Considering the Challenge of Public Education

Recently I have been thinking about the challenges of public education . My daughter will be going to middle school next year, so we are looking at our options, trying to provide her with the best opportunities.

Our county has an interesting assortment of charter, specialty, and traditional schools of varying levels of accomplishment. Some of these schools boast high achievement with outstanding test scores and innovative programs, others lag sadly behind the basic standards, and many are a mixed bag. Students can apply to attend a charter or specialty school, and many do. In fact, there are so many students clamoring to attend the higher achieving schools that they just don’t have room for them all. Thus, a lottery selection process has been established to determine who gets in.

At this point, my daughter has lost the lottery for the charter school, and is preparing to play the next school lottery. And it strikes me as sad that motivated kids must leave their education to chance. What message does that send about motivation, hard work, the path to success? How many kids apply to these schools and fail to get in? How many squander time in less than challenging classrooms that, by necessity, struggle to bring other kids up to speed?

I can’t help but wonder, if there are so many students wanting to attend the “better” schools, why can’t we make more schools “better?” Obviously our county has some strong, successful programs, so why can’t we bring them all up to that standard? Public education is working great in some schools, yet failing miserably in others. So what makes the difference?

Some parents like to look to websites such as GreatSchools.com to evaluate school performance, but what does it really tell you? The GreatSchools evaluation is based on test scores. But what is behind the test scores? If a school has low scores, is it really a “bad” school? What are they doing there and why is it not working? Are scores low because of a deficiency on the part of the teachers? Because of the kind of students that attend? A failure in parenting? Socioeconomic or racial factors? The neighborhood it is in? A lack of money?

I believe, at the heart of school performance, the driving factor is values. Higher achieving schools have a common thread of students and parents and teachers and a school culture that all place a high value on learning and excelling. They are committed to learning. There is an excitement in the pursuit of Great that you cannot find if your goal is Good Enough. And that excitement can lead to higher levels of learning.

Education is a team effort. All the players must do their part. We cannot expect teachers to make up for misplaced values in the home or a culture that places celebrity and notoriety above character and learning. We cannot expect students to respect themselves and others if they are not shown and taught respect by involved parents, teachers, and the community. We are all in this together. Even if you don’t have children in the public school system here, public education affects you because these students will shape our community going forward.

So then, I wonder, how do we spread the value of learning to our students and to our community? How does the idea that learning is fun and valuable, important and powerful catch on? How can we cultivate curiosity and a desire to learn in the minds of students and maybe parents who are disinterested or otherwise preoccupied?

Can we encourage more parents of preschoolers to talk with them, read with them, count things with them to prepare them for school? Can we increase the visibility and impact of Parent University? Are there other service programs or churches in place already that can expand their focus to reach out to lower achieving students and schools with encouragement to value education? Can we bring some community leaders into the schools to lead motivational sessions about the importance and joy of lifelong learning? Can we further equip and empower our teachers to use innovative techniques in the classroom?

Maybe we can brainstorm, start a dialogue, and then step up and try something new to spread the idea that learning is fun and valuable, important and powerful. Maybe it won’t work. But maybe it will. If more people placed a high value on education, I think we would see a shift in mindset, in priorities, in results. We could raise the performance and the positive experience of all of our public schools.

Sure, you could say it’s only middle school. It’s not the end of the world. Maybe it’s not that big of a deal after all. Or maybe it’s the difference between getting by and thriving. Between learning to take the easy way, just doing the minimum, and being encouraged to take on challenges. Between merely making good grades and being excited by learning.

For some, where they go to school doesn’t matter all that much. They will do just fine anywhere. They will learn enough, make their grades, and life goes on. But, if our society is going to say that education is important, why teach our students to settle for Just Fine when there is the chance to have Great? And why leave that up to chance?

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