Never is there any lack of opinion about public education: how well it is, or is not, serving us. Nor is there ever a lack of opinion as to how to fix any problems it may have. After all, we all went to school so must know what is wrong. The problem comes in knowing what actually works as opposed to “pie in the sky” ideas. That is most evident in the attitude of legislators, which means that all too often programs are not given an opportunity to prove their worth before being tossed for some other nebulous idea. Too many are stirring the pot.
All too many are even questioning the value of public education itself. It is important to remember that our public education system is the one institution to develop the commonality necessary to hold this diverse nation together. Call it civic mission. No democracy survives without an educated populace.
Thomas Jefferson said it best: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” James Madison warned us, “Popular government without education is the prologue to a farce or a tragedy.”
If that education is to be effective, we need to keep in mind that no education is so unequal as one that treats all the same regardless of their individual experiences, cultural background, where they are at a given moment and the like. We must concede that most teachers really want to do a good job and that they are challenged to the utmost with this diversity. It is also without doubt that in many areas facilities are dismal, sending a message about how we value education—and our children. True, facilities are not the most important learning tools but they do send a message.
We have expected schools to take on all manner of issues ahead of society’s readiness, most particularly the issue of desegregation. That is not to say that it wasn’t the right thing to do, but when the schools were unable to do it with expertise and grace what the rest of the nation could, or would not, do at all, all manner of criticism became the vogue. We cannot wait for everyone to be ready. Schools must be the leaders. That is what education is all about, but we can quit looking for a magic bullet.
There is no magic bullet, but there are basics. All children do not begin school at the same point largely because parents are not able to provide in the same way. It is not because they don’t care. They simply have fewer resources. Obviously, a family struggling to provide a roof over their heads and food for the table cannot provide the extras that the more affluent can.
Somehow society must bridge that gap. Hungry children don’t learn. Sick children don’t learn. We must provide experiences that allow the children to develop in their own personal path. Parents must be provided resources. Most of all it must begin at birth, or more accurately at conception followed by prenatal care.
If this sounds like a heavy burden for the nation, it is; however, failure to do so is a far greater burden costing much, much more. No matter how we try, there is just no substitute for prevention of problems. Prevention is still cheaper and more productive than remediation. Always has been. Always will be.
Granted, not all problems can be prevented but a just society can certainly improve on our current efforts. In these trying times, California again finds itself cutting preventive programs while embracing the short-term easy appearing decisions. Our citizens so geared to instant gratification have difficulty understanding the long-term effect of these decisions.
Of course, we have those who take advantage of the situation, but that does not excuse the rest of us from our responsibility. These things that the society needs to provide for the less fortunate are not just charity. They are absolute necessities for all of us. We share the planet.
A child must be given a good foundation if we expect any change for the better. Just as we would not think of constructing a building without a foundation, we must not expect teachers to build in thin air. Here and there are programs of excellence serving a vast range of needs. The challenge is to make all programs appropriate for the students. Private schools teaching their own narrow views—not all, but many—are not the solution. In another column, let’s think about possibilities for making our public schools all that they can be. Therein lies the hope of the nation.