefit from the sure hand of a successful veteran teacher. Instead, they get the dregs, the dreamers, and the drones.
And the teaching shortage is increased because of this insanity of throwing young teachers, with no previous experience, into the jungles of inner-city classrooms, instead of letting them grow slowly into solid teachers. These teachers are the ones who see their idealism being slowly crushed and take a detour into the private sector.
The overemphasis on standardized tests is also causing many excellent schools to be described as failing. A school can have 80 percent of its students make top grades on math on a standardized test and still fail if its scores were in the upper 80s or lower 90s during the past few years.
Schools also can fail if one small segment of the student body does not make the grade. Many Missouri schools failed because the students who are eligible for free or reduced lunches did not do well on the MAP tests. We should not be expecting failure among this group, but these are the ones who are not being provided with any support from home.
And in Missouri, we are not even determining how much improvement students make from year to year. We judge this year's eighth graders against next year's eighth graders. This is the same kind of logic as having a basketball team with a seven-foot center, two 6-10 forwards, a deadeye shooting guard and an excellent point guard win the state championship, lose all of those players to graduation, then compare the next team, which has a 6-3 center and four other players with little or no experience. What exactly are we learning about our schools from the MAP tests? They do not provide a framework, they do not provide valuable assistance on what we need to be teaching our children, and they do not provide a reliable method of determining the quality of teaching or enabling parents to make comparisons with the education offered at other schools.
Vouchers are a lazy way of fixing the education problems in the United States. On the other hand, pouring endless amounts of money into the public education system is also a lazy way of doing it. Accountability is critical if education is going to improve in the United States. Public school officials cannot foolishly fritter away money, emphasize non-educational goals, and expect people to keep passing bond issues and tax levy increases.
Unfortunately, that has been happening in many area school districts. When people vote down bond issues, they are considered anti-education. Many of those people are not against spending money for the schools, even those people who no longer have children in school, they simply want some common sense used in the way their tax dollars are being spent.

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