Point of View Columns

A Secret Revealed


We should all be pleased that education has achieved a new level of importance in the national discourse. The recognition that education is directly related to economic development, quality of life and the public policy direction of this country seems to be spreading to all sectors of society.

The structural and systemic defects in this country’s economy are critical causes of the depression-like effects that too many Americans suffer. Nevertheless, the improvement of this economy is literally impossible without improvement in the educational system. Uneducated boys and girls become unemployed men and women who are limited consumers and then the cycle resumes.

The notion of quality of life encompasses more than food and shelter, or even great food and sumptuous shelter. It also encompasses an appreciation for the arts and literature and music and the consequent government support for those institutions and systems that preserve and encourage the very best that the human spirit can offer.

When too many people have too little education and exposure to these aspects of the quality of life, the institutions and systems that literally define a civilization and its people begin to weaken and are jeopardized. Quite literally, civilization suffers when support for arts and culture becomes politicized as the province of the so-called “ellite”.

It is unarguable that a well-educated citizenry is more likely to be more demanding of the political process. That sound bites and slogans can define a political philosophy is sad and dreadful. That large masses of people can be led with misstatements of facts and tortured analyses of events is dangerous. Basic and fundamental education is not the province of the “elite”, indeed the provenance of compulsory and free public school education has been one of the foundations of the continuing experiment in democracy known as the United States.

Education is not defined as a constitutional right. Of course, neither are food, shelter or healthcare and yet somehow progressive men and women of good will have determined that education, sustenance, shelter and healthcare are hallmarks of a compassionate, good and smart society and should be supported by the appropriate institutions of the government.

And now that education has taken its rightful place in the forefront of public discussion the critiques and proposed solutions swirl around us in a blizzard-like fashion. And sometimes it’s difficult to get a clear vision of the present and the future, much less the past.

What is clear is that there are substantial areas for improvement in American public education. Most indicia and criteria rank American schools and students behind too many developed countries. What is also clear is that in a characteristically American approach, more money is being spent of public education than ever before. So the root problem may not just be about the resources available for education, but rather how those resources are allocated.

We hear the debates regarding public schools versus charter schools versus private schools with vouchers thrown in for good measure. The teachers’ unions are alternatively seen as the problem or an indispensable partner in the progression towards positive change. And we all seem to realize that the opportunity of a lifetime for every child in school becomes less attainable every day that right choices are not made when it comes to education.

Palatial schools with computers at every desk will not be enough to turn the tide. Fully incentivized teachers who are especially-trained in their areas of discipline will not be enough to make a difference. None of the proposals will be enough without a major and categorical shift in the attitude of American parents towards education.

We live in a country where 30%-40% of the children are obese or on their way to that sad condition. Very few children are born obese – clearly there is a parenting element that has not been addressed. It is difficult to believe that a parent who is sufficiently detached from their child’s physical well-being is going to be fully engaged on the topic of educational well-being.

This is an issue that transcends race, economic status and geography. Wealthier parents may pay for more services at a private school, but too often it is with the intent that the school will provide the oversight, supervision and inspiration that is not found at home. In less privileged households that oversight, supervision and (most importantly) inspiration goes missing.

Most teachers will gladly tell you that the greatest challenge in their job is not the school building or the salary or the students. It is parents who do not instill a respect for education in their children.

It is the parents who stubbornly remain disengaged from this most important and sacred of parenting obligations. It is the parents who demand that schools teach but do not help their children to learn to be good students in terms of their behavior, language, mode of dress and attitude.

The secret to our education dilemma that rarely gets the spotlight is the parents. No one can expect the education system to become some magic black box that takes children in on one end and turns out well-educated and contributing members of society on the other.

Knowing that parents are the unspoken problem in too many instances, the rest of the education system cannot get a pass. No child chooses their parents and the randomness of birth should not fully determine his/her future.

School systems and educators will have to be more creative and more innovative in reaching children who lack full and proper parental support. If football and basketball coaches can do it history and science teachers can as well.

They must.