The Common Good
January 2005

School Without a Prayer

by David Batstone | January 2005

Everything I need to know I learned in my parent-teacher conferences.

I have four children who attend public schools,

I have four children who attend public schools, two in junior high and two in grammar school. My wife (especially) and I also volunteer quite a bit of time to the classroom. But as our oldest child heads toward high school next year, we are leaning toward a Jesuit school.

I fear making a series of sweeping pronouncements about public education, for I deeply respect many dedicated and innovative public school teachers. The struggle to make the right choice for my kids is more personal, though I must admit that as I share my stories with other parents, I find patterns emerging.

Everything I needed to know about school I learned in my parent-teacher conferences.

"We are only six weeks into the school year, and already your son has aced the math proficiency exam for his grade level," a teacher for one of my grammar-school sons told me in our session this fall. I was pleased, of course, but the report also gave me some reason for concern. How will my son now advance his math skills and not be bored silly for the next eight months by reviewing material he obviously knows well? The teacher admitted that she did not want any of her students "working ahead" of the rest of the class. Surely, she advised, there’s no harm in your son "drilling down on the fundamentals."

I grant her a partial truth. A speed-course through any subject in the fourth grade might rush the full grasp of basic skills. But I have heard this line before, in other parent-teacher conferences, and there is an educational philosophy behind it. All too many teachers in the public system believe it’s their job to teach to the mean. Perhaps for some it’s a survival strategy; they have too many kids and not enough time to make it possible to individualize their instruction. But many do not believe in streaming curriculum for higher-achieving kids. Regardless of the motivation, the method is like putting out yellow flags on the speedway to tell the racecars to slow down while the accidents are cleaned up on the track.

SEVERAL YEARS AGO my daughter was in grammar school. Each time the teacher assigned an in-class task, my daughter would finish well ahead of the other kids. So she sat there, bored. When she asked the teacher whether she could work on another project, her teacher told her to sit patiently and wait. When my daughter complained to me about this constant frustration, I advised her to bring a good novel to class and read quietly while the other students finished their work. The next day, my daughter came home doubly agitated. The teacher had told her in school that day to put away her reading book and wait patiently.

You can bet I was keen for the impending parent-teacher conference. Measured, yet with candor, I told the teacher how troubled I was by her method. In reply, she insinuated that my wife and I must be putting too much pressure on our daughter to achieve. I reminded her that it was my daughter who was frustrated. The teacher eventually fell back on the excuse that she had chosen to focus on helping all of the students to reach standard levels of proficiency.

For this reason alone, many of our friends who can afford private school are pulling out. They want their kids - some of whom need special instruction of a different kind - to be treated as individuals. A school is not an idea factory, after all.

My gravest concern about the public schools, however, involves the retreat from a values-based education. A secular education is commonly equated with the weeding out of religious and ethical precepts. I am not simply referring to prayer in school. It is the absence of a moral education.

I want my own children to be exposed to families of diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds, for instance. But if no effort is made at the school to help kids build bridges where social gorges divide, then pride and prejudice are simply replicated on a new stage.

We live in an area that is a mix of Latino and Anglo families. The impressions my kids come away from school with - "Most of the Mexican kids are so mean, Dad" - do not go unchallenged by me. But the fact is, the social environment at school reinforces behavior that leads to grudges and prejudices, and no effort is made in the curriculum or extra-curricular activities to bridge the differences.

The Jesuit university where I am a professor - the University of San Francisco - expresses its mission: "Educating Hearts and Minds to Change the World." Should that not be the mission of every school, kindergarten on up?

David Batstone is executive editor of Sojourners.

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