A New Prescription for Public Schools

, Diane R. Macedo, Leave a comment

When I was a little girl my parents decided I needed a new pediatrician. The reason, my mother explained, was that my doctor gave out medication too easily. Apparently Dr. Morgan treated most any ailment with Amoxicillin. “But Mom,” I asked, “Isn’t medicine good for you?” “Medicine,” my mother explained, “is good for you when it’s fighting a disease it was meant to fight, but taking it improperly only gets the body used to it and eventually, the medicine stops working.”

The effect of money on our public schools seems to be operating in quite the same way. The miracle drug of bigger budgets has been over-prescribed by the higher ups and over dispensed by the taxpayers. The result: Many school boards have gotten so used to inflated budgets they have lost the ability to use money efficiently. Our public school system, regardless of increasing budgets, continues to go down the tubes. The money is rendered, like the Amoxicillin, useless.

Title I is a perfect example of this waste. Passed in 1965, Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was intended to help level the playing field between urban and suburban public schools. Though the nation has spent over twelve billion dollars a year on Title I, however, it appears no progress has been made. Our very own Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, admits: “After spending $125 billion of Title I money over 25 years we have virtually nothing to show for it. Fewer than a third of fourth graders can read at grade level.” In addition, a study released by the Department of Education in April of 2001 shows that the nation’s weakest readers are getting progressively worse. Moreover, reading isn’t the only problem. As Mr. Paige points out in his Wall Street Journal article, “It’s Not About the Money,” The United States continues to be a global leader in education spending, yet, in international comparisons, “our 15-year-olds rate merely average versus their peers on tests of reading, math and science.” It couldn’t be more obvious: money is not the answer.

We have reached a point where, as of the 1998 study “A Nation Still at Risk,” ten million high school seniors are unable to read at basic level, twenty million are incapable of solving basic math problems, and over six million never reach the twelfth grade at all. Since the sixties our youth has been digging itself a hole and our public education system just keeps handing out shovels. Why are so many of our children doomed to failure?

The first part of our problem lies in what our public schools teach our children. In her book, The Burden of Bad Ideas, Heather MacDonald discusses this problem in detail. Ms. MacDonald points out that our nation’s educators are taught that children go to school in order to learn about such things as “self-actualization, following one’s joy, social adjustment, and multicultural sensitivity.” What happened to reading, writing and arithmetic? While the law prevents public schools from forcing religion or patriotism upon their students, academics don’t seem to get the message: teachers were meant to teach children, not raise them. Teachers now are so concerned with cultivating students’ spirits, they forget to cultivate their minds. In the end, money is spent, parents are frustrated, and children go uneducated.

El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, a Brooklyn public school, is a perfect example of this academic negligence. As Heather MacDonald reveals, El Puente Academy’s students averaged an appalling 385 out of 800 in verbal, and 363 out of 800 in math, on the 1997 SATs. One would think that a school rendering such low scores would dedicate all of its extra time and resources to improving its students verbal and math skills. El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, however, finds it more important to use tax money to teach its students more about what is probably the only subject in which they need no more instruction: Hip-Hop. In Hip-Hop 101 students learn about graffiti, “how to deejay at parties, break dance…and emcee or rap,” and of course, everybody in the class, including the instructor, must speak in “ebonics.” Knowing this, how could we possibly expect any of these students to have a basic grasp of the English language, let alone do well on their SATs? Even their teacher speaks in slang!

Useless and/or destructive material is not unique to New York schools either. According to Sean Hannity’s Let Freedom Ring, in 2002, Massachusetts state education officials thought it necessary to teach fourteen-year-olds about “sexual positions for gays, whether to use condoms, and how to have oral sex.” The workshop, What They Didn’t Tell You About Queer Sex and Sexuality in Health Class, involved a glorified description of the graphic practice of fisting, tackled such issues as whether a tongue-piercing improves oral sex, and included comments like “I hear it’s sweeter if you eat celery beforehand.” I promise you they weren’t talking about the coffee. Best of all, this lovely workshop cost the taxpayers of Massachusetts a whopping 1.5 million dollars. A small price to pay, I suppose, for the peace of mind that comes with knowing your teenager is an expert in fisting.

Fortunately, not all schools distract students with useless subject matter like that taught in Hip-Hop 101 or What They Didn’t Tell You About Queer Sex and Sexuality in Health Class. Unfortunately, however, that is merely one part of the problem. It is not only what schools teach but also how schools teach that is important, and as you’ve probably guessed, academia’s standard teaching methods leave much to be desired.

Take reading for example. Before the 1980s, our public school systems taught children to read through phonics. Through this method, teachers train students how to read by teaching them to link letters and letter combinations with the sounds, and subsequently combine those sounds, or phonemes, to read words. In a short period of time students get used to seeing common words and simply read them from memory. These words become a part of their familiar vocabulary. Students with this type of training are also able to read unfamiliar words by “sounding them out.” These once unfamiliar words, in time, become familiar as well. Eventually, students grow capable of sounding out almost any word, allowing them to constantly expand their familiar vocabulary with or without the aid of a teacher.

In 1987, however, the State of California set a dangerous trend. The phonics approach, state officials decided, failed to account for variety in children’s learning styles. As result, California abandoned traditional approaches to reading instruction for the “whole language” method. Under this “superior” methodology students memorize a few basic words and then, based on context, guess at how to read and spell the remainder of the English language. If children guess incorrectly they are not corrected, but encouraged to “negotiate meaning,” and “invent spelling.” To the astonishment of the State of California, its fourth graders soon had the second-to-lowest reading ability in the entire country. To the astonishment of any rational thinker, the remainder of the country followed suit.

By 1997, the nation’s reading problem was so bad, Congress established the National Reading Panel (NRP) of “leading scientists in reading research, representatives of colleges of education, reading teachers, educational administrators, and parents” to research the effects of the various methods used to teach children how to read. Two years later, the NRP submitted to Congress the Report of the National Reading Panel and, in short, proved that while the government was spending billions to better educate our children, it was simultaneously abandoning the most effective way to do so.

Our problems with public education stem not from a lack of funding, but from unsuccessful “progressive” teaching practices, and, more deeply, from the monopolistic stronghold the American public school system has on the American people.

Our schools are so prone to failure because they can be. It’s that simple. Your public school will get your money whether you send your kids there or not. Hence, your education officials do little to see your children succeed, because frankly, they don’t have to. As for the kids who are forced to attend inadequate public schools, they remain prisoners of their own poverty.

The time has come to demand accountability not only from our schools, as No Child Left Behind does, but also from our teachers by putting quality in education above union priorities. We must fight to allow salary increases not only for the older teacher but also for the better teacher. We must fight to hire bright individuals from a variety of backgrounds to teach our children, rather than only those who pass through progressive teacher education schools. Most importantly, we must fight for a child’s right to obtain a quality education regardless of income.

By requiring a public school to supply parents with vouchers in the amount of its per -pupil spending or that of the requested transfer school (whichever is lower), we can give parents, rather than the government, the right to choose the school that best serves the needs of their children. Since, from a general standpoint, public schools nearly double private schools in per-pupil spending, these vouchers should serve as ample compensation for students wishing to transfer from public to private schools, while not rewarding those that overspend for their success.

Policy changes like these serve not only to encourage excellence through competition, but also shift the authority on effective teaching methods from a body of bureaucrats to its rightful owner: each individual parent. That, above all else, is the true medication that our public school system needs.

Diane R. Macedo is a 2004 graduate of Boston College.