To the Contrary

Here's why some children don't get a good education

In the July 24 Herald, on page 2B, on the bottom half of the page, ran a short piece headlined "Allendale Co. regains control of its schools." It was one column wide and maybe six inches long but it spoke volumes. In 1999, officials with the state Department of Education decided, after many threats and warnings, that it was time to take over the management of Allendale County's school system. They swooped in like Superman to save the day and rescue the poor students from their inept managers and incompetent teachers, and make the world a better place for poor districts such as Allendale. They might as well have worn signs that read: "Here, let me show you how it's done."

They fired teachers and displaced district personnel and must have spent a ton of money. They brought in experts from other, more successful districts and, perhaps, from across the country, and they proceeded to fix the educational system in Allendale. In the summer of 2007, their task completed, they returned control of the schools back to the county. Bravo! In eight short years, they took a school district that was an utter failure in every measurable way and turned it into ... a failure.

The article stated in the very last sentence, that "the district, one of the state's poorest, posted a grade of unsatisfactory on its 2006 state report card." After eight years of intense management, better teachers and upgraded facilities, the best they could muster was "unsatisfactory." There were those of us in educational circles who asked a simple question for which we now have the answer: "What was the state going to do to fix that district? What could they do?" Apparently the answer is, "Not much."

Finding the fix

Allendale school district has a double handful of problems, many of which contribute to the district's educational woes. Most districts have a few really thorny issues, but in Allendale, they have all come together in the same place to create a district that is nearly unfixable from the outside. The fix cannot be found in the district office. It cannot be found in the principal's office or even in the classroom itself. It cannot be found in the letters after a teacher's name. We know this because in Allendale County, the state fixed all those things. The solution must lie elsewhere.

Who is in charge of the learning in the classroom? If you said the teacher, you would be wrong. The teacher is in charge of the teaching. The student is in charge of the learning. Tests, even the best, do not measure how well something was taught; they measure how well something was learned. Granted, they cannot learn what we do not teach, but that is not the problem, as proven in Allendale. The problem is that they are not learning what we are teaching.

For years, educators have talked about the educational tripod. There are three people involved in a student's education: The teacher, the parent and the student. Like a tripod, if any one of the legs collapses, the whole thing will tumble down. When we talk about failing districts, failing schools, failing classrooms or even failing students, the first and often the only culprit indicted is the teacher. I submit to you that some time should be spent looking elsewhere.

The state demands that we, as teachers, continue to sharpen our skills, to stay up to date on current trends and best practices in education. We have to recertify every five years and are expected to continue to grow throughout our careers. But what is being done about the other two members of the tripod?

The primary teacher

The parent is the primary teacher of the child. What Mama teaches her child is so much stronger and more deeply ingrained than anything that child will encounter in the classroom. If Mama's attitude toward the school is one of hostility or apathy, then we cannot expect the child to behave differently. If we cannot get Mama to read to her child, then we cannot expect the child to become a reader. If Daddy never checks homework, if Mama never sets a high standard for penmanship, if Daddy won't correct spelling, then the lesson learned is that education is not really all that important and there is no need to take it too seriously.

There is no substitute for a caring, involved parent. A child can sit at the feet of the most gifted teacher who ever graced the planet, but if education is not important to the parent, the child will not learn. Conversely, a child can be thrown into the classroom of the worst teacher who ever cracked a book, the most disorganized, poorly prepared teacher alive, in the worst school in the worst district in the worst state, but if that child knows his education is important to his mother, he will learn.

School will be starting up again in a few weeks. Parents, get on your child's team. Make sure that they come to school ready to learn. Get them in bed at an appropriate hour. Get them up in time to get them to school. Make sure they show up with the proper supplies. If you can't afford their supplies, talk to your child's teacher. There is money available for this. Don't let your pride hurt your child's chances for an education. Don't be afraid to be demanding of your child's teacher, but don't hesitate to be demanding of your child. They will learn if they know that it is important to you. You make the difference.

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