LOSING CONFIDENCE

10/25/06

   Readers of this column will recall the many times I have expressed concern for the ironic and irksome actions of the leaders of public schools who often unwittingly help the enemies of public education by contributing to the publicís loss of confidence in the institution.  Much to the chagrin of some in laborís ranks, I have also suggested that union leadership often commits the same mistake.  

   My most recent experience of this came at the last meeting of the Board of Education of the Plainview-Old Bethpage Schools when, during the public participation portion of the meeting, a group of citizens rose to question the Board and the administration about the reasons for the disappointing scores on the last battery of state math assessments.  They were particularly disturbed by the much lower than expected scores racked up by our middle schools, scores that overshadowed the improvement in our elementary results.  

   Members of the public who spoke mostly blamed our poor showing on the Investigations math program, a constructivist approach to mathematics that claims to provoke children to a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts.  They wanted to know why their intellectually normal children couldnít adroitly answer simple arithmetic questions and why they as educated parents were unable to understand their childrenís math home work.  Talking to several of the parents after the meeting, I learned that in some cases parental concern for the quality of the math instruction had caused them to hire a tutor or send their children to the local Kumon, this despite the fact that our teachers have never directed more effort and attention to math before, to say nothing about the financial resources that have been committed to improving our math results.  

   The only answers members of the questioning public received from the superintendent and his assistant were that the scores werenít really bad at all.  Yes, there needs to be some attention paid to the 5th, 6th and 7th grades, but in general we are doing fine.  While one board member passionately expressed her outrage at the results and raised a number of questions about what we are doing in math, the remainder of the Board sat silently.  Not one responsible person would credit what the parents were saying Ė our kids do not know basic math as well as they should.   

   What do parents take away from such a meeting at which they are told things are actually going quite well when they know thatís not true?  Must they not conclude, as those I spoke to did, that the people running the schools do not understand what is going on?  Must they not feel anxious for the academic welfare of their children and wonder why yet another public institution is so unresponsive to their needs?  Must they not feel impotent to overcome a bureaucracy that says point blankly nothing is going to change, at least this year?  

   The parents at the Board meeting were in very much the same position as our teachers who are deeply disturbed by our lackluster scores but who feel they are missing the support of the district to address the reasons for our problem.  Our members are very practical people who donít cling tenaciously to a particular educationist doctrine; they want our students to do as well as they can, but they are tired of feeling that they have to engage in a subversive activity to teach our young people what the society expects them to know.   They are tired of trying to explain to parents why their children are weak in arithmetic and why they have to spend hours with them trying to figure out their math homework.  Their experiences are slowly causing them to lose confidence in the system too.  

     When people lose confidence in an institution, it loses confidence in itself.  Common to every school district that was once outstanding but has now declined, is its incremental acceptance of lower and lower academic standards, a focus on how children are taught instead of the content of instruction, the blaming of others for its declining fortune, toleration of increasingly unacceptable student conduct and the loss of a common understanding of its central mission, the education of youth.  Over time, these factors erode everyoneís concern for the institution and their confidence in it.  This lack of confidence very gradually reaches the point where citizens are prompted to look to home schooling, charter schools and private school vouchers to educate their young.

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