A Short Commentary on Public Deaducation

Hey, here’s a juicy piece of news!

Without a doubt, I have never been more powerfully and totally disgusted with anything than I am with the massive bureaucracy known as our federal government. (Yes it rivals the revulsion I experienced when viewing myself on video performing the “Macarena” during a Kappa Kappa Gamma open-bar invitational at a local College Station microbrewery in 1995.)

OK, so that’s not real news—about the former, I mean, not about my non-existent dancing skills—particularly because my sentiments are shared with anywhere from 55% to 85% of the rest of the population of the United States depending on which poll you read. But I had to say something to bait a reader, and it’s extremely tough to put the retch of a stomach heave (an appropriate sound befitting my view of our hallowed houses of Congress) into words.

No, this is not necessarily a new discovery or anything. But now that I have a brood of kids for whom I need to worry about maintaining health, keeping fed, and fulfilling educationally, the monumental underachievement on the part of my elected officials now chaps my ample derriere much more severely. Normally, however, I have kept my opinions to myself. Well, maybe that’s not exactly true, but I typically limit it to water cooler conversation. And I usually give the state legislature a pass, kind of like not expecting as much from the AA affiliate as you would from the big league team. Not any more. Their free ride is gone, too.

Nowhere is the failure of our governments, both at the state and national levels, more evident than in the mess that is being made of our public schools. We went to the open house at our sons’ primary school last month, and I heard something in the voices of the teachers we visited, something I don’t recall hearing in the past from my own teachers, as well as from friends and acquaintances representing that rare sect of the population who burden themselves with educating our future leaders.

I heard panic.

Teachers are stressed, folks, and who can blame them? Forget for a moment that every few months or so we hear a report of some 14-year-old with a well-sharpened axe to grind walking into his high school and emptying a box of buckshot into his childhood playmates, not to mention the freshmen English teacher and the wood shop instructor. And maybe you can overlook the potential for a lawsuit that exists every time some otherwise uninvolved parent takes offense at the way his or her little angel is treated following said little angel’s fourth trip to the administrative office for possession of a banned substance.

Just on those two considerations alone, I wouldn’t risk being a teacher without first being a bar-admitted Harvard lawyer outfitted in full battle armor and packing laser-guided weaponry. But there are those benevolent souls who do actually care enough for the next generation to sacrifice themselves daily in order to impart knowledge. And we, as a society, reward them bountifully.

That is, if you consider it rewarding to be in the employ of an education system so mired in legality that it, by comparison, makes the U.S. Postal Service or the DMV look like a well-oiled machine.

I am a product of the United States public education system, specifically Louisiana public schools. I have seen the best it has to offer, and I have witnessed the worst. (OK, both those points are debatable, but who’s writing here? If you want to argue, pen your own article.) I could probably spew for days about incremental little changes that would improve the entire system immensely—making teachers lives exponentially (a word I learned in public school) less stressful—but there are a few major points that stick out further than Jessica Simpson’s original nose:

  1. I challenge anyone to show me hard evidence that the gauntlet of standardized tests students are forced to endure each year are either a) a valid assessment of any student’s grasp of subject knowledge or b) a better assessment of a student’s understanding than an examination developed by (gasp!) the teacher of the subject matter.

    I appreciate the need for standardized tests, for instance in college and university admissions bracketing. But really, do we need to know just how well a first grade class in Cut Off, Louisiana stacks up against one in Cut and Shoot, Texas? (Both of those are real places, by the way.) I know we had some semblance of such examinations when I was in grade school, but I think it was actually more for individual assessment—what a novel idea!—than a collective class or school “grading” and I never recall “test season” as a newspaper-worthy event. Now, the administration of these things seems to take two months each spring and is accompanied by more pomp and circumstance than a legitimate USC football championship.

    Look, say what you want, but the more emphasis and weight placed on assessment of schools via these devices, the more time and effort will be made by school administration to focus on improving performance on them. And with only a set number of hours per school day, that time has to come from somewhere. “Teach to the test” is not an empty cliché. Just ask anyone who is truly intimate with the details of No Child Left Behind.

    Plus, I for one could do with a few less of those cutesy acronyms—LEAP, iLEAP, CAT, DIBELS, etc. Here’s an acronym for them all: C-R-A-P.

  2. I find it ironic, and a little bit insulting, that so very much hoopla surrounds those broadly-administered tests, yet there is a growing movement—led by, I believe, a bunch of child psychologists who were always picked last for kickball games at recess—to convince us normal people that classroom testing is the most traumatic experience a grade-schooler could endure.

    Holy grading on the curve, Batman! Are you kidding me?

    The first time I read a report on the issue, I thought it was a joke. The provider of comment, some woman who obviously had not heard of the amazing inventions known as the disposable razor or the hair salon, was going on and on about how damaging to a child’s esteem it was to be graded or, heaven forbid, ranked against his or her peers. She then carried it further to proclaim that all schools should outlaw red ink as it is a “color of contention” and immediately establishes a line of conflict between the teacher and student. What?

    I guess my Agriculture Economics 221 professor at Texas A&M was aware of that little bit of educational wisdom. He didn’t use red ink. Or a pen. No, instead he had a rubber stamp with a word that describes the east end discharge of a westbound animal of the bovine variety—acronym “BS” for those of you who are unaffiliated with barnyard analogies or who perhaps graduated from t.u.—and he used it liberally. Often, my research reports were returned to me looking like the audition script for a prison movie.

    The bottom line here, folks, is that if you want to set our children up to fail miserably in the world once they leave the nests, then go right ahead and make sure you don’t teach them a stinking thing about that world in which they will be living. Because, guess what! In college, they will be graded. In the world of employment, they will be measured against their peers. In life, they will fail.

    So we darn well better show them how to handle it when they’re young.

  3. To the other parents out there, when did homework start coming home in volumes? I swear my two older boys have eliminated four acres of rainforest on their own with all the paper they have brought home this year already.

    I’m not averse to kids being given homework. It does tick me off when they get “busy” work. And I will debate any educator who tries to tell me that “busy” work is not exactly what they are bringing home. Homework should supplement and support classroom education, not be a replacement for it. Moreover, it should be the student’s responsibility to ensure that his or her work is completed.

    Let me be clear here: I am not offering a dissertation on the flaws of the classroom teacher. As a matter of fact, after witnessing the exasperation on the faces of my kids’ teachers, I am completely convinced that they, like their students, are just dog-paddling through a muddy sea of mandates from much higher up. Maybe I’m wrong, but I believe that the truckloads of homework are a misguided attempt to ensure that parents become integral players in their children’s education, but it misses the mark entirely. Involved parents will stay involved, and parents who do not care simply will not be made to care. In essence, students on either side are punished.

    Or perhaps schools are in cahoots with paper companies and the makers of rolling backpacks. Both make a killing when a kid has to haul thirty-four pounds of paper back and forth to school every day.

  4. We moved last August, only three days before school started for both of my boys. I can think of few days where I had to fight harder to hold my composure than looking at the face of my oldest son as he sat in the assembly area while we waited to meet his teacher. In his gaze was an apprehension that made me question both God and myself for the decision to relocate.

    But I sensed no sadness in him until about two weeks later. One Thursday afternoon, he and I made a quick run to Walmart (one of the few things in life that did not seem completely foreign to us at the time) and he started crying. Not sobbing, but not sniffling. A deep, broken-hearted weep. Somewhat startled, I asked him what was wrong.

    “Daddeaux, I like my new school. And even though I miss my friends, I am making some new ones. But I am really sad that we don’t have a music class here.”

    Now let me go on record to say that I classify myself as a conservative on just about all levels. However, I do walk with a liberal limp when it comes to matters of the arts. As America’s public schools have dumbed down, very slowly and quietly have we seen music and art appreciation make their own exits from the halls of education. Coincidence? I am not sure.

    I do find it interesting, however, that a significant proportion of the curriculum in gifted and talented programs involve, you guessed it, the arts! I may not be really smart, but there are only two plausible explanations for this. Either fine arts appreciation as a component of education is beneficial to the development of students, or only the smartest kids deserve to learn about the arts. One way or the other, it really ticks me off.

    Even if the strategy works—that is, if overloading children with language, math, science, and social studies at the expense of the school music class really makes students more intelligent (or at least perform better on standardized tests)—what will we really have accomplished?

    Sure, Little Johnny can find the prime roots of 34,894 but thinks that Michelangelo is a turtle with a black belt.

As I said before, I am a product of Louisiana public schools—a pretty good product, I like to think. Now, my tax dollars work to enrich the lives of my own children. I obviously have concerns about just what constitutes “enrichment” in their lives. And forgive me, Mr. Politician, but no, I do not believe that our public education system is cutting the mustard. If you want to debate that point, tell me why the announcement of a new private school in any given area finds an immediate waiting list numbering well into the hundreds. Why are parents willing to pay thousands in school taxes each year and still pay thousands in school tuition? There is only one explanation: serious dissatisfaction and disgust.

To my friends in the teaching profession, thank you. Our strongest hope in saving our schools depends entirely on you. Your passion for education exceeds the idiocy exhibited by the government officials who dictate the content and responsibilities of your job.

And to you, our illustrious elected officials, thus far your constituencies have voted with their checkbooks. Come November, we vote. Period.

See you at the polls.


  1. Fabulous! My Algebra 1 students have to take a mastery test at the end of the year. If they don't make a 70% they retake the class in hs. I'm a nervous wreck every year!

  2. Jeff....this is awesome....very well written...I am sharing this!!!


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