credit: ufhealth.org

credit: ufhealth.org

Mitch Pearlstein, President of the American Experiment, recently wrote an interesting article upon which I’d like to briefly comment. As you read, keep this question in the back of your mind: who is responsible for a given person’s education?

Another year of tepid-to-lousy Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment results in which key players, once again, have studiously steered clear from saying and asking what cries to be said and asked, with two omissions above others.

Pearlstein is obviously of the belief that state mandated high-stakes tests are useful in telling us something meaningful about the success of education efforts. I don’t know Pearlstein’s work well enough to assert that he is a Kool-Aid drinking true believer, but such people tend to believe that absent such tests, grotesquely expensive in money and time taken from actual learning, are absolutely essential and that without them, there is no way to know how well students are learning and how well teachers are teaching. Amazing that we were able to build the most advanced technological/industrial nation in history prior to the invention and implementation of such tests, isn’t it?

George Washington University, a school with an enrollment of around 10,000, recently joined innumerable other colleges in announcing that it will no longer require an SAT or ACT test score for admission. But how can they possibly know anything about the academic abilities of prospective students without such little bits of data?

Do we really believe that many thousands of local children growing up in fractured and often chaotic families can do as well academically, on average, as other kids growing up in much more stable homes?  Honestly?  I am not referring to a few hundred kids, disproportionately of color, doing significantly better in exceptional programs with exceptional educators here and there.  I’m talking, rather, about whole cities of kids.  And no, this is not an overly broad indictment of single parents, great numbers of whom work extraordinarily hard at raising their children, often with remarkable success.  But parenting tends to be a two-person job.

Yes, some kids growing up in single parent families can do wonderfully in school. But in this assertion, Pearlstein is absolutely correct, and every experienced, competent educator knows it. Kids from fractured and chaotic families, families with money, drug, mental health, abuse and other problems virtually never do as well as kids living in calm, reliable, safe and happy homes. And what is Pearlstein’s solution?

And isn’t it finally time to concede that Minnesota officialdom, in relying entirely on public schools, is disserving many children who doubtless would do better in private, including religious schools?  Which is to say, isn’t it time to take advantage of vouchers, tax credits, and educational savings accounts in the same ways growing numbers of other states are doing?

Here’s where Pearlstein is going wrong, where his solutions are overly simplistic and as potentially harmful as the status quo he and others claim is ubiquitous. By that I mean, it is taken as an article of faith that all public schools are abject failures, populated by teachers that care only for their unions, and that gleefully fail to educate students. Even the parents that are satisfied with the schools their children attend are commonly disparaged as being unqualified to understand how bad things really are.

Here are some very simple and sobering facts:

(1) All the best teacher can do is to provide the best opportunity for learning their abilities and resources make possible. Certainly such teachers are inspiring and can encourage students to do well. Some people are simply better teachers than others, just as some people are better lawyers and doctors than others, but the core truth remains. As long as a teacher–and a school–are making that professional educational opportunity—the chance to learn–possible, the rest falls to others.

(2) Education is a life-long process. Schools are only the beginning.

(3) The primary responsibility for education belongs to the individual students and their parents. This is where Pearlstein is correct. Kids often don’t know what is good for them and lack the determination to pursue it even if they do. When their parents lack the determination to force them to do their homework, or even to properly feed and house them, who is to blame? Their teachers?

(4) A teacher’s most valuable commodity is class time. Anything that unnecessarily takes away that time is damaging to educational opportunity.

(5) Failing to understand and act upon 1-4 is the primary cause of most of our problems relating to education.

If a teacher is not performing properly, it’s easy for a competent principal to identify that problem and to help them improve, or to replace them. The idea that unions make firing bad teachers impossible is mostly false. It happens every day. And in those places with insane union rules that mandate the retention of incompetent, even criminal teachers, it’s not the fault of the teachers or principals, but the politicians, hired by the public, who negotiated such insane contracts, and who can, if they wish, change them.

If a school is doing poorly, it’s easy for competent administrators to identify the problem principal and help them improve or replace them.

But where a child is refusing to learn, or is so disruptive they are preventing others from learning. Only competent adult supervision will help. Unfortunately, state imposed “accountability” standards based on data force schools to keep disruptive kids in class, making life difficult or impossible for all. Where there are no real adults in a child’s life, there may be relatively little that can be done. Sending such a child to a religiously based school on the public dime may have a helpful effect in a small number of cases, but for most, it’s only throwing good money after bad.

I found these numbers interesting and scary:

Some numbers:  About a half-million elementary and high school students took the MCA’s this past spring.  Overall, nearly 60 percent of students (in the words of the Star Tribune) ‘mastered state standards’ in reading compared to 59 percent in 2014.  There actually was a drop in math, with 60 percent of students meeting math standards in 2015, compared to 62 percent last year.

As for achievement gaps, 67 percent of white kids, for example, met or exceeded reading standards, while only 36 percent of Hispanic students and 34 percent of black students did so.  In math, 55 percent of white students were proficient as opposed to 24 percent of Hispanic students and 18 percent of black students.

Let me be as clear as I can be, depressingly so, in this instance primarily in regards to low-income and minority children, although there is much in new and previous MCA results about more affluent kids that’s keenly sobering, too.

These numbers, compared to Texas stats, are terrible. But any rational person could expect some disparities. Educational achievement is very much a cultural phenomenon. In this, as in all else, culture matters very much. This does not for a moment mean that black or Hispanic kids can’t excel in academics–they do–but taken as groups–and we’re all about grouping people by race and ethnicity in education while pretending they’re no different–there are going to be significant differences.

A substantial portion of the black population in the cities of Minnesota comes from Somalia. Imagine what a fresh infusion of kids who have little or no educational background, from a culture as foreign as if they came from another galaxy, most of whom can’t speak the language and have no common frame of reference with residents, would do to the test scores of a given school.

I teach about 125 kids a year in seven separate sections of English. What this means is that even a single student failing a mandated test has a significant effect on my overall scores. So it is elsewhere.

In the words of the Star Tribune again, ‘The fresh results come as state officials have pledged to cut the achievement gap in half by 2017.’  It’s not going to happen.  I would argue that as long as about 85 percent of African American children in Minneapolis and St. Paul come into this life outside of marriage, gaps between their academic performance and that of white children will remain immense, likely staying bigger than achievement gaps in most other American cities and metropolitan areas.  This will be the case regardless of how much more money we spend on education, which is already about $21,000 per student annually in Minneapolis Public Schools.

I also would argue that as long as it’s financially infeasible for more than a relatively small handful of at-risk children to take advantage of the distinctive nurturing often found in religiously animated schools, needlessly large numbers of young people in Minnesota will continue floundering and failing.  And not just until they’re eighteen.

Period.  Hard stop.  End of sad and dangerous story.

Again, Pearlstein is right, but sending kids to a few religiously based schools is not going to solve the cultural problems involved. A few many be helped, to be sure, but this is a much larger problem. Bad public schools can become good public schools, and in a very short time. They do that by putting adults in charge, dropping political indoctrination, rigorously, promptly and fairly enforcing expectations for proper behavior and discipline, and ensuring that one mission above all never be forgotten: providing the best educational opportunity possible.

Doing away with tests that steal 1/3 of the available class time or more in a school year would be a very good start. Kids can’t learn that to which they have never been exposed.

Ultimately, we may have to realize that some people will not do what is in their best interest or in the best interest of their children. That’s not something the schools can fix, and it’s not something that’s going to be fixed unless we suddenly become much more capable of recognizing and acting on the truth. That truth starts with 1-4.

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