Saturday, March 05, 2005

A Letter To The EdWonks From Mike McDaniel

Dear Ed. Folks:

As a high school English teacher, I have had to branch out into
biology, even genetics because I have little, if any, evidence that my
students actually have biological parents. I suspect most were hatched
in test tubes. Try to find a parent by phone? You must be kidding.
Parent responses to letters? Surely you jest (no, and don't call me
Shirley). Responses to e-mails? Lost forever in the electronic ether.
Parents showing up for Open House? Five to ten percent, and never the
parents you really need to see.

All of which brings me to my real point. In all of the public
discussion about "reforming" education, we in education have given up
the moral high ground. By we in education, I mean the many, the
disheartened, the teachers.

When someone--editorialist, politician, pundit, anyone--screams that
American education is "failing the children," we tend to roll over and
say nothing. Instead of immediately demanding to know which children,
in which school, where exactly, and in which way(s) are they being
failed, we nod glumly and mutter to ourselves. Yes, I know that of all
those involved in education, teachers are those with the most intimate,
up to date knowledge available, but also those most likely to be
ignored. Yet, in a very real sense we are complicit in our own

When was the last time you heard any education "reformer" demand the
inclusion of what is all too often missing from the education genome?
When did you last hear a cry for the improvement of the most vital
component of the educational DNA? What am I raving about, you ask?
Thanks for asking. I'm raving about students and parents.

For the rest of this little post, let's assume, just for fun, that the
teachers we're talking about are competent, hard working, and do their
best with the materials at hand to provide the best possible
educational opportunity for their students. Of course, if a given
teacher does not fit into this category, we also need to explode a
common falsehood: Poor teachers can indeed be fired and are being
fired every day. Any administrator who whines that it's impossible to
fire incompetent teachers is only demonstrating his (or her) own
incompetence. No doubt it is true that incompetent or timid
administrators can't fire incompetent teachers, but that's not an
excuse for an utter lack of student/parent involvement in education.

So, what, exactly, is little Johnny or Suzy doing to secure their own
education today? Did mom and dad intervene when Johnny, who couldn't
read or write, was passed continually through elementary school? Are
Johnny or Suzy awake? Do they have, by 10th grade, an attention span
of at least 30 seconds? Do they bother to show up for school? Are
they so often gone to extracurricular activities that school is for
them, at best, a bus terminal? Have they handed in a homework
assignment in the last year? Have they read a complete book, a book
not read aloud in the classroom? Do their parents have any idea what
they're doing in school on a daily basis? Weekly? Semester? Are
there any consequences for the student imposed by a parent for academic
misbehavior or failure?

Delving into mathematics (very dangerous for most English teachers),
I'll venture to say that student engagement and parental involvement
are at least 50% of the learning equation. When half the equation is
missing, is it any wonder that failure is occurring? American education
failing the children? Perhaps sometimes and in some places, but all
too often, the reality is that Johnny and Suzy made a decision to fail
themselves, and their parents let them. Until this sad fact of our
daily lives takes its rightful place in the debate, some kids are going
to be left behind. Of course, those who are not ignored will blithely
pretend otherwise. As Mark Twain observed, "There are lies, damned
lies, and statistics."


Mike McDaniel
Joshua, TX