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School Days

By Frank Gruber

"There is not a single district in the United States sunk in complete ignorance." -- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America.

"If you can read this, thank a teacher." -- bumper sticker

My son Henry is in fifth grade. As such he is about to make the transition from elementary to middle school. Recently Henry and his parents attended a transition dinner for fifth graders who will attend John Adams Middle School (JAMS). Henry and his peers talked to veteran sixth-graders, who tried not to frighten the younger kids too much. We parents talked to veteran middle school parents, who tried to reassure us that hormones and education do not necessarily conflict in all instances.

I bring this up not to bore you with family business, but because I find myself looking at the current hot social and political issue -- education -- from the inside out. Everything I read in the papers about testing, standards, curriculum, school financing, etc., seems aimed directly at me, parent of fifth grader.

As it happens, the math curriculum at JAMS has become a political issue, with all sorts of people, primarily parents, weighing in on the question of what kind of books teachers there should use to teach math. The state bureaucracy has not approved the books the JAMS teachers have been using successfully these recent years, and the district may no longer buy them.

I am frustrated with the current debate over educational issues like curriculum, pedagogy and testing. Completely. The reality of education is simultaneously more simple and more complex than how axe-grinders of all persuasions present it.

On one hand, the issues are as simple as providing a good teacher, the most important determinant, in my experience, of the quality of education, with a calm, quiet place to teach. On the other hand, what makes up a high quality education is complex, even elusive. Certain skills, reading, for instance, are measurable, at least to a degree. But how does one test the ability to think critically, or enthusiasm to learn?

Much of what comprises a good education is immeasurable, at least by any standard less broad than happiness and success in the world.

I have a friend who did not take high school seriously. He surfed and road motorcycles. After graduating, he managed to enroll in a junior college. Something clicked. He studied and transferred to a UC campus. He did well, and went to an Ivy League graduate school. He received a Ph.D. and is now a full professor at USC.

The American system has always been an open system. An educational system of second chances. Third chances. Other countries reserved educations high in intellectual content to the elite, an elite they usually selected around the time American kids started to spend more time combing their hair than doing their homework.

What America gained from this was the best educated adult population in the world. More Americans graduated high school, more went to college, more received advanced degrees, than any people on earth. Only now is the rest of the world catching up: according to a study published this week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, for the first time two countries, Japan and Canada, have higher rates of college graduation than the U.S.

Now we have an education president who wants to use testing to destroy the public school system.

We don't need President Bush to do the job, however. The friends of public education can do it quite well themselves. Meddlers, professional and amateur, have stolen the educational system away from the people who understand it best -- the teachers.

Consider it noncontroversial that the American educational system excels at the college and university level, which has championed the highest levels of scholarship at the same time that it has educated the largest mass of students. American higher education is the envy of the world.

A salient characteristic of American higher education is the respect the teachers receive. I do not mean the respect of students, which, judging from popular culture, has never been high. I mean the respect teachers receive from their institutions. American colleges and universities, more than any other educational institutions, let the teachers, as a group and individually, run the show.

Professors run not only their classrooms, but also their departments. They determine curriculum and, for the most part, who their employers will hire to be their colleagues.

There are no standardized tests to prove how good a job these professors do, but, based on the success of their graduates, and, for that matter, the entire economy, they do a great job.

Nor is it any coincidence that there is no shortage of people who want to teach at the college and university level, even though the pay is not particularly good considering the educational level of the work force.

Compare the authority of a college professor with that of a teacher in the public schools.

Uhhh ... Well, the fact is, there is no comparison.

This is not a left-right issue. Educational "conservatives" are telling teachers at JAMS, at the moment, what materials they should use to teach math, but, a few years ago, in the celebrated "whole language" fiasco, educational "radicals" dictated how to teach reading.

You don't have to be conservative or liberal to think you can teach better than teachers. You need only to have an opinion. A lot of people have opinions. Unfortunately, they all disagree.

Parents disagree. When I first starting hearing about how some parents at JAMS were disgruntled, I was surprised, because up until then I had heard unanimous enthusiasm from the many JAMS parents I talked to about Henry's future school. But based on their own experiences, or the needs of their children, some parents want this, some parents want that.

It's not just parents. Education school academics (and their publishing companies) disagree about how teachers should teach. Administrators disagree about how teachers should teach. Newspaper columnists disagree about how teachers should teach. Foundations, politicians ....

Teachers know how to teach. Some are better at it than others, but collectively they have the knowledge. Let them work it out.

If it all weren't so tragic, it would be funny.

Take the L.A. Unified School District, which has adopted a reading program, "Open Court," that scripts exactly what teachers are to say and do each day. The irony is rich: the L.A. schools are falling apart, there aren't enough of them in the first place, there aren't enough books, huge numbers of the kids don't speak English, their parents were never schooled, the bureaucracy is bloated, but when some kids don't learn, the solution is to tell teachers how to teach.

We had the whole language fiasco. In a few years, we'll have the Open Court fiasco.

Society as a whole has a real interest in setting the curriculum, what we want children to learn. It is both our responsibility and in our self-interest to fund education more than adequately. Once we have done those two things, we need to trust the teachers to do the teaching.

Last week in my column about downtown parking I neglected to give the details for the upcoming meetings of the Downtown Parking Task Force. They are: Wednesday, June 27, and Thursday, July 19, both meetings at 6:30 p.m., and both at the Ken Edwards Center.

Also, for parking aficionados, to celebrate the opening of the new parking structure on Fourth Street north of Wilshire, the City will host an open house (open structure?) before the June 27 meeting, at 5:00 p.m.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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