Thursday, July 12, 2012

Of Schools And Warehouses And Poverty And Homes

Earlier this month conservative columnist George Will wrote:
Abundant data demonstrate that the vast majority of differences in schools’ performances can be explained by qualities of the families from which the children come to school: the amount of homework done at home, the quantity and quality of reading material in the home, the amount of television watched in the home and, the most important variable, the number of parents in the home.
Will carefully dodges the issue of poverty, but his sentences jar nonetheless.  No easy fixes exist to improve the"qualities of the families" that rear children nor should anyone want thought police searching homes to ensure that the "proper quality of reading material [is] in the home."  Further, any discussion of social policies designed to keep two parents who believe themselves incompatible together would make the same-sex marriage debates appear quaintly civil.  More importantly, if someone has the answer to eliminating poverty, one hopes that the solution would have been enacted long ago, but the poor, as they always have been, are still with us.

Today, writing at The American Conservative Rod Dreher builds on Will's point:
My conviction, based on talking over the years to public school teachers in Louisiana and elsewhere that I’ve lived, is that the No. 1 obstacle to effective public education is not lack of money (as many liberals would say), nor teacher’s unions (as many conservatives would say), but the personal, family culture of students. This is not something that any legislature can reform. The state cannot order parents to raise disciplined children who care about their studies. The state cannot command parents to stay together, to support their children, to turn off the TV, and so forth. . . .
The point is, the main problem with public schools is … the public.
Dreher supports Bobby Jindal's voucher program but "with serious reservations."  He contends:
Consider that you are a parent of a child in a failing public school, and that you are desperate to rescue your child. Consider that one of these voucher schools is the only option you have. You and other parents who have no money for private school, but who work to instill discipline and good study habits among your children, may be grateful to get your kids out of the “ghetto” of dysfunctional culture that impedes their education in their public school. Believe me, I wouldn’t want to send my kid to a school that viewed the Book of Genesis as a science text, but you’d better believe I’d choose that school if it had good order conducive to learning over a public school that did not, if those were the only options I had. You probably would too.
Dreher acknowledges that his position "leaves the public school as a warehouse for the children of the socially dysfunctional" and that results of leaving students in a warehouse would be terrible, that those results are superior to the status quo:
Bad news, to be sure — but what is the alternative? To compel working-class and poor children whose parents are trying hard to do the right thing to endure the children of parents who don’t care? Is this what egalitarianism requires? Because the well-off can buy their way out of these conditions. The state of Louisiana, with this voucher program, is offering the children of those who cannot a way out. It might not work, but it’s worth trying.

That still leaves us with a class divide that has become and is increasingly a culture divide. It ought to make us uncomfortable … but not as uncomfortable as the status quo.
Dreher's and Will's observations point to several things that frustrate me about the South Dakota school reform effort.

First, none of the discussion surrounding HB 1234 or SDDOE's regulations dealt with the pernicious effects of poverty or any other aspect of "the public." In fact, the South Dakota legislature seems to consider discussing poverty anathema.

Second, no one has articulated a clear vision for South Dakota schools. Preparing a student to be "college ready" differs from preparing as student "career ready."  Fixing the shortcomings that inadequate familial support causes is a totally different task than either of the others. Everyone seems willing to ignore the fact that one of the traditional functions of the public school has been to help prepare students to participate in a democracy. Is South Dakota's ultimate goal to create basic skills warehouses for most and elite schools for some?

Third, no one has identified a single school district that contains terrible schools or droves of incompetent teachers.  I've taught at one of the state's smallest public schools and one of its largest.  I've sent my step-children through a public school.  Every teacher was an imperfect human, but there was never a second when my wife or I would have considered sending them "to a school that viewed the Book of Genesis as a science text."  That's an admittedly low bar, but the young'uns have been able to successfully compete at out-of-state colleges. One graduated from a private institution in three years.

Fourth, the legislation and policies are cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all policies that Scott Walker, and Bobby Jindal embrace. There's no evidence that a rural state like South Dakota has the same issues that a state decimated by Katrina faces. No one contends that political corruption endemic to Louisiana occurs in South Dakota; why would one assume that other states' other social institutions share similar weakness?

Schools are not perfect.  Neither is the larger public,  Reform done in isolation will fail; so will efforts that accept warehouses for the majority and elite schools for the rest. Politicians in South Dakota and the rest of the country, however, seem willing to look at only half of the problem and accept an either/or solution.

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