Recent controversies in San Marcos over school attendance boundary changes, the installation of a former school principal as the latest superintendent of the nation’s nineteenth largest school district, and the roiling debate over the efficacy of charter schools versus traditional public schools has left me to ponder the state of public education in our land.
There are no easy answers and I am not the one to provide them, if there were. Experts of every stripe, and those who would be, might tell a different story but if there is any consistent theme to the saga of the decline of public schooling in America, it’s that little tried in the name of fixing things has worked.
I am in my middle sixties and can remember vividly going through a period during my elementary schooling where new methodologies of teaching were introduced to my classrooms. The things that were tried out on me are no longer used, at least not in the classrooms where my own children attended some thirty and forty years later.
Attempts at teaching reading by abandoning phonics during my daughter’s formative years in favor of “whole language learning” gave way to a return to a modified form of teaching phonics by the time her younger brother passed through school.
For decades we were told by teachers and—once they were allowed to unionize—their unions, that if we paid them better, we would attract more people into the profession and consequently raise the bar on teacher quality. Well, while some will argue the pay isn’t commensurate with the educational requirements, in many districts in California, especially here in San Diego, it isn’t bad, and there are plenty of college graduates who would gladly accept the starting salary offered today’s new teacher.
Has the teaching gotten any better? That’s a matter for conjecture. The real question is: Has the learning gotten any better?
It isn’t necessarily that the teachers are any worse, or that teachers in the days of low pay were any better. There could be something much more fundamental going on here. Government involvement in the teaching process, union featherbedding and demographics have all played a part in complicating a process already of Brobdingnagian size and complexity.
Teachers and the rest of the education establishment have also lobbied hard for more money on a regular basis. While you’ll get no argument from me that you often get what you pay for, there is scant evidence that increased budgets have resulted in a commensurate or proportionate increase in educational attainment.
Again, political meddling into the teaching process in an attempt, vainly for the most part, to cure any manner of societal ills, is often to blame for the increased cost and decreased benefit associated with public education.
Much is being made these days about the use of standardized testing to measure teaching efficacy. I believe in accountability as much as the next person, but I also believe that it is virtually—no, make that literally—impossible to devise a “standardized” test that will comprehensively determine whether a given student in a certain life situation, who may have there own challenges in how they learn, sitting in a classroom with thirty other children is being taught effectively or not.
If we have discovered anything by now in our studies of what it takes to educate, it’s that different people learn differently. Different people will also gravitate to, and learn best, those subjects which hold their interest.
So the key, then, is to identify in each student both how they learn, and how best to keep their interest—no mean feat when dealing with a classroom of thirty or more very different public school children from virtually every social strata and background.
Charter schools have become the latest trend of educational salvation to ride in on a wave of public support for the supposed innovative manner students are being taught and the success that they seem to enjoy.
The success of charters in the inner city in places like Chicago and New York has been well documented in the media, but they are low-hanging fruit. Operating in cities with failed school systems, and filled with minority children eager for a chance to learn these charters were a ray of sunlight.
Some parents in San Elijo Hills suggested the new K-8 being proposed in their community be a charter school so that only San Elijo children could attend. Besides the fact that the school is being built and paid for by the San Marcos Unified School District and its taxpayers, the notion that any school in a public school district could or should be built for the private and exclusive use of a particular community is ludicrous, not to mention elitist. It would also result in de facto segregation as the demographics of the neighborhood are vastly different (whiter) than the district as a whole.
Too often, it seems, charter schools in suburban communities are seen as a way to escape the minorities that have been so poorly served in urban school districts. Many charters will say they have a blind policy for admissions, but transportation issues alone in many cases make attendance of the poorest a virtual impossibility. This results in segregation of the haves from the have-nots.
Some school districts are doing a better job than others, to be sure. San Marcos Unified is one. This is the result of a confluence of factors, including involved parents from the district’s earliest days to now, inspired leadership from both elected leaders and district administrators, a growing community with the money to build new schools, and demographics that, although still heavily weighted toward what are usually considered “disadvantaged” subgroups, are trending toward greater affluence—a factor that cannot be ignored in academic performance when evaluating large groups. (This also helps to explain the earlier successes of the Poway Unified School District during the 1980s and 1990s.)
What to do? As I have said earlier, I do not propose to have the answers. What I do suggest is we must admit the solutions are not easy, but necessary. Public education is in trouble, but necessary. Critical thought about every aspect—testing, funding, charter schools vs. traditional, teacher’s unions, more local control, whether there is such a thing as a school district that is too large—is necessary.
This should not be a political debate—right vs. left, conservative vs. progressive. This should be a conversation about our children’s and grandchildren’s future and our future as a nation. Because that’s what’s at stake.