A Box of Soap

Do you see public schools as good, bad, or barely adequate?  There are teachers in my family and among our family friends.  From Salem-Keizer schools to the state of education in America, the subject often surfaces in conversation at our home.

If we all agreed that there was a need to improve the education of our kids, could we also agree on how to do that?  If we look at the flood of studies available they are liable to contradict some of our closely held beliefs.

A Harvard study showed that in 2009 Utah spent $6,356 per pupil while New York spent $18,126 per pupil, yet a larger percentage of Utah’s students graduated from high school. A simple increase in spending is not always the answer.

Everyone would like to see smaller classroom sizes, but even that does not guarantee better student results.  Classroom size in Finland averages 20, in Korea it is 34, yet both rank at the top of the list in student knowledge.

One variable that does have some consistency is that better qualified teachers have a measurable effect on increasing student test scores.  Many of these countries pay teachers at wages competitive with other professionals, including engineers.  More than that, there is much stronger support, including professional development, continuing education, and mentoring.   College students shouldn’t have to sacrifice substantial lifetime earnings just to choose a teaching career. The thing held in common by those nations with the most accomplished students is that they value teachers.

Let’s say that the most important responsibility and privilege given to adults is taking care of their children.  Taking that responsibility seriously would mean recognizing the staggeringly important role a teacher plays in the growth of your child.  If the average kid spends the average couple hours watching TV/smart phone/video gaming each day, then the adults they spend the most face time with are teachers.

Recognizing teachers as full partners in raising your kids would mean understanding their worth.  The man that can repair the alternator in your car may earn more.  The lawyer who includes your children in your will makes a lot more. The professional that repairs a cavity in their teeth makes a bunch more. The NFL games we watch are played by men valued in the millions of dollars, the same as actors in blah movies.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Priorities.

The real actors here are us. It all begins with parents. Schools that are expected to feed, counsel, and babysit kids outside of classroom instruction cannot devote themselves solely to academics.  The major frustration voiced by these teachers nearing the end of their rope is classroom discipline.  Some of you have a couple of children, some of you four or five.  You don’t need much imagination to see the difficulty of keeping classroom order if you are given 20 or 25 kids whose behavior you can’t immediately and forcefully correct.  With no statistics at all to support the thought, I bet that 34 kids in a Korean classroom have a different level of decorum than here.  What change might happen if an uncontrollable child removed from class could only return with one-on-one presence of his parent.

This is too important to leave for a dysfunctional Congress.   Assume that parents are on their own for making schools better.  That’s how it should be.

(Don Vowell lives in Keizer.)