Whither U.S. Education?

Aaron Hughey, professor of counseling and student affairs at Western Kentucky University, posited some important principles and consequent suggestions in an article in the Lexington Herald-Leader of 03 November.

Hughey: “Customization is more important than conformity.” Customization is possible regarding private schools and to some extent public universities. In terms of public education, customization is rarely an option since it nearly always means not a one-on-one student/teacher ratio but at least much smaller classes in which a student is availed of more of the teacher’s time and energy.

Since a public-school math teacher may have five classes of about 27 or more students each (my personal experience), he has to conform his approach to a pattern designed to reach learners on different levels of ability, attempting to help everyone but absolutely bringing the brightest to their potential. He uses the materials made available by the system (conformity) but attempts customization on a per student basis rather than an institutional one. “Tracking” is a dirty word in the education establishment driven now by political correctness, so the teacher is left to carry it out in the classroom.

Hughey: “Relationships are more important than rules.” I believe the opposite. Hughey explained that “some” degree of order and uniformity are essential but that the teacher-pupil relationship (whatever that means) is more important. Ask any Marine “boot” if he likes his drill sergeant. Most boots will scream NO, but they will also admit that the sarge teaches them how to save the lives of themselves and their comrades while doing their jobs. There’s no substitute for discipline, defined as “training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character,” and even less of a substitute for “some” discipline. Discipline is an all-or-nothing-at-all matter.

This will sound like nit-picking but the dress of teachers today is a tip-off on how they regard education. As a teacher, I wore a tie and coat every day to school, making me different from the students in a very formal way. Nowadays, male teachers are shown on TV in T-shirts and jeans (with or without holes in the knees) and female teachers in just about every costume imaginable, with the most unattractive ones (and those with plenty of cleavage) seeming to be the most popular.

I addressed each student as Mr. or Miss plus last name, never by the first name. But I had a ball and lots of laughter in class, especially when the most salient points were being made. Friendliness is fine. Fraternization, as in the military between officers and enlisted men, is loony tunes. It was always understood when frivolity was in and out of order, and that he/she who decides is the teacher. Math is a demanding academic discipline (so are many others) and should be approached as a “no excuses/nonsense” matter. Students should be held at arms-length and should understand who’s in charge.

Hughey: “People are more important than policies.” Students have nothing – or should have nothing – to do with policies, while policies have everything to do with students, meaning that policies are more important than students. Can anyone imagine a school-board or university board of trustees made up of students as policy-makers? When asked by a TV interviewer recently in New York City what the purpose of the current Occupy Wall Street circus is, a young lady (lots of students in this effort) indicated that it was to force the government to set all wages, thus eliminating the wealthy. Imagine such lunacy as a government policy!

Hughey indicated that the status quo must go. This is what the Kentucky Legislature thought in 1990 and damned the state with the Kentucky Education Reform Act, most of which has been rescinded in increments but not until damage was done to a whole generation or more of students, not to mention making frauds/cheats out of whole school systems/teachers/administrators who ill-used tests and bribed students. The major thrust of the act was to enhance student self-esteem, apparently whether deserved or not. Result: Disaster in virtually every measured (and over-measured) academic area, especially reading, math, and science. The status quo was eminently superior to KERA, though wise systemic change is inevitable.

Hughey: “Individuals are more important than institutions.” Similar to the above, schools impact students but students do not impact schools; otherwise, there would be five study halls, recess, lunch and phys ed. during a normal day. Hughey is right in decrying the forcing of everyone into the same mold; however, public education is forced to deal with reality, not wishful thinking. The key involves strong discipline, able teachers and strong family support, the lack of the latter a major problem now.

In a recent year, 40% of the education-department graduates at Kentucky State University could not pass the test required of potential teachers in order to teach, but had the opportunity to just keep taking the test. This was unconscionable. In other years, they would have been hired anyway and allowed to un-educate young people. Mediocrity begets mediocrity.

Brought into existence by KERA, school-based councils, made up of three teachers, two parents and a principal or administrator had about 95% control of everything, including curriculum and even the hiring of principals. Within systems, especially large ones, this meant students passed from elementary-school through middle- and high-schools while possessing no standard backgrounds at any level. Result: Only 43% of schools in Kentucky met all the federal requirements of “No Child Left Behind,” as the result of testing earlier this year. Only 42% of high school grads last May were ready for college or career. Only 29% at one Lexington High School were ready.

The old ways may be thought too anachronistic to matter today but the proof is in the pudding.