Our most under-reported war

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 3, 2006

Here’s an interesting piece I came across last night about public education. And timely, too, with the approach of a new school year. It’s not too long.

It’s written by Paul White, described as “one of those people who keeps hope alive just by being around. He’s a teacher who for nearly 40 years has gone into the worst schools, the most run-down classrooms with the most hopeless kids and turned them around. Why? He loves them, each of them, as though they were his own. The first student he turned around is now 45 years old. But one of his students died in his arms. He has stopped gang wars, he has a charter school funded by the LA County school district, and he has an 80 percent graduation rate, which can’t be matched by the best schools. He lives in Ventura, California. White’s story first appeared in a People magazine feature by Ron Arias, a correspondent for People magazine, who is now the co-author of White’s Rules. Arias lives in Los Angeles, California.”

Public Education: America’s Most Under-Reported War

Americans rightfully worry about the war in Iraq. We should worry a lot more about the conflict we’re losing on our own soil that’s getting worse by the minute, is taking far more lives, and has the potential to destroy our nation. I’m referring to the battle for the future of public education in America.

While the War in Iraq will progressively require less financial support, no amount of funding for public schools will ever be enough until its inept leadership changes. Local school districts should actually be given less money and not more, until they agree to hire competent financial professionals to handle their budgets, and stop funneling all their funding increases into unwarranted administrative bloat. The only school budget item which does justify an increase – teachers’ pay – is the one area where school leaders refuse to spend a dime. This counterproductive action both drives out good teachers and prevents strong candidates from entering the profession.

Our hopes for victory in the Middle East ride on the shoulders of battle-seasoned generals. The fight to save our schools, on the other hand, is being lead by noncombatants – non-educators with no real experience on education’s &uot;front lines&uot;, i.e., K-12 classroom teaching. For some examples, consider former Education Secretary Rod Paige (ex-college coach), California State Superintendent of Education Jack O’Connell (a couple of years in a classroom 30 years ago), and Los Angeles Superintendent Roy Romer and New York City Mayor/Superintendent. Michael Bloomberg (not one nano-second as educators of any kind). Major school leadership positions have become something that has-been politicians and billionaire business moguls do for a hobby, kind of like how the NBA Dallas Mavericks owner and non-athlete Mark Cuban enjoys pretending to lead his team.

When the going gets tough in Iraq’s brutal heat and harsh terrain, leaders give special encouragement to our 200,000 troops, reminding them that they have what it takes to be successful, if they will only suck-it-up, be strong, and persevere. Back home on America’s education battlefields, our leaders, too, give something &uot;special&uot; to our 45 million students who are facing challenges…Special Education. The problem is, Special Education encourages children who need inspiring words and strong support to run from – rather than at their personal issues. Special Education is always ready to provide children (and their parents) with excuses for why they’re failing, rather than showing them ways to succeed. Students who have trouble learning and behaving are not told to toughen up, be more respectful, practice different study techniques, and/or work harder and longer. Rather, they’re encouraged to medicalize their social problems, are over-prescribed psych-meds, and offered a growing choice of subjectively diagnosed and clinically unproven behavioral/learning disorders to drag through the rest of their lives

Finally, leaders in both wars have definite goals they want to achieve. In Iraq, our goal is to help the people work together to learn the skills necessary to live responsible, free, and independent lives. Come to think of it, that would be a great goal for America’s school leaders to have for our children, also. But education leaders have a different goal: their own continued employment and comfort. It’s their only goal, and kids’ needs be damned; but this goal is so cleverly disguised under piles of altruistic, falsely modest aphorisms (&uot;It’s all about the children&uot;; or &uot;I’m just here for the kids,&uot;, ad nauseum), that you have to have a trained eye to catch it.

The history of recent wars teaches us that the War in Iraq will ultimately be concluded and most our troops will come home. As a country, we’ll move on to new leadership that will try to learn from our mistakes, and take wiser, more effective actions in the future.

During whatever time period this turns out to be, the battle to save our public schools will have worsened. That is because the current crop of ineffective education leaders will have passed the baton to their disciples: the ones who got their jobs by being even less visionary, less capable, and significantly more self-serving than the men and women who hired them.

But recent history leads us to envision a possible alternative to this depressing scenario. No one ever believed that East Germany would release its tyrannical grip on its people short of an all-out civil war…but the Wall fell overnight, and not a shot was fired.

Nation-wide bloodshed was guaranteed in South Africa when Blacks were given the right to vote and Nelson Mandela assumed the presidency. Freedom and equality were set in motion, but the predicted race wars never were.

Radical, historical change occurs the exact moment that those who have been oppressed say, &uot;No more!&uot; Public education’s poor leadership continues to destroy the system for only one reason: we (teachers, parents, and community members) allow them to. To make a change, we must collectively stand up and demand safe, secure schools. We must demand visionary leaders that present academic knowledge as effect, not cause – the effect of maintaining a moral, values-rich learning environment. When we do this, the current system will yield to these better ideas and better leaders that have been waiting in the wings for a long time.