Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Close, but No cigar

I’ve been following the controversy over Mr. Obama’s speech today (9-8-2009) to the nation’s school children and decided to watch the speech myself. It appeared to be nothing more than a pep talk geared toward getting students to work hard, be respectful and stay in school. The general message to the children was fine. I’m more concerned with the message that was sent to parents.

Why was the speech broadcast live during the school day instead of in the early evening when parents could have watched it with their children? Educators, lawmakers, employers and well just about everyone talks about the importance of parental involvement in our children’s education. Here was an opportunity for parents and children to watch the speech together and discuss it. Yet Mr. Obama chose to bypass that opportunity in favor of speaking to a captive audience. Did Mr. Obama not trust parents to be interested in his pep talk? Was he afraid that his critics would find ammunition in the speech? One has to wonder.

Do those who champion parental involvement in education really mean what they say? Government run public schools are the norm in this country. My own experience as a parent has shown me that taking the path of least resistance and sending my child to the local public school was not the best way to draw me into my child’s education. Let me explain. I did check my daughter’s homework when she went to public school. I listened to her read from the reading books she brought home. I looked at her progress reports. I helped with spelling words. I went to conferences with her teachers.

Even with all of that, I realize now that I had a certain fatalistic attitude toward the whole situation. My daughter’s public school used a substandard math curriculum called Every Day Mathematics. I researched it on the internet and found that it is thoroughly reviled by college level math instructors. I mentioned this to other parents. I mentioned this to my daughter’s teachers. Nobody seemed concerned about it. What did I do? Nothing. I thought about complaining to the principal, the school board or the superintendent, but I never did it. I felt it would be hopeless to buck the system, to be the lone voice crying in the wilderness.

At the end of the last school year, I found out that the main thing my daughter thought she learned in school that year was to not pollute the earth. Sure, I knew that my daughter was being taught about the rain forest and to recycle. I didn’t realize just how ‘green’ her education really was.

My husband and I decided to put our daughter in a private, Christian school this year. There is a difference in my attitude. Every night, my husband and I try to pull out of her what she learned at school that day. Not only do we see the money coming from our bank account and want to be sure we are getting the most from out money. It is also about wanting to be responsible for the choice we have made. We want to be sure we’ve made the right decision and change things if we haven’t. With most public education, parents don’t really make a choice. They just go with the flow.

I believe that the public school concept as it operates today is not the optimal solution for encouraging parents to be involved with their children’s education. I don’t have a solution. I expect that someone a good deal smarter than I am will have to figure that out. What I do realize, though, is that having choices and making choices about a child’s education forces parents to pay more attention to what their children are learning in school.

Vouchers which allow children in underperforming school districts to attend a private school are a good first step. The problem is that the same people that dictate public school curricula are also measuring performance. Their standards of what is acceptable performance may not agree with mine or that of other parents. The public school my daughter attended is considered to be one of the best in the county. However, their math curriculum did not meet my standards and their worldview did not agree with my own.

In our situation, there is no possibility of a voucher. As a middle class family, we can manage tuition for one child, but when the second one goes to school things will be tight. How many middle income families find themselves stuck in a neighborhood public school because they can’t afford a private school? Because there are no charter schools nearby? Because there are no alternative schools in their school district?

One way to increase the choices parents have for their children’s education would be to return tax dollars that are paid into the local school system to the parents of children attending private school. This wouldn’t mean that tax payers at large are paying for private education for some else’s children. It would be a simple matter of parents being allowed to use their own tax money for the school of their choice.

While Mr. Obama’s pep talk was all well and good, the parents and students of this nation would be better served by a dedication to school choice rather than a perpetuation of the government education monopoly.

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