What I believe: June, 2008
About a year and a half ago, I wrote a post summing up my beliefs about public education. We are at the end of another school year, so I thought it would be a good time to update those beliefs. I wouldn't say there have been any big changes from what I believed two years ago, but writing posts, reading other blogs and comments and then responding to them have certainly affected my thoughts.
Here they are:
1. I believe education should be not be viewed as a right. The framers of the Constitution considered rights to be something coming from God that could not rightfully be taken away from people by government. They believed that government should protect people's rights, but none of the framers ever suggested that a right was something provided by the government. And even if someone looks at it that way, calling education a right is based on the idea that it can be given to everyone. Education can't be given to anyone.
2. The question then becomes whether or not it is a good idea for government to provide the opportunity for a free education for all the people. I believe the answer to this is an obvious yes!
3. I believe that public schools are doing a much better job than we are given credit for. I believe the best evidence of this is in the millions of public school students who have gone on to live productive lives.
4. I believe the most important factor in determining a student's performance is effort and not ability. I believe that student's who care about their education and try hard end up doing well, while those who don't care and don't try do poorly.
5. I believe too much of the blame for students who perform poorly is placed on the public schools themselves, and too little is placed on the parents of those students, the neighborhoods in which those students live, our culture, and especially the students themselves. (Public education critics view this as whining, but it's important, because as long as education reform ignores that and focuses solely on things going on inside the schools, any improvement is going to be limited.)
6. I believe that when education is a priority to the parents, the chances are good that the students will take their own education seriously. On the other hand, if parents don't make their kids' education a priority, the chances are that the kids won't either. (I recognize that there are exceptions to this, and that when parents care and the students don't, sometimes it is at least partially our fault.)
7. I believe one of the most important factors that determine the learning that takes place in a classroom is the effect that students have on other students. That means that if an average student is placed in a classroom with a lot of highly motivated students, that student will learn much more than if he or she is placed in a classroom with a number of apathetic or disruptive students. At the high school level, I believe this factor might be even more important than who the teacher is in that classroom.
8. I believe public education should not be compulsory. It is impossible to force someone to get an education. The person being educated has to want it. When we force people to be in school who don't want to be there, we are simply beating our heads against the wall when it comes to trying to educate them, and we are harming the education of others who are stuck in their classes.
9. I believe dropping out, by itself, is not a bad thing. In fact, in my experience, when students have dropped out, it has been a good thing. In the schools that I've worked in, the kids who have dropped out have consistently been those who made very little effort and/or behaved horribly. In other words, the dropouts that I've known weren't getting an education, and they were hurting the education of others. Obviously, in areas where there are forty percent dropout rates, there is a problem. But the problem is not happening when they drop out; the problem is whatever led up to that.
10. I believe those who say that "choice" (vouchers and charter schools) can make public schools better are either lying or dreaming. I believe vouchers and charter schools can improve education for some students. But I also believe that, while they do that, they will make education worse for others. Nevertheless, I believe that there some places where public schools have become so bad that vouchers are justified. I'm afraid that those schools have already become "holding cells," where it's nearly impossible for anyone to learn. Those schools certainly have some kids who do want to learn, and they should be able to go someplace where they'll have a reasonable chance to do that.
11. I believe that if "standards" and merit pay bring about improvement in public education, the improvement will be much less than their promoters hoped for.
12. I believe the most important reform we could make in public schools is to give teachers the power to remove disruptive and apathetic students from their classrooms. There would have to be safeguards to make sure that this power wasn't abused, but it should not involve lawyers and thousands of dollars to do it. Teachers should be given the power to remove kids, who have little interest in their own education and are hurting the education of their classmates, from class. I also believe those kids should be given the opportunity to come back if they ever have a change of heart and decide that they actually do want an education.
13. The next most important reform we could make would be to give principals the power to keep their best teachers, regardless of seniority, when cuts have to be made, and to fire teachers who are not doing their jobs effectively.
14. I believe that God is alive and well in public schools.
So, there you have it. If Barack Obama or John McCain want to give me a call, my number is 218-386-3569. If they're going to call they should keep in mind that I go to bed early, and please don't call during American Idol.