Tuesday, September 26, 2006


One POV on public education

I entered kindergarten in 1961, graduated from high school in 1974; my eldest child graduated from HS in 2001, my youngest is in 8th grade. All of that is public schooling.

And no, it didn't happen in some idyllic, wealthy gated community in the mythical heartland. I grew up right outside Philadelphia in a mostly blue-collar community. My children all attend/ed Philadelphia public schools.

40 years ago, there were certain things taken for granted. Parents met their children's teachers, in person, three or four times per year just while everything was going okay. Children were expected to behave (and not behave) in certain ways, to offer the teacher the same respect and acceptance of authority as they offered their parents; the concept was called in loco parentis (which has long since become obsolete).

In the workplace, a parent was expected to drop everything and go to a school in an urgent or emergency situation; the supervisor or manager automatically provided coverage, or had a standing agreement about making up lost time or charging it to personal, sick or vacation time. (There were, of course, significant exceptions to that last part that lead to the passage of the Family Leave Act.)

At some point, I don't know when or how long the transition lasted, a shift occured. Parents became less involved, and more inclined to put schools in charge of their children that contradicted in loco parentis. A good part of that can be blamed on a changing workplace, on changes in expectations of parents and their work-life balance. Many teachers will tell you that there was a significant drop off in the number of parents they actually met face-to-face, and this drop off excluded only those whose children either had special needs or were at the high end of the performance curve already.

Then a new population of special needs kids arrived: children of single mothers, children of drug addicts, children who float between two or more homes within the family unit and sometimes out of it. There are other descriptors I'm not listing, but many of these children had endemic problems that required more than any mainstream classroom with 33 kids could possibly offer; and there were enough of them that full-time professional people needed to be in the school to give them the help they needed to just learn the basics.

Aside: you cannot possibly grasp the difficulty a special ed teacher has when her students lack impulse control of any sort (due in equal parts to upbringing and medical conditions), have damaged or non-existant skills like short-term memory, pattern recognition or fine motor skills needed for writing. You cannot further imagine what it's like when (as has been true for about 10 years) these various types of needs are thrown together into one classroom, when even mainstream teachers with no academic exposure to special ed can tell you that they all need different approaches besides the increased one-to-one time.

Here's the personal statement that I am leading to: don't you dare blame the teachers and administrators who've spent multiple lifetimes successfully helping the majority of special needs children. They were doing it, as mandated by law, well before any Catholic or private school even considered opening its rolls to anyone but the best behaved and best conforming of children. I was there, in the classroom, with kids expelled from the Catholic school three blocks away, because they were either behavior problems or couldn't keep up academically. And it's still true, at least here in PA, that public schools still deliver special ed services (disabilities and gifted) to parochial students at no expense to the parochial schools, including busing.

My experience of archdiocesan schools in my corner of PA is and always has been positive. They do an excellent job of delivering basic education. What I cannot tolerate is the easy throwaway rhetoric that refuses to acknowledge that the public schools do as good of a job in most cases, and do a hell of alot more that no other schools do.

Nice post. I attended Catholic schools for 4 years, and public for the rest. Both of my kids went through public schools, K-12, and then attended a public university (VA Tech) from which they each graduated in 4 years.

You sound like you have some experience with the school system. My wife works for the local county school system, and the stories she brings home completely match what you are saying. The interesting thing is, back when you and I were in school (also class of '74) the worst thing that could happen was for your parents to be called by the office or a teacher, because your parents supported the school system. Nowadays (a geezer term) the parents who are called are quick to blame the school, teachers, etc., rather than think that little Johnny or Susie could be in the wrong.
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