Schools cannot raise America’s children

Years ago, a small grocery store where I shopped had a sign beside the cash register that read: “We have an agreement with the bank. We don’t cash checks and they don’t sell baloney”.

The first public schools in this country were formed by New England Puritans in the mid-seventeenth century in order to teach reading, writing and arithmetic sufficiently to imbue the rising generations with an understanding of community culture and its origins. It was assumed that families and churches were responsible for child rearing and their acculturation. This included the infusion of traditional values and enforcement of social and community mores.

Schools had clearly defined and limited roles and things worked pretty well for the next 250 years until the onset of the Industrial Age and the Progressive Era. As the 20th Century opened, public schools everywhere began suffering mission creep as politicians and social engineers increasingly injected more unfunded or under-funded mandates into public schools. The length of the school day/year has changed little, though, and we continue to cling to an outmoded agrarian calendar that dates from a time when more than 90% of Americans farmed for a living.

As we entered the 20th century, public policy makers began an insidious process of replacing learning by moving traditional family functions into our public schools. Schools have literally taken on many of the roles of parents and families to the detriment of both. The dominant family structure in our country has been eroded and our public school system, once the envy of the rest of the world, has not only become less effective; it is a poor substitute for good parents and has contributed to the demise of the traditional family structure.

This effect carried over into other areas of our culture, reducing the traditional effectiveness of other institutions such as churches and police.

From about 1900 through the 1960s, schools’ responsibilities beyond the core academic requirements grew to include such things as: health, nutrition, immunization, school lunch programs, vocational education, business education, kindergarten, speech and drama, physical education, organized athletics, practical arts, recreation and leisure education, career education, advanced placement programs, consumer education and career education.

The 1970s and 1980s added even more: school breakfast programs, environmental education, character education, behavior adjustment classes, Head Start, parent education, drug and alcohol abuse education, federally mandated special education and Title IX programs expanding girls’ athletics.

Gaining even more momentum, the expansion continued unabated to include: child abuse monitoring and reporting requirements for all educators and administrators, expanded health and psychological services, sexual abuse prevention education, anti-smoking education, stranger/danger education, alternative education in all forms, after school programs for children of working parents, pre-school programs for children at risk, full day kindergarten, Jump Start, Early Start, Even Start, Prime Start, English as a second language, bilingual education, multi-cultural/non-sexist education, ethnic education, global education and computer/keyboard education.

Undeterred, we piled on even more in the 1990s and beyond: gun safety education, bicycle safety education, bus safety education, gang education, Tech Prep and School-to-Work programs, expanded computer and Internet education, anti-bullying and HIV/AIDS education.

I am sure that you can easily add even more items to the list, but I think you get the general idea. If all that isn’t bad enough, during the last half-century, we have added virtually no time to the school day or school year for additional instruction.

No wonder that academic performance of students in America is static and we continue to be outstripped by many other countries despite record levels of funding. Since the formation of the United States Department of Education more than thirty years ago, scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) have been flat, more than 35% of our graduating high school students are functionally illiterate and about half of our entering college freshmen have to take remedial courses in math, writing, or both. Only about 7% of those requiring remediation in college will complete a degree and many students are taking longer than ever to graduate, while simultaneously running up mountains of usually unnecessary student loan debt.

Our public schools are being increasingly asked to raise many of our children, and they were never designed to do that. The function of effective schools is first and foremost to teach reading and mathematics as the foundation upon which all higher level learning is built.

If our schools and other important institutions are to ever recover, families must make them effective. Schools, churches and the police were effective only because families made them so. Fathers, in particular, were the enforcers. A simple word from the minister, priest, teacher, principal or local peace officer brought swift and sure retribution from the “old man”. Things almost never got beyond that, because they didn’t have to. Due process and active listening were not involved and the veracity of those adult professionals was never in question.

Couple this deteriorating educational trajectory with growing financial challenges and it is beyond time to take a lesson in clarity from the neighborhood grocery store and clearly decide who should be selling the baloney and who should cash the checks.

Editor’s note:?Wallace is a Bellaire native and is currently deputy superintedent with the Woodland Hills (Pa.) School District.