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The paradoxes of public education

Randy West, Editor

There are times when we wish government would stay out of education.
It’s the nature of well-meaning politicians to put their imprint on public education. Each successive administration, either state or federal, wants to do something significant, maybe revolutionary, to improve the system and its products, the students, and thereby leave an important legacy.
But the constant adjustments, interventions, improvement or however you want to describe it makes the system even more complicated and more frustrating for administrators, teachers, school boards, students and parents. It’s impossible for most citizens to keep up with the constant rule changes, and some careless parents have practically handed over their parenting responsibilities to the schools.
It’s no wonder there is so much frustration with public schools — not to mention the frustration with the constant changes in our culture that schools must adapt to and the unpredictable combination of pressures that result in tragic school shootings. It’s no wonder that some ambitious and brave parents (probably educated at public schools) have taken matters into their own hands and started teaching their kids at home, although that enterprise is simply unthinkable for other parents.
On the other hand, there is absolutely no question that the vast public school system and our system of state colleges and universities are what has made this country great. Everyone in this country is guaranteed an education, if he or she wants it. It may not be a first-class education, especially for those kids in a one-parent family stuck in a crumbling inner city school or a remote one-room school in the mountains. But that’s not to say you can’t get a good education there, it’s just more difficult. The list of great people who were deprived of fancy educations is quite long. It’s all up to the child, the teacher and the parents, especially the parents.
Another irony is that our school system would not have been so good through the years if no one had constantly tried to improve it. We would probably still be in one-room schoolhouses, segregated by race, and whacking unruly kids with paddles.
Educators and legislators are subject to trends and fashions in education. Remember when consolidation was going to solve all our education problems? Close the small schools with their limited curricula, put all the kids together, give them a wider variety of classes and more opportunities, and everythng would be all right. (Basketball teams would be better, too.) Except that some kids got lost and the coveted teacher-student relationship went out the window. Now, neighborhood schools seem to be a great idea. Some big schools are trying to create small schools in their big schools. Go figure!
Despite all the criticism and the general malaise hanging over public education, children in Hoosier schools are apparently doing very well, according to recent studies. They are making progress in the difficult fields of reading and math, while schools are doing better in accountability, higher standards and higher expectations. Indiana’s test results are compared to other states’, and although comparisons are odious and often unfair, we seem to be making progress — probably a result of constant fiddling by all the experts.
We wonder, though, what would happen if parents simply made a conscientious effort to spend twice as much time this school year with their children on schoolwork?
What if parents spent twice as much time reading to their elementary-age youngsters each week? (This is a tough challenge but infinitely rewarding. I well remember reading “The Little Engine That Could” at nights in bed with a child until I didn’t think I could get through it one more time. Looking back, those were precious moments, ones I’d like to repeat.)
What if parents spent twice as much time working with their high school kids on homework, or going to school activities to talk with the teachers about their kid’s academic progress, behavior or lack of it? What if they actually supported the teacher, instead of criticizing from a distance? What if parents restricted their child’s TV time by half during the week? What if we didn’t place so much emphasis upon sports?
Would test scores go up? I think they would, dramatically. Kids whose parents spend time with them and care about them are almost always more successful in school and later on as adult citizens.