Email L. Henry Platt, Jr.
EDUCATION - THE REAL ANSWER
Let us begin with two observations: In the nation of Chad few if any buildings are constructed of wood, and in the state of Florida nobody has ever lived locally in igloos. So -- what does this have to do with education? I offer another clue: "You can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear."
These observations all point to one fact: To produce an educated adult, a teacher needs a willing and dedicated student. There are very few, if any, trees in Chad -- so homes are not built of wood. There is no natural ice or deep snow in Florida so nobody lives in igloos, and you need silk cloth to make a silk purse. Likewise, you can't teach a child who is devoid of interest, respect, and dedication. Every child should learn these things before he arrives at school, but he can be taught those character assets at any age - it's just harder.
When parents seriously support the teachers and the whole process of education, students flourish. When the parents abdicate, the children suffer. Teachers need support from their principals, too. Principals who back their teachers and their students are more successful in producing worthy students in fine schools. For HOMEWORK I recommend two motion pictures: "The Myra Collins Story" and "The Principal". There are hundreds of similar stories that were not made into movies, but the message remains the same: An outstanding educator can succeed in teaching almost any student.
The correct answer is not to terminate the good and average teachers so they can be replaced with outstanding ones. The real answer is to teach, nourish, and encourage the teachers, principals, and other educators already in the schools so that they can become excellent and outstanding. I can even envision a CD-ROM which can be accessed by problem. If a teacher is vexed with unruly students, he will be able to enter his problem and call up a series of video vignettes to enhance his abilities. Then, teachers who are unwilling to work at improving may need to consider other employment.
I do not have the space or the desire to even summarize the techniques of teaching in problem situations, but I do want to share one short, short story to show this need for understanding in teaching. When my daughters Mandy and Abby were both under three and a half, my wife asked me to take them into the bedroom to clean up. I led the way, sat down, and announced, "Okay, girls, let's clean up." My firstborn Mandy looked at me with a question on her face that said, "What do you mean?" I PAID ATTENTION TO HER QUESTION, and I proceeded to instruct my daughters to pick up every toy by name until the whole task was done. Everyone needs to pay attention to those he teaches.
President Bush has recommended that schools whose product (educated students) doesn't measure up should be penalized. I disagree! To ask a teacher or school with students from dysfunctional families where poor nourishment and insufficient sleep abound to compete with schools and teachers working with the children of parents like Ward and June Cleaver or Ozzie and Harriet Nelson would hardly be fair. Children of parents who enunciate clearly every word and always use the proper tense, case, and mood will have a distinct advantage over the children of an occasional parent who disdains proper pronunciation and is without a clue as to what tense, case, and mood are. Would it be fair to require Tiger Woods to play the third hole from the second tee and the fifth hole from the fourth tee? (Please reread the fourth paragraph which begins, "The correct answer is ..." )
President Bush recommends Vouchers so students may attend private schools. This idea sounds good, but I see a windfall for the sometimes wealthy parents whose children are already in private schools. Parents who are unmotivated to participate in the public school process will also be unwilling to make financial commitments to send their children to a private one. One teacher told me that on PTA night only the parents of her two best students came to school.
President Bush has recommended annual testing using standardized tests. I agree that this is generally a good idea. Besides providing a reference in comparing schools, it provides a target to help teachers and students to study toward common knowledge. There are critics of this plan because it may not lead to a well-rounded education, but I observe that Students who might be otherwise short-changed in cultural diversity will still be steered toward the information that counts (in the standardized tests). History, however, needs to be taught and tested on a state by state basis. Titusville and Spindletop were both the first oil wells. Titusville was first in both Pennsylvania and the world, while thirty years later Spindletop was first in Texas.
New York City is sometimes criticized for the decrepit condition of some of its schools, but New York City also has some of the finest public schools in the nation. If a student wants to study and takes the initiative, he can compete to study at the best or better schools. By the same token -- if the student shows little respect for his school or his teachers, his truancy and nonparticipation will deprive him of the good education he could have had. Students who diligently strive to learn and succeed should be given the opportunity, but the slackers and truants who enjoy vandalizing the property and interrupting the educational process should be segregated until such time as they have been resocialized. (The good news is that sometimes this can be accomplished with only a few afternoons in detention.)
Recent studies have begun to show that money alone does not guarantee a better education and that a better education can be had for the same or less money. I feel that the best use of Federal Money at this time is for research and development: Federal Grants for research and discussion, and fiscal rewards for successful implementation. Extensive research might turn up surprising and exciting insights. One study in California in the early '70's showed how students could improve their teachers' abilities. ( Psychology Today) Another area of research might include the purchase of advertising on local television. Paid consultants can also improve schools -- businesses and government use them all the time.
In the end I feel that the federal Government would do well to subsidize resource programs to help the floundering but committed teachers already in the system. Federal Money to build new schools is counterproductive. There are still many sad excuses for schools in the nation's Capital, but in New Haven, Connecticut, the home of Joseph Leiberman anal Rosa DeLauro, almost all of the schools have been rebuilt or modernized with Federal Money in the last few years. The Jackie Robinson School was originally completed in the 1960's. A new Jackie Robinson School replaced it in the 1980's, and now plans are being developed for another school just a hundred yards away.
I urge Congress to recognize that our Constitution provides for the States to provide for education and that small scale experimentation leads to growth and improvement on a larger scale. Shaping education from Washington might be compared with trying to dock an aircraft carrier while local control of education compares with docking a sixty foot yacht. Both of these vessels could cross the Atlantic, but the yacht could find far more harbors.
Pumping money into schools alone just spends money -- and half of that often goes for administrators.
When I was in the eighth grade, our mathematics text books were excellent; they were more than thirty years old; and they were in very good condition. Ponder that!
© L. Henry Platt, Jr.