Can You Teach Us?

Darth TeacherPublic education has been overlooking – or worse, neglecting – a golden opportunity to improve. It’s not only been right in front of us all along, it’s been kicking us and taking our lunch money! And yet, somehow, where we should have recognized an opportunity, all we’ve seen is a competitor. In some cases, maybe even a threat.  

It’s like we don’t actually WANT to teach gooder. I assume this is largely due to the various teachers’ unions and Hillary Clinton’s personal email server.  

We’ve been told for several decades now that “school choice,” vouchers, educational “savings” accounts, etc., are essential for students to have access to a truly quality education, and that a little healthy competition will make us all better. I, for one, have been guilty of pushing back against this rhetoric. I’ve even been so cynical as to suggest ulterior motives by many of those involved (for which I assure you I now have all sorts of lingering guilt). But as Indiana dramatically expands their various “choice” initiatives and other red states do the same, I believe it’s time to change our approach.  

It’s time to seek the guidance of the masters. It's time to admit our own shortcomings and failures and learn from those who’ve accomplished so much. It’s not selling out, kids – it's buying in. Besides, there’s nothing for me here now. I want to learn the ways of the Choice and become highly qualified like you. There’s still good in me. Surely you can sense it. 

Teach us.  

Learning The Ways Of The Choice 

The primary argument for “school choice” is that the quality of the education is just plain better. The teachers are better. The administration is better. The system is organized more efficiently. The curriculum is more coherent and whole. The atmosphere simply reeks of excellence.  

It’s easy to lose sight of this because those of us on the pro-“destroying the future” side of things have been too long distracted by this crazy idea that private schools achieve their goals primarily by picking and choosing which students they want on their rosters and turning away the rest. We’ve quibbled over many institutions’ focus on religious dogma, questionable science, distorted or overly selective history, and a tendency to blame everything from poverty to skin tone on some combination of personal failure and the sins of Cain. We’ve let ourselves become overly focused on the relative lack of improvement demonstrated year after year in “educational outputs” instead of zeroing in on the handful of truly impressive outliers here and there who get cited in all the brochures.  

In short, we’ve been too cynical. Let's try assuming the best about our cohorts in the world of private religious schooling, shall we? 

I’m Here To Rescue You 

If it’s about better teaching, then please – come train us. Show us your ways. It has to be better than most of the “professional development” to which we’re usually subjected. I’ll even pay attention and do the activities – I promise! 

If it’s about better school administration, then come run a building or two for us. The pay has to be better, and if there’s such a thing as “doing the Lord’s work,” then surely this qualifies. Come show us how to reduce waste and establish that culture of excellence or whatever. We even promise not to pull the “union won’t let you” card out for the first year or two.  

If it’s about better policies, then that’s easy. Just email us a PDF and we’ll gladly give it a go. Anything conflicting with state requirements should be simple enough to fix. If all of these legislators are as committed to educational excellence as they keep insisting (particularly when it involves more “freedom” and greater “choice”), surely they’d be willing to waive a statute or two. Or 3,497.  

If it’s about curriculum, we’ll gladly pay for a copy. We’re apparently flush with wasted cash here in the world of public education. It would no doubt be an improvement, I assure you. Our administration buys some weird stuff already and your standards can't be any worse than “Teach Like A Mongol Barbarian” or “Writing Through Excellence In Compassionate Modal Communication Across The Curriculum For Everyone!”  

If it’s about facilities, well... I guess that depends on what we’re missing. Apparently we waste all kinds of resources on overstaffing and glossy copy paper and what not – maybe cutting back a little on the bad stuff would free up some funds. If not, there’s always another fundraiser pushing overpriced M&Ms on kids. Or Kickstarter.  

In short, we’re ready. Come show us how to teach our students as effectively as you teach yours. Come show us how to be more committed, less wasteful, and become overall better people both personally and professionally. You win. We’re mediocre and whiney. You’re talented and full of passion. Help us, Obi-Wan Kenobi – you're our only hope. 

The Terminally Exhausted Part 

There is one tiny little downside to this plan: it will never happen. And even if it did, it would never work. 

Maybe that’s two tiny little downsides.  

The problem isn’t that private school teachers aren’t any good at what they do. Many of them are amazing. The problem is that so are many public school educators. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, that’s not really the issue. Nor is it about curriculum or facilities or administration.  

When private schools have superior outcomes, you’ll generally find they started with very different students than the public school they’re supposed to be “inspiring” down the road. That’s not even necessarily a bad thing. The best and brightest need good teachers just like everyone else. They’re not always easier to teach or intrinsically motivated to learn. As any teacher of advanced students (public or private) can assure you, “top” kids are just as much work as “bottom” kids - just in different ways.  

But let’s stop pretending it’s an accomplishment to inherit upper middle class white kids from two-parent families whose lives have been full of travel and books and engaging conversation and art and expectations and consistency. Let's stop pretending that’s somehow not one of the biggest draws of private schooling – the chance to have your elite little darling surrounded by and shaped by other folks’ elite darlings. We see it in AP or IB classes in public schools. We see it in neighborhoods in different parts of town. We see it in the churches we choose to attend and the stores in which we choose to shop. We can debate whether it’s ethically “right” or “wrong,” but only if we start by being honest about this very human tendency we’re indulging. 

Let’s stop pretending that “choice” is about improving “educational outcomes” for everyone. Sure, that fits a certain school of capitalistic thought – but after decades of spouting the admittedly catchy rhetoric that goes along with it, it turns out it simply doesn’t work in any sort of predictable or consistent way. The vast majority of the time, “school choice” is about getting US away from THEM, whether the distinction is racial, economic, or religious. (That's also why it's usually the schools that have their choice of students; not students who have a true choice of schools.) Personally, I think it undercuts one of the primary functions of public education if we allow large segments of the community to pull their children into little enclaves and teach them stuff that runs against the goals and success of the larger society. But we can’t even have that argument unless we start being honest with each other (and ourselves) about what we want and why we make the choices we do.  

The X-Files Problem 

One of the most frustrating premises of the classic “X-Files” series was that not only was the truth “out there,” but there were numerous individuals fully aware of it who simply wouldn’t tell the rest of us. Scully and Muldar were working not only against aliens, freaks, and the elusive nature of reality – they were being taunted by their own government who could have saved all sorts of time and money if they’d simply sent them a few PDF summaries of how things really worked.  

It’s foolish to pretend that the secret to education is out there - the unified learning theory that reaches all students in all situations and imparts all the knowledge and skills we’d like if only we were willing to push the “GO” button. There are good ideas and bad, stuff that works in many situations with many different types of kids and stuff that’s pretty stupid no matter where it’s tried. There are teachers working wonders in impossible situations and entire districts coasting along mired in mediocrity and bureaucracy. And yes, there are private schools doing a much better job with challenging populations than their public counterpart down the street. 

There are legit arguments to be had about “school choice” when it comes to private schools willing to teach a largely secular curriculum to students very much like those attending the local public schools and take responsibility for both the results and how they treat their students in order to make it happen. We pretend we’re having them all the time. 

Usually we’re not. 

If “school choice” is of genuine benefit to all students, it should be easy to both document and replicate – neither of which seems to be happening much. If it’s not, the conversation should be about whether or not there are other good reasons to keep doing it. We can’t have that discussion, however, until all parties are willing to get a little more honest with themselves about what they’re actually doing and why they’re doing it.

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