As I read the numerous proposals for reforming education, listen to experts from the best think tanks, and hear about the many experiments now under way in our schools, I get an uncomfortable feeling. It’s a fear that this wave of reform will fail like previous ones, that we may be looking for a varnish and ignoring the structural flaws under the surface, that talking about education has simply become fashionable, and fashions can change quickly.
Successful reform will be a long-term process requiring changes in some of America’s most basic institutions and habits. In the short term, there are three areas where the need for change is especially pressing: the teaching profession, the family, and our government.
Teachers should be willing to admit that we have been part of the problem. We haven’t asserted ourselves enough. We’ve been reluctant to get involved in policy decisions and to speak out against harebrained ideas foisted on us by school administrators. We’ve been afraid that the failure of kids who weren’t trying would be blamed on us, so too often we declined to fail them. We hid the abhorrent behavior of certain kids, fearing that this, too, would be blamed on us.
We have, through acquiescence, allowed into the profession people who do not belong--people who are wholly unsuited to teaching--and we have protected them, neither helping them to get better nor encouraging them to leave. We have allowed teacher evaluations to become essentially meaningless. And we have allowed society to demand that we cure all its ills. Instead of saying no, we have assumed responsibility for every kind of education: driver education, sex education, computer education, standardized-test education, and more.
Teachers are beginning to change. This change will continue and the profession will be strengthened if schools of education assume a new, more powerful role. They must select the most qualified candidates and let the rest go. They must no longer consider their mission finished when a teacher has been placed in a classroom. Instead, they should continue to train and update their graduates. They should be willing to help teachers who are struggling in the classroom or who are simply not cut out to be teachers. The school of education at the University of Virginia, for example, promises to retrain teacher candidates if they are not successful in the classroom. Every school of education should be willing to make such a promise.
But changes in the teaching profession are not enough. I have spent 25 years as a teacher in public schools, and I know that nothing changes until parents and students get involved. Parents can and must help their children learn. We cannot let parents off the hook just because they are poor, have to work, or don’t have transportation. Schools must help those parents with special needs. On back-to-school night and teacher-conference days, schools should send buses into the neighborhoods to pick up parents and bring them to school. Teachers should schedule meetings with parents to accommodate the schedules of those who work. We must do everything possible to encourage parents to come to school to receive their child’s report card. We must encourage employers to release employees for a few hours so that they can visit their children’s schools regularly. We must hold PTA meetings in housing projects, churches, and community halls. We must show children that we value their parents.
In short, we must do whatever it takes to get parents, especially the parents of at-risk students, to assume their share of the responsibility for the education of their children. As a last resort, we should require, by law if necessary, that parents come to school at least twice a year.
Finally, although it is true that money alone cannot improve the state of American education, more funding for education and a wiser distribution of currently available resources are essential. The future of American democracy and culture can only be secured through our children. Through public education, we pass on to our children the values we hold dear. In this sense, public education is our truest form of national defense. Government must be willing to finance it. If we don’t spend the money needed on education, we will continue to spend larger and larger amounts of money on welfare and prisons.
If we are to be successful in restructuring American education this time, we must do what previous efforts failed to do. We must raise the consciousness of the American people so they see education not just as a way to acquire the skills for rewarding, life-long employment but also as an essential component of an enlightened nation. We need a vision, and we must pursue it in the spirit that took America to the moon.
A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Get The Parents Involved