Monday, January 20, 2014

Do the children in ______ deserve a better education than your children?

A good friend of mine called my attention to yesterday's column by Thomas Friedman. It, and the letter from a resigned Frederick teacher to which he refers, are worthwhile reads.

Obviously, there's a lot in here that invites my comment, but I want to focus on two elements of what Friedman wrote.

First, I would be impressed at a president who dedicated his whole State of the Union, and therefore his whole agenda for the better part of a year, on one urgent matter. We're stopping to debate the legacy of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty this year, and there is considerable debate (good example, Robert Samuelson's recent column) as to whether or not it was a success. Certainly the War on Poverty wasn't the only item on Johnson's agenda in 1964. Getting elected and civil rights come to mind. Yet there was a focus to his administration, a focus profound enough to get Americans talking about the merits of the legacy half a century later. Our current president is in danger of having no one debate the merits of his legacy in a half century, and for that reason it would be neat to see him focus (at least in appearance) like a laser on one issue. And education may as well be it.

Second, I cannot help but think about the sense of entitlement we have in the U.S. regarding education. Secretary Duncan's words, quoted near the end of Friedman's column, make me think on that. We take for granted good education, which parents of South Korean kids do not. They cannot. Their way of life is pretty young. Parents have memory of a time when life was much, much harder than it is now. Public schooling in America is older than the U.S. itself. For decades we've become accustomed to schools that are always there, and always providing services that go beyond the core educational mission. Schools are institutionalized and bureaucratized (and in some ways calcified). Consequently, we no longer revere what schools can do but instead fret about what schools aren't doing and why they cost so much to do what they're not doing. We've come to think graduation is an entitlement. That 100% have to get through to the next level, whether that next level is a next grade, next building, or a degree. Our entitlement perspective on schools leads us to mistake seat time for learning and consistency of quality for excellence.

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