Tuesday, September 26, 2006

"Urban Tragedy"

See this article: Urban Tragedy: The wrong schools are closing.
During the past few years, scores of impoverished inner-city schools have shuttered their doors. On the surface, that could be a blessing. After all, one of the major problems with American education is that bad schools seem to live forever.

But, alas, I’m not writing about those schools — the persistently failing public schools that, under No Child Left Behind, are supposed to be “restructured” out of existence, or at least subjected to an extreme makeover. No, the ones leaving children standing outside their locked doors are generally places of deep learning, community institutions that have effectively served the children of the poor for generations. They are Catholic parochial schools — and their closure is nothing but a tragedy.
Catholic parochial schools have been closing down for the past four decades. Only Catholic private schools—expensive ones, paid for by tuition and not by the weekly dontations in the basket—are flourishing. And unfortunately, the very people that the Church was given a direct mandate to serve—the poor—are probably now worse served in education than in anytime in the past several centuries. In the United States, impoverished Irish and Italians, fleeing famine and persecution, went from being the poorest of all immigrants to the broad middle class in one generation, largely due to the schools which are now closed.
The closures have little to do with the quality of education that these schools provide. Two decades of studies have shown them to be effective, especially for poor and minority children. Rather, broader demographic trends are to blame. Simply put, most Catholics have left the urban core for homes in the leafy suburbs, and urban parishes have dried up in their wake. No parishes, no parish subsidies, no parish schools —yet thousands of needy children remain downtown. On top of that, the schools’ pipeline of affordable teachers has run dry. Once upon a time, most Catholic-school instructors were members of religious orders, requiring little or no cash compensation; now there are more nuns over age 90 than under age 50 in the U.S., and only five percent of the schools’ teachers come from religious orders. Lay teachers must be paid a decent wage, pushing Catholic-school tuitions out of reach for many poor families.
My readers are no doubt highly familiar with these problems. But since education is compulsary, that leaves the poor little option but the public schools. A number of years ago, the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to improve public schools via accountability programs. This article states that there is a large loophole in the program, which merely allows failing schools to restructure themselves as an alternative to doing something drastic, such as firing bad teachers or even closing down.

But I am not interested in whether or not this program is being properly implemented. It is bad legislation, period.

The fact that it had strong support from President Bush and the Republican Party, even though it was written by the socialist Senator Ted Kennedy, should be worrisome. This Act is popular in Washington because it gives control of the public schools to the Federal Government, where politicians of all stripes can get a piece of that enormous pie. It simply furthers the goal of school centralization.

At one time, parents would get together to literally build a public school—perhaps a one-room schoolhouse—and these individuals would have a direct say in who teaches and what is taught, even though taxes may have paid for this. Even in Catholic schools, parents would have direct control over the collection basket. Under this system, some schools were good, and some were bad, but the bad ones would most certainly fail, while the good ones would most probably flourish.

The ideas of equality and efficiency have led to the constant trend of centralization, which contrary to expectations, has led to inequality and inefficiency. Many believe that our suburban public schools are quite good, while nearly everyone thinks that the majority of urban public schools are horribly bad. The cost per student has increased dramatically over the years, with poorly performing urban schools often costing more per student than even elite private schools. It is the principle of First and Second Things in action: put the secondary things of efficiency or equality first over education, and you lose both efficiency and equality, as well as education itself.

This leads me to believe that the public schools are merely the playthings of the powerful, be they politicians, corporations, or unions. I am reminded about a Saint Louis city school board election a number of years ago: the mainstream slate of candidates was aggressively (and expensively) promoted by the labor unions, politicians, media, and major corporations, which was coordinated with a smear campaign against the reform candidates. This was in the City of Saint Louis, which has a terrible school district, and the main supporters of the status quo were hardly the kind of persons who would actually send their children to these schools. It was all about power and control.

The basics of education, the First Thing of education, is simple and cheap. Teaching most young children how to read and write, in multiple languages, is easy if done young enough, and if you do it well, they can get additional education on their own. Very little material cost is needed for this basic kind of education. But often the Second Thing of "special needs" children is put before education itself, and the trend is to make all children "special". Likewise the Second Thing of teaching children technology (especially technology that will soon be obsolete) instead of basic science increases costs dramatically.

We shouldn't forget that spiritual goods do not diminish when shared, unlike material goods. Language, mathematics, logic, rhetoric, philosophy, music, theoretical science, and even much of art, are overwhelimingly spiritual goods, and should be the primary focus of education. And these spiritual goods are, at their core, absolutely free. Material goods, such as technology, food programs, infrastructure, and so forth, are material goods, and by neccessity cannot be shared without diminishing: this makes them expensive. A revival of education needs to put the spiritual before the material; there is no evidence that material over a certain minimum significantly improves education, while even the most progressive or traditional of commentators will agree together that a good teacher is by far the most important part of a good education.

Our educational problems will continue to get worse as power becomes more centralized, and even more money will be fruitlessly spent attempting to solve these problems. The solution will come only when those in power decide to just let go of their grip on the schools, to let the parents themselves control education of their own children. There won't be standarization, nor will there be absolute equality, and even many schools will fail outright. However, I think that teaching will return to its proper place as an honorable profession.

I also hope for a revival in the Church's educational mission, but it will probably be several decades before it is fully restored.

No comments:

Post a Comment