By implication at least, school reform was a central issue in the recent District of Columbia Democratic primary election in which an incumbent mayor known for naming and supporting a reform-minded school chancellor sought reelection. Moreover — and also by implication — school reform went down to defeat along with the mayor, as voters backed his challenger. (And in this overwhelmingly Democratic city, the primary usually is the only election that counts.)
This is not to say that in a straight-up for or against vote on reform, school reform would have lost. Personalities and peripheral issues decided the outcome in Washington. In truth, reforming the nation’s schools is one issue that — in principle — just about everyone supports.
What rational person can say no to providing better teachers, better curricula, better facilities, better whatever-it-takes to kids in public schools? As a longtime supporter of church-related and other nonpublic schools, I wish these generous sentiments also extended to their students. But we can leave that for another day.
That said, I’m obliged to add that much of the agitation for upgrading schools misses the point. The deficiencies of public schools are undoubtedly real, and billions of dollars over the years have been spent on correcting them. But the results are rather less than overwhelmingly impressive. Even though it isn’t popular to say so, the unavoidable conclusion is that the roots of the problem of poor student performance, as well as the solution, lie elsewhere than the schools.
Specifically, they lie in homes and in culture.
As to culture, what should one realistically expect of students deeply immersed in a sensate visual environment whose primary goal is instant gratification without significant effort? “Studies” now and then purport to show that frittering away time on addictive TV viewing and constant involvement in social media does no harm, but such findings are a counterintuitive joke.
Add to the media-saturated lifestyle of many young people a culture that scorns learning and learners, and you have a formula that virtually guarantees educational failure before kids get anywhere near the classroom.
As to the home, it’s been said for centuries that parents are the first educators — not just first in time but first in importance. Who can doubt it? How parents deal with a child — do they, for example, regularly read to him? — communicates not simply information but basic attitudes toward the learning process itself.
Notice that word “parents.” Some single parents labor heroically for their children’s educational success, and some succeed. So, for that matter, do some gritty and determined kids who, giving the lie to social determinism, overcome obstacles and battle their way to the top pretty much on their own.
But in this matter of education, as in so many others, the single parent and the self-motivated learner have the cards stacked heavily against them from the start.
They’re not alone. Those cards also are stacked against the schools when they are faced with kids formed by chaotic, dysfunctional homes and a cultural environment in which learning is held in contempt. Which is why, in the end, school reform that’s focused only on schools can have only very limited positive results.
Americans are schizoid about these things. We want kids to learn, yet we refuse to face up to, much less try to correct, the circumstances — dysfunctional home life coupled with a decadent popular culture — that send many kids off to school programmed for failure. But for reform to work, here is where it has to begin.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.