Monday, March 14, 2005

I listened to a caller ask Rush Limbaugh one day, "Don't you think that many of the problems in schools are caused by parents who don't teach their children how to behave?" As a retired teacher, I was thinking, "Right on!" But Rush blithely ignored the caller's suggestion and went instead into a fifteen minute rant on teachers who ignore the basics and teach feel good, self esteem junk. That's a favorite straw-man. Sure, I remember a period when that kind of touchy-feely curriculum was in vogue--twenty-five years ago. But not now. Nevertheless, Mallard Fillmore punches on this straw-man regularly. Last week, Mallard asked a pretty boy liberal: "Tyler, as a spokesperson for the self-esteem generation, what would you say is its signature quality...its abysmal ignorance...or its complete inability to handle pressure or adversity?" After looking puzzled, the liberal replied: "Could I have an easier question?"
Republicans bash our educational system to create a climate in which they can disassemble public schools. Last week, pundit Kathleen Parker spent a column sneering at visitors to Mount Vernon who ask the tour guides there, "Washington liberated the slaves, right?" Parker reinforced her point that our schools are not doing the job by citing a survey in which seven out of ten fourth graders "believed that the original thirteen colonies included Illinois, Texas and California." That's a shame, but they were only fourth graders. Furthermore, having only a foggy notion of our history is nothing new in our history. A column written to rebut Parker pointed out that:
Sam Wineberg, a Stanford professor and leading researcher on the teaching and learning of history, has written about a test given in 1915-16 to 1,500 upper-elementary, high school and college students in Texas. It included questions about Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, the Fugitive Slave Act, the Dred Scott decision, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, Cyrus H. McCormick and much more. Scores ranged from 16 percent for the upper-elementary students to 33 percent for high school kids to 49 percent for those in college.
In 1943 a similar test showing lack of historical knowledge made the front page of the New York Times. Granted, our schools have never succeeded as well as we might wish, but what Kathleen Parker, Rush Limbaugh, and the Mallard Fillmore cartoonist want isn't to shine on a spotlight that might improve public education, any more than they want to save Social Security or Medicare. They turn a blind eye to the fact that schools do what they can, given the class loads teachers cope with and the students they have to work with.
When my sister-in-law's children were starting school, she asked my husband, who taught high school English, what was necessary for them to succeed. He told her to read with them every evening and to ask them what they learned in school that day--not "how was school?" but "what did you learn?" Molly took his advice to heart; both girls, in high school now, are A students. To the degree that parents trust in the flickering, blue screen as babysitter instead of following my husband's advice, they will send our public school teachers young people with short attention spans and little motivation.
For a period of one month, I'd like to see Kathleen Parker deal with a public high school English teacher's workload, including handling classroom discipline, critiquing rough drafts, and planning lessons. That would shut her up.

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