It turns out, in researching for this week's column, that I had remembered a quote about church education incorrectly: "Bring us the child at seven and we'll have him for life." The correct quote, from St. Francis Xavier, said, "Give me the child for the first seven years and I'll give you the man."
Either way, in my own case, I'm a product of public education; like my peers, I can't quite figure out what's happened to it since those primitive days of grotesquely large class sizes, abusive teacher-administered discipline, obsessive focus on basics, humiliating mandatory chalkboard performances, constant testing, and, of course, bring-your-own-lunch-to-school-or-starve-at-noon.
One clue comes from the eminently quoteable Albert Shanker, erstwhile president of the American Federation of Teachers: "When school children start paying union dues, that's when I'll start representing the interest of school children."
Less well known: "A lot of people who have been hired as teachers are basically not competent" and never-even-offered, any Shankerism on modern students who succeed at refusing to learn anything that can be written on a chalkboard by "tuning out", a skill even some adults can master. His comment on the public education system-"we've got a lemon factory and it's turning out 80-85 percent lemons"- isn't shared by modern educators (think Rutland superintendent Moran) who proclaim their "excellence" as a daily talking point, and it's factually inaccurate: the non-proficiency rate in math and reading isn't any more than a mere average 67 percent, according to the Federal National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, which are so despised by educators that all States except one have adopted their own purchased substitutes, on which their students produce remarkably better results. From this states-rights-in-testing demand, you might assume that educators similarly oppose national curriculum standards, but you'd be wrong.
They're (we're) in favor, says National Education Association President Dennis van Roekel, commenting on the most recent of a series of "reforms" installed to make up for the bad old days of my youth, when we actually memorized multiplication tables, Shakespearean quotes, and historical dates for future reference. Think reform/innovations like new math, creative selling, the multi-graded classroom (old one-room schools not included, thank you) and, in some lucky districts, the campaign against phonics for reading and for Ebonics for speech. I caught his comments on C-Span, where he produced some Roekelisms of near-Shankerian proportions. Here's one: present budget constraints are producing "classrooms of 40-45 students across the country". Gloriosky, Zero, why even in the horrific old days of my desks-nailed-to-the-floor youth, I never saw a classroom with more than six rows of six-desk-chair combinations in each, and rarely more than 30 of the 36 seats filled.
A California teacher-constituent called in to offer enthusiastic agreement, offering his own economic assessment of the Golden State's post-Proposition 13 funding-deprived schools: "...taxpayers worry too much about their private wallets and not enough about their social wallets."
If you need a more analytical study of the subject, try author Robert Kuttner; his book-length study is aptly entitled "The Revolt of the Haves". It offers the same conclusion: willfully inadequate taxpayer performance.
To be fair and balanced ( a little lingua Vulpinorum there) here's a Roekelism which, like some of the above Shankerisms, so easy to comprehend that even a parent can do it: an ardent plea for more parental involvement. Saint Francis would doubtless have approved; he said so indirectly. As I've reported in earlier columns in this space, I and my peers were intensively parentally pre-K'd in the bad old days, a grounding in the Three R's which, it was later pointed out to us by contemporary educational professionals, was a grave child-raising error when we sought to do the same for our own kids a generation later. Mr. van Roekel chose not to discuss that teacher-to-parent don't-even-think-about-pre-K-ing-your-kid demand of the '60s (now thrown down the educational policy memory-hole for permanent it-never-happened status) during his C-Span interview. Just an unfortunate shortage of on-air time, which I suppose he greatly regretted.
And here's another Roekelism, so long and convoluted that I have space here only for a brief summary: as the NEA Prez, he offers his fervent support for this Educational Reform: teacher evaluation based on student achievement, as was recently voted in by his District of Columbia chapter membership. The D.C. schools are statistically famous for the clear relationship they demonstrate between spending and achievement (unfortunately, it's an inverse one, but we won't review that in detail) and less well known for the Capitol Hill and White House parents who, fearing abusive over-crowding (average class size in D.C. is lowest in the nation at 10, but clearly still tragically under-staffed) have reluctantly exercised school choice: to seek private instruction for their descendants instead of the Horace Mann model. The DC teachers, it turns out, are so enthusiastic about performance-based evaluation that they're delighted to throw years-of-experience and degrees-accumulated salary-step design under the bus, pay-scale-wise, and are eager to do so for a mere $81 thousand average annual salary, a modest 21 percent increase from the present $67K or so. Efficiency and productivity have their price, and they're (we're) worth it.
A day later, another educator showed up on C-Span: Paula Verger, president and CEO of the Public Broadcasting System. She opined at some length on her visits to classrooms where-oh, the inhumanity!-chairs and desks were still archaically arranged in rows, and on the essential necessity of re-arranging the (deck) chairs (on the educational RMS Titanic, I wondered?) so that children could learn via electronic game technology in collaborative mode. But then I tuned out. It was so easy even a parent could do it.
Longtime Vermont resident Martin Harris now lives in Tennesee.