Op-Ed

A conversation about how to improve NC schools

I want to help improve public school education, but it is plagued by so many problems, I don’t know where to start. No one does.

Problems? What problems are you talking about?

I’m referring to low test scores, high dropout rates, underfunding, over-crowding, too much misbehavior, too little discipline, good teacher attrition, bad teacher retention, under-involved parents, overbearing parents, low teacher morale and high teacher frustration. See what I mean?

Yeah, but only one of those is a problem; all the other things you mentioned are symptoms of that problem.

Huh? Which one is the problem?

Un- or under-involved parents. When parents don’t respect the value of education, neither will their children. In fact, rather than depending upon schools to primarily educate their children, too many parents these days are abdicating more and more of their parental responsibilities to teachers and that distracts teachers from their own responsibilities – teaching.

Which parental responsibilities are parents shirking?

A lot of kids arrive late many mornings because parents don’t get them up and to their school bus stops on time. Not only are they tardy, but they are also tired because they stayed up half the night playing video games, they are unprepared because their parents don’t monitor whether they did their homework assignments, they are hungry because their parents know schools will provide them breakfast, and they are without pencils or paper because parents know teachers will supply those materials using their own money.

Maybe those parents don’t have money for those supplies.

Oh, but they have money for their kids to have smartphones? It’s not about money; it’s about priorities.

OK, but what about all those other problems?

Again, those aren’t problems, they’re symptoms of this problem. If you don’t believe me, let’s follow the cause and effect chain. When kids show up at school late, sleepy, tired, hungry, unprepared, incapable and disinterested, they struggle and fall behind in their studies, so they resort to misbehavior to relieve their boredom and to get the attention they are lacking at home. This misbehavior is not only disruptive, it is also infectious as more kids engage in it, and the snowball grows until classroom misbehavior escalates to the point of not only being disruptive but destructive and disrespectful to teachers and other students who would like to learn something.

So, why don’t teachers and principals just punish these misbehaving kids the way we were punished when we acted up at school?

When you were in school, what happened when you got into trouble and your parents were called?

I got punished at school AND my daddy whipped my butt when I got home. Home was the last place I wanted to go after school on those occasions.

How often did you get into trouble at school?

Not very often, believe me!

Why not?

I just told you; because I knew my daddy would whip my butt until I couldn’t sit down when I did.

Exactly. That’s because when we came along, our parents teamed up with our teachers to get us educated. Nowadays, students and their parents gang up on teachers to get the teachers punished when a disgruntled student doesn’t get his or her way.

I suppose all the behavior related distractions in classrooms, and a lack of resultant consequences at home, is a big reason kids aren’t doing as well academically as they could.

Yep. And when high-stakes test scores aren’t up-to-snuff, politicians and education experts get involved and start pointing fingers and looking for someone to blame. That someone is almost always a teacher. Then, in their infinite wisdom, legislators start imposing more regulations accompanied by threats of more dire consequences for failure, and …

More dire consequences for the students?

For the teachers, and that makes low test scores take on even higher stakes. Then they cut funding to public schools and start looking for alternative avenues to “better” education, like private schools funded with tax money. Less money for public schools equals less teachers equals more students in each class equals less one-to-one attention for students equals less classroom manageability equals more misbehavior equals …

Whoa! What is that … the new math?

You could say that. And it involves the subtraction of good teachers from our schools because they are burned out with blame-fatigue, and the remainder includes the addition of more bad teachers. As a consequence, parents who have been involved with their children’s education feel compelled to get overly involved at school because, in their minds, they must salvage their children’s futures. That causes teachers to get even more demoralized.

Unfortunately, as this cycle is getting started for elementary school kids, it is ending for too many high school students who drop out and get caught up in a different cycle, one of unemployment, poverty, and too often, drugs and crime.

What about the kids? Shouldn’t they be held responsible, and accountable?

Are you suggesting that since our community remains unwilling to hold parents accountable, we should heap their responsibilities upon their children? Kids are pretty responsible for the things they are prepared to do, but they are not prepared to be adults.

Then someone should do something about this downward spiral of parental complacency. Don’t you think?

Not someone – everyone. Everyone should do something. Starting with our supposed leaders.

So you’re saying that if our community leaders don’t start helping us find effective ways to help parents help their children – whether they want help or not – our schools will produce future generations of uneducated parents who will be unable to help their future children?

Yep.

But our community leaders keep saying they can’t do anything about irresponsible parents.

If that’s true, they probably won’t be able to do anything about our economy, unemployment, the environment, teenage pregnancy, youth-on-youth violence, rising crime rates, escalating health care costs, will they? That’s frightening.

What are you willing to do to help our public schools situation improve?

I’m going to keep writing about this stuff until someone steps forward and leads us out of this mess. As they say, we can eat this elephant one bite at a time. We just need to get to the meat of this matter and stop chewing the fat.

Bill Massey of Raleigh is a retired teacher and principal.

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