Sunday, May 18, 2008

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.

9 Comments:

Blogger JoeP said...

Dennis-- As the school year winds down and I have time to read and respond to your posts, I find it interesting that Maine and Minnesota are so similar. I agree with 13 of your 14 beliefs. (Only #13 keeps me from saying a 100% "amen brother"-- and that is because I'm cynical enough to fear retribution for not being a good ole boy)

If you hear from either Obama or McCain, let us all know.

Holding my breath until then, Joe P

5/19/2008 12:32 PM  
Blogger Tanveer Iqbal said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

5/19/2008 1:27 PM  
Blogger Mr. McNamar said...

Dennis,
A good list; here are my thoughts on a few:
1. Society has created a generation of students who view everything as a right. Mom buys them an iPod--they have the right to use it whenever they want. I never viewed my education as a right; it was for that reason that I did well.
4. I don't believe every student can achieve to the same level, but you are corret in saying that effort doe play a significant role in learning or improving.
5. The blame game kills me. We are all responsible (answerable)when students fail to achieve, but more often than not, it is the student who is culpable (deserving blame).
6. Parents are the foundation of a great education. My wife surveyed her fourth graders in a failing school. None of them could remember their parents reading to them as even younger children, and none said their parents read to them now.
11. Merit pay makes me happy. I would be more motivated than I am now if I knew I could make as much as the thirty year veteran who kicks problem children out before the bell rings to start class.
13. People freak out about principals being able to get rid of teachers for fear of "retaliation firings" or cronyism. But really, doesn't that happen in just about any and every job market?

5/19/2008 5:15 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Joep, thanks for stopping by. I do believe in what I said regarding the power of principals, but it's tough for me not to take that position when I say that teachers should be able to remove bad students. The very first thing someone will say to me in response is, "Well, what about bad teachers?" It's tough for me to try to say to them, "Well gee, that's different!"

Mr. McNamar, I want to make it clear that I'm not against merit pay. I just don't think it would have as big an impact on American education as its proponents do. I think they tend to overrate the importance of the performance of teachers in what is going on in American education and underrate the responsibility of the students. I actually don't think you and I are very far apart on this one.

5/19/2008 5:34 PM  
Blogger Mrs. C said...

Dennis, I appreciate the opportunity to stop by your blog anytime and feel welcomed despite our differences of opinion. I did my own post on numbers one and two. Don't get me started on the "God" thing again or you'll be here all day reading or maybe skip my comment altogether. :]

We do agree that there need to be limits on what is tolerated in the schools, both from the teachers and the students.

I think an important point (if you accept public education as a "given,") is that there is so much that the schools could do but don't for the students. Why isn't the taxpayer going to pay for my son's college tuition, or why aren't there public colleges he could attend for "free" just like high school? It isn't right that very poor get scholarships, very rich can afford to go, and I have to tell my son he isn't going because Mom and Dad don't have $200,000 to spare for each of their six children, and you are all the wrong colour for affirmative action, but don't harbour any racist feelings about it.

Just saying.

Why the strong push to take our four-year-olds away for "universal preschool," but kick our 18-year-olds out the door and tell them to sink or swim? If you're going to do that, let them graduate at 12 or 13 because you don't need Algebra to work at McDonald's.

I agree some of these kids should drop out, and it is too bad that a 12-year-old couldn't get an alternate diploma with the option to come back within a certain number of years.

5/20/2008 9:04 AM  
Blogger Tanveer Iqbal said...

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5/24/2008 11:45 AM  
Blogger Jane said...

7. I think you have overlooked a few things in your conclusion on point 7. You can put all the high achievers you want into one class, but at the end of the day chances are it may not or I should say probably will not, effect the "under" achievers (as you would refer to them) at all. Just because a student makes good grades, doesn't mean he will necessarily influence his peers in the classroom. In case you haven't noticed, under achievers aren't much for randomly handing out respect to those who have never given it to them. Don't get me wrong, there are some amazing student leaders who make a difference. But a student is going to need more than just a A to be a true influence on his peers. I have to get ready for work, but I'm sure after a day of thought... my words will come together to make more sense than they have up to this point

5/27/2008 2:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re number 7 This is so true, especially in elementary school. In a heteregenous classroom with 30 kids, neither the bright kids or the slow kids have much of a chance of learning in school. The bright kids tune out after hearing the umpteenth millionth repetition of something they mastered years earlier, the slower kids can't keep up.

RE number 10....I don't see why choice (vouchers or charter schools) should have to improve public schools. If a CHILD can get a better education at a private or charter school, they should be able to. I think the evalation criteria for success of school choice is that it allows CHILDREN a chance at a better education. The effect on the public schools is not nearly as important.

6/11/2008 12:19 PM  
Blogger mewmewmew said...

You have put it very well when you point out that our system works by consensus, not majority rule. My AP Language class was doing a rhetorical deconstruction of the Declaration in class the other day, and the word "consent" was integral to our discussion. Clearly, Jefferson chose his words very carefully. Most people do, in fact, concur with a taxpayer supported programs such as public education, police and fire protection, public health/public works, and the military. Usually, the discussion centers around how well-funded they, in fact should be.



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