The Common Good
November-December 1998

In the Meantime, What About Our Schools?

by Oliver Thomas | November-December 1998

How to fix public education.

The voucher debate rages on, one side shouting, "Healthy competition!" The other, "Separation of church and state!" I’ve never put much stock in the notion that you could improve the public water supply by investing in Perrier, but personal sentiments aside, what about the bulk of America’s children who will remain in public schools with or without a voucher system?

Realizing that a significant majority of the parents who send their children to public schools believe that schools are doing an adequate job, few would deny they could do better. Last year’s international math and science scores provided yet another painful reminder that America’s school system is nowhere close to perfect. And while some public schools can compete with elite private preparatory academies, others lack the funding for basic textbooks, much less new computer software. Still other districts are awash in funds yet appear unable to improve student performance.

In a word, what can be done to improve public schools? Does anything out there appear to be working?

Begging your pardon for reducing such a complex question to an 800-word column, allow me to share a few insights that will strengthen any public school. The list is by no means exhaustive. It does, however, represent some important steps that can be taken along the road to improvement. I speak as chair of a school district that, though having a per capita income below the state average, boasts the highest standardized test scores in the state.

Involve parents. Studies confirm that the key element to any child’s academic success is parental involvement. Schools should do whatever is necessary to get parents on board. How? The starting point is a frank acknowledgment of who is in charge of a child’s educational upbringing. According to the United States Supreme Court, it is parents, not school bureaucrats.

Saying this and living up to it are two different things. Schools must do a better job of communicating with parents (through notes, newsletters, telephone calls, student folders, and special events such as an "International Potluck"), listening to parents (through surveys, parent conferences, and community forums) and involving parents in shared decision making (through advisory boards, school councils, textbook review committees, etc.). If you don’t have a PTA, start one. Without support from their parents, students have little chance of success.

Adopt a strong program of character education and teaching about religion. The task of public schools is to give students the academic skills they need to become lifelong learners and to train them to be good citizens. The two are related. Employers don’t care how adept a person is in language arts or computer technology if he or she isn’t honest, dependable, and able to get along with others.

Closely related to character education is the need for schools to adopt policies on how to treat religion properly. From teaching about religion in the curriculum to protecting the religious liberty rights of students, a promising new consensus has emerged that is helping schools move from battleground to common ground. When parents are convinced that schools are treating their most cherished beliefs and values with fairness and respect, they become advocates of public education. One rural California district reports 36 home-schoolers who have brought their children back to the public schools.

Teacher recruitment and accountability. If schools want to attract and retain good teachers, they must increase teacher pay. My district takes pride in the fact that it is among the top 10 percent in the state regarding teacher pay.

But paying teachers well isn’t good enough. We must also hold them accountable. One means of doing this is the "value-added" assessment model developed by University of Tennessee Professor William Saunders. Value-added helps measure a student’s performance year to year, enabling school administrators to track the amount of progress each student is making and at what rate. Although there are factors other than the quality of instruction that may account for why a student has a particularly good or bad year, value-added has proven to be a useful tool for evaluating and improving a teacher’s performance.

I have seen these ideas implemented in urban, rural, and suburban school districts with varying degrees of success. None, however, is a panacea. The painful truth is that if we really want to improve schools, we must improve ourselves. Throw-away marriages. Drug and alcohol abuse. Rampant consumerism that pulls many middle-class parents away from their duties as mom and dad and toward the work place, shopping mall, or car dealership. Ask any teacher what the number one problem of schools is, and she’ll tell you: Kids with no discipline, no values, no work ethic, and no sense of being loved. In short, kids with parents that, for one reason or another, are either too busy or too distracted to do the hard work of parenting.

Fix that, and we’ll fix the schools.

OLIVER THOMAS serves as special counsel to the National Council of Churches and resides with his wife and daughters in Maryville, Tennessee.

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