August 10, 2000: We Are a Long Way From Having Our Education Problems Under Control

It is time to dust off the metal detectors, groom the drug-sniffing dogs and crank up the heavy metal music.  School is back in session!

Time for the three R’s:  Reluctant students, recalcitrant parents and red tape.

After a year of meat-axe tinkering with our education system by the governor and the legislature, accompanied by grave nods of approval from business nabobs and howls of indignation from teachers unions, many will claim this a new day for Georgia’s public schools.

Close, but no cigar.

The new buzzword is “accountability.”  From now on, everybody in the educational environment is going to be held accountable for something by somebody.  School boards.  Principals.  Teachers.  Students.  And on rare occasions, even parents.  Cobb County, for example, has said they will issue fines to parents who don’t show up for teacher conferences.  Other systems are threatening parents who choose to keep their little darlings out of school until after Labor Day.  Methinks we still have a slight problem with our schools.

Here is a further clue.  Sometime back, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek column about getting a law passed in Georgia that parents would be held responsible for their children’s actions.  Some people caught the humor.  Others were – to put it kindly – righteously indignant.  They wanted me to understand the near impossibilities they face in raising children today.  One even challenged me to publicly state how mine turned out.  (They turned out fine, thank you, because of their mama and they are raising their own kids that may turn out even better.)  I heard every excuse in the book from that column and found them all wanting.  Raising kids isn’t all that hard.  You love them and let them know that.  You set fair and reasonable rules that everybody understands and you don’t compromise those rules.  The one thing that stresses children more than picking up their clothes is inconsistent rules.  Finally, you keep the lines of communications open, which means you listen as much as you lecture.

Because this appears to be an impossible task for some parents, the intent seems to be to make the schools responsible for raising our kids as well as educating them. Many parents expect teachers to cram learning into their children’s heads but won’t get involved in the PTA because they are “too busy.”   Many parents don’t show interest in their child’s homework or, if they do, it is to criticize the teacher’s assignments as irrelevant.  And then there is a commonly held belief that says if the schools are forced to require prayer that the urchins will somehow turn into saints, allowing the rest of us to do as we please.

I give Governor Barnes an “A-Plus” for trying but we are a long way from having our education problems under control.  To do that, we are going to have to deal with drugs, poverty, single parent homes, latch key kids, television trash, our penchant for suing every time something doesn’t go our way and, most important, making excuses.  Even King Roy can’t make all of that go away.

In fact, I will make a prediction.  There is going to be a backlash over the reforms being currently put in place.  The changes that were wrought by the political and business forces over the objections of State School Superintendent Linda Shrenko and her allies were top-down and not well understood by rank-and-file citizens.  I am hearing that dissent is beginning to bubble up from the grassroots as these new measures are implemented.  Let me tell you about grassroots reactions.  They scare the hell out of politicians because they can’t be controlled.  We have already seen some members of the legislature lose their seats as a result.  We want simple solutions to complex problems and, alas, we haven’t solved our public education problems with that single piece of legislative action last year.

If I thought I knew the answer, I would be shouting it from the rooftops.  I have a strong vested interest in the issue.  My son-in-law is a science teacher in Douglas County and was named Teacher of the Year last year by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  In addition, my son has made a mid-career change and is at Kennesaw State getting a second Bachelor of Science degree and his teaching certificate.

I consider teaching a profession akin to ministry and medicine and am proud to have two educators in my family.

Wish them – and all our teachers – luck.  They are going to need it.