Wednesday, February 15, 2017

On Education: Experience and Ideology (Part 1)

I have to admit I didn’t closely follow the recent confirmation hearings of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. My wife did, however, and she’d generally tell me whenever something of note happened.

Based on the lobbying onslaught on Congress, the DeVos hearings sounded like the battle of Armageddon. Even I could figure out that the two main teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, didn’t like DeVos. At all.

A Facebook friend said this about the controversy: your views on education are shaped either by experience or ideology.

He was right. And I realized mine were shaped by experience.

We live in one of Missouri’s top-rated school districts. A big chunk of our property taxes go to that district. We had just moved to the district when our oldest started first grade. Since we were both products of public education, and we were in a well-regarded district, we really didn’t think about sending him to a private school.

The first three years met and exceeded our expectations. When he started fourth grade, however, the teacher seemed more a representative of the union than she seemed a teacher. I can’t say I can pinpoint anything specific, but parent meetings and class presentations for parents also left me with a feeling of disquiet.

When our son started middle school, we began seeing education politics. The science teacher seemed qualified, but was more interested in defending the teaching profession than in teaching science (none of the parents expected to be lectured at during parents’ night, but we were, for no discernible reason). It was the English teacher, however, that became the stumbling block.

When I was in school, I had great English teachers. I can’t remember a bad one, or even a mediocre one. My English teachers loved what they taught, including grammar. I attribute my own love for literature to the teachers I had in junior high and high school.

This was not my son’s experience. His teacher was more interested in political and social issues, including field trips that had nothing to do with English or literature. I probably could have managed that, but it was her notes home to parents that shocked me.

The notes were full of grammar errors and misspelled words. Every single one of them. I finally reached the point of no return, and began sending them back to her, with the mistakes corrected.

She thanked me. And kept on sending notes filled with grammar errors and misspellings.

I started paying attention to what was going on. Attending a presentation for parents on new curriculum changes, I learned that the district had stopped teaching penmanship, was implementing new modules on self-esteem, and was beginning to focus on what was called “critical thinking.” The examples cited made it clear that our children were being moved into something that resembled indoctrination more than critical thinking.

That did it. After his first year, we pulled our son out of the public middle school and enrolled him in the local Catholic school. As non-Catholics and non-parishioners, we paid full tuition, not subsidized by the church. It was still considerably less than the average cost of educating a child in the public system.

The Catholic school was nothing spectacular. It didn’t have the resources to do all the fancy stuff. It focused on the basics.

That year was not fun. The first thing we learned was that our son was a minimum of six months behind his classmates at the Catholic school. His first day in class, his English teacher had the students diagram sentences. He had no clue what she was talking about.

For six months, we had to do the equivalent of homeschooling in English, math, history, and science to get him to the level where his classmates were. And this was no fancy or advanced curriculum; this was basic stuff.

We had taken him out of one of the top-rated public school districts in the state, and put him in an average Catholic parish school.

I wondered what it was like in the poorer-rated districts.

About a decade later, I had the opportunity to find out. That story next week.

Top photograph by J.J. Thompson via Unsplash. Lower photo by Linnaea Mallette via Public Domain Pictures. Both used with permission.

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