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Column: What really happens in public schools

Posted: March 19, 2018 3:56 p.m.
Updated: March 20, 2018 1:00 a.m.

Normally when I’m out driving between schools or going somewhere during the day, I listen to a ’60s and ’70s music CD, which reflects my advanced age. However, a couple of weeks ago, I started listening to a radio talk show. Education is a frequent topic on radio talk shows because the hosts are often “experts on education,” given that they once attended school.

On this day, the host was railing about something that a teacher had done with a student survey at a school in Texas. Based on what I heard, what happened wasn’t appropriate and the concerns of the parents at the school involved seemed pretty valid. Fair enough. But what got me riled was that the host then went on a self-righteous rampage about how this kind of situation is a normal occurrence in public schools and that public schools have somehow become subversive organizations that no longer teach academics. Come on.

There are approximately 100,000 public schools in this country and approximately 4 to 5 million teachers and administrators working in them. People who work in schools are human beings. They mess up like everyone else, often with the best of intentions. I’ve certainly noticed that people who work in other professions sometimes mess up. (Remember that meteorologists guaranteed snow this past January 17.)

What I don’t understand is why the media and the general public so often condemn the entire institution of public education based on an isolated educator’s misstep, misjudgment or just plain inappropriate behavior.

I think this has a lot to do with people not understanding what actually goes on in public schools and the challenges our schools face every day. The mental picture that many folks have of public schools looks a lot like what they experienced, often 20 or more years ago. Life was different then. For better or worse, schools today reflect the world as it is now. I can tell you that the world and the schools in it look at lot different than they did when I was a wide-eyed first-year teacher in the fall of 1975.

Here’s what goes on in public schools today...

First and foremost, public schools teach more rigorous content and curriculum than anyone even dreamed of just a few years ago. Rigorous content is taught to all students, not just the “smart kids.” This is a big paradigm shift, and requires teachers to be creative and innovative all the time. You don’t see teachers using 10-year-old lesson plans any more. Rigor for everyone is the order of the day. I would also point out that teachers today are under more accountability scrutiny than ever before because of the avalanche of mandated standardized bubble tests. (I won’t rant any more about that right now…)

Like it or not, societal issues that have nothing to do with schools and that schools can’t control require schools to provide services to enable students to actually be ready and able to learn. For many students in our country, school breakfast and lunch are the main and most nourishing meals of their day. Medical services are provided in many schools to students who have no access to health care. Sick kids aren’t going to learn, and they are certainly not going to learn if they are absent.

Behavioral health services are provided in schools for the increasing number of students who are experiencing inconceivable problems in their lives outside of school. It’s not like these kids can leave the baggage they bring to school at the door. The tragic school shooting that took place in Florida reflects, I believe, that we are not sufficiently supporting students with mental health challenges. This is an area we need to get a better handle on or the shootings in schools, churches, stadiums, movie theatres and shopping malls will not end. (Pssst ... This will require funding that is not there now.)

Schools provide before and after school care for students who would otherwise be home alone or in some other unsafe environment. These programs help keep children safe and also help them to grow academically and personally. Schools work with families to help students plan for their futures and see all the possibilities that are out in the bigger world. Schools work with law enforcement and other agencies to help resolve conflicts and other problems that occur in the community and come into schools. (This is a bigger issue than most people would imagine, especially in the age of social media.)

Schools provide students the opportunity to develop their talents in athletics, the arts, technology, writing and so many other areas. For many of these students, access to these experiences would not otherwise be possible. Schools also help students develop “soft skills” like communication, teamwork and problem-solving that are so critical to success in life. For many young people, school is going to be the only place where they can work on these skills.

Finally, schools teach values. I get darned irritated when I hear someone say that public schools don’t teach values any more. Every day, I see schools teaching honesty, integrity, work ethic, generosity, respect and many other essential attributes. Sometimes, these are hard lessons for our young people to learn, but educators persevere. In Kershaw County, I think we also do a particularly good job of working with the greater community to help young people understand the importance of giving back. I think our schools are also tremendously supportive of the faith community.

Schools and educators do make mistakes, as occurs in any other institution and profession. Hopefully, we learn from them. But the idea of condemning the entire institution when someone does something wrong or ill-advised is simply ridiculous.

The reality is that public schools are doing more for more students and more effectively than ever before.

I wish know-it-all talk show hosts would spend a week in a real public school with real teachers and students before they bloviate any further about public education. It probably helps their ratings to be misinformed.

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