At my mid-sized Texas high school, we have the very good fortune to have a nationally ranked Naval ROTC program, run by a former Marine, a Lt. Colonel, an attack helicopter pilot. At his side is a former Master Chief, who anyone with any knowledge of the Navy knows is one of the people who actually runs the Navy while pretenders march about while people all them “Sir.”

When the Lt. Col. first came to the school fresh out of retirement, he expected the kids to be, essentially, little Marines, and was quite put out when they weren’t. In fact, he took their lack of responsibility, their behaving like, like–teenagers–rather personally. After we bonded on the shooting range, I offered a bit of hard won perspective, and the Lt. Col. settled–restlessly–into molding people who were nothing like little Marines into a semblance of what Marines might some day resemble.

In short, he was a natural–I recognized it immediately–at teaching and inspiring kids. It took him quite a bit longer to even hint at admitting it.

The results, though, were stunning. Our rifle team wins state titles and competes, very well, in the nationals. Drill team awards, unit citations, and other honors abound, but most importantly, we manage to send a very large number of brilliant kids to our nation’s service academy, far more than most far larger and more lavishly funded ROTC programs. Not bad for a little town in Texas.

One of the things I appreciate about the Lt. Col. is his perspective, which is just different enough to be more than interesting. The Lt. Col. and I were chatting about the kids the other day and he observed that before becoming a teacher, he firmly believed the conventional wisdom: we had a school problem.

I see it every day in my travels on the Internet. This or that conservative pundit or commentator writes, as a matter of faith, something known to and believed by all sentient beings: America’s schools are failures, virtual houses of horror where children actually become more stupid by the day. This stupidity is reflected mostly in high stakes test scores, such as the STAAR tests mandated in Texas.

Usually, they’ll state a statistic or two, which supposedly indicates that the kids in Texas are suddenly failing. Their test scores are dropping! Often, the fact that an entirely new test has just been introduced and it is the scores on this test that are the generators of the statistics is downplayed or simply not mentioned. Also unmentioned is that the test scores on the previous test were quite good indeed.

For the thinking being, this leaves two possibilities: Texas students and teachers, in the space of a year or two, suddenly got stupid. Perhaps something in the water? Maybe it’s all that fracking! I know! Global warming! Or maybe, just maybe, it has something to do with the test?

Nah. That couldn’t be it. Tests like the SAT and state tests are perfect, impeccable, incapable of error. They’re made by professionals–very highly paid professionals–who just don’t make mistakes on this sort of thing–until they do and as with the SAT, hundreds of thousands of kids have to be given the chance to take another SAT, etc. I’m still trying to figure out why anyone would think the next go around would be better, and so are many Americans, as more and more kids are dropping the SAT and taking the ACT instead (let’s not mention that more and more colleges and universities are no longer requiring either).

But back to my conversation with the Lt. Col. Actually, we’re not as far afield as some might think.

The Lt. Col. observed that he now understands that our problem is not the schools, but parents. Add in the kids, and I agree entirely.

I often wonder if most of my kids were birthed in test tubes. I see virtually no evidence of parental involvement. I send out a monthly newsletter letting my parents know what we’re doing in class that month. I receive, if I’m fortunate, 2-4 acknowledgements. When we hold “meet the teacher” night once per semester, I’m fortunate to see 20 parents–out of about 120 kids–the first semester, and even fewer the second. I see many of those only because I offer the kids substantial extra credit if their parents attend.

Of course, most of the parents that come are not the parents I really need to see, those I almost never see.

Whenever I have to make a disciplinary referral to the office, I send an e-mail to the student’s parents. I virtually never hear anything from those parents. I used to try to call, but I could almost never find anyone at home, and even when it was possible to leave a message, I virtually never received a response. There are exceptions to this sorry rule, but they are few and far between.

What’s that you say? It’s hard to get in touch with me? I always provide my school and home e-mail addresses, as well as my home phone number and my cell phone number, and all of that information is on my lesson plan website as well. Parents so inclined can always find me through the school. I’m one of the easier people on the planet to find. I even have a scruffy little blog!

Please, gentle readers, don’t think me too much of a whiner. Most of my kids are decent, well-adjusted, exemplary teenagers. We don’t–thank the Lord–have the Mad Max-like, post-apocalyptic atmosphere of many urban schools. I love my kids and know I’m fortunate to teach in my high school.

The problem is, it doesn’t take many inattentive parents, and the damaged kids that result, to cause problems far out of proportion to their numbers in schools and in society in general.

In law enforcement, everyone knows that only a tiny number of criminals in any given area commit most of the crimes. In my last detective assignment, I worked burglaries from motor vehicles, and it was common for find single burglars–or small groups of burglars; two or three–responsible for hundreds of felonies amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages and losses.

For the most part, our problems in schooling aren’t as serious as felonies, though those happen too. The Lt. Col. is right: we do have a parent problem.

All I can do, all any teacher can do, is provide the best educational opportunity their ability and resources make possible. We cajole, encourage, harry, annoy and love our students into achievements the kids never imagined and never imagined possible–unless the kids just won’t try. Unless their parents, if they are at all aware of what their kids are doing or not doing, make them try. When there is no one there to hold kids accountable, some will remain perpetually unaccountable.

Oh, but that’s the teacher’s job! That’s the job of the school! I see my students 44 minutes a day, five days a week, for less than 9 months of their lives. I have to convince them I care about them without showing them any physical affection. Who is going to have more influence on them, a greater effect on their development, personality and aspirations? Their parents or me?

I’ll admit that a teacher can never know exactly how far his influence will go. I’ve discovered, to my delight, that I sometimes say or do things, teach some little lesson–even if it wasn’t a formal lesson or the lesson I intended–that sticks with kids, that they think made a difference in their life. I know because every now and then, they come to me and tell me about those moments, or we run into each other in the store and they do the same. Sometimes it was nothing more than a smile at the right time.

I do my best to be unfailingly happy, to have a smile for every kid. I do it because I choose to be happy, to see the world through a smile, but mostly because I never know when a kid will need that smile. I never know when it makes their day, gives them a reason to be kind to others, or maybe, keeps them alive.

That, gentle readers, is why, in part, I have so little use for high stakes testing. No test can provide a smile a kid needs to get through the day. No test can tell stories they need to understand their lives and to give them hope. No test will improve their writing skills. No test will give them the attention their parents don’t, or act the role of a responsible, adult. And they take so much time, so much time that, wasted on test drills, the kids–and I–will never get back. So many neural connections that will never be made in favor of learning how to pass a single, damned test, once in their life.

I know so many parents have no spouse. So many are single parents struggling to put food on the table. I’d just like to know they actually exist. Maybe, working together, we could do better for their child. Many, working together, we could make a difference for society.

The Lt. Col. is right. We have a parent problem, and thus endeth the lesson for today.