Low confidence in public schools is warranted

Marybeth Hicks

6/28/2012 12:01:00 AM - Marybeth Hicks

Perhaps it was the rash of sexual-abuse cases on the part of public school teachers discovered during the 2011-2012 school year.

Or maybe it was the poor impression of educators left by Wisconsin teachers union members in the wake of protests against Gov. Scott Walker.

Or maybe parents finally took the time to go through their children’s backpacks and found the work product that passes for learning these days.

Whatever the reason, last week the Gallup Organization revealed a poll that indicates confidence in our nation’s public schools is at an all-time low.

According to the poll measuring Americans’ confidence in public institutions, confidence in schools is down 5 percentage points from 2011, with just 29 percent expressing “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in them.

“This is a new low from the 33 percent measured in Gallup’s 2007 and 2008 Confidence in Institutions polls,” Gallup’s website says. “The high was 58 percent the first time Gallup included public schools, in 1973.”

Put another way — because it’s frankly more startling — roughly 70 percent of Americans have low or no confidence in our public schools. The vast majority of us seem to get that our system of public education simply is not getting the job done.

On the other hand, Americans are nothing if not loyal, sometimes blindly so. In 2010, Gallup found a significant gap between people’s confidence in public education generally, versus their high opinions of their own children’s schools.

In that poll, only 18 percent of respondents gave the nation’s schools as a whole a grade of “A” or “B,” but 49 percent gave high marks to their local public schools, and 77 percent gave those grades to their own children’s schools.

Makes you wonder if that data reflected a sort of broad application of the “Not My Kid” epidemic that seems to be plaguing our nation. (It’s “Not My Kid” who bullies, cheats, shoplifts, talks back to authority figures, spends seven-plus hours a day engaged with media, and can name all the Kardashian sisters, but no public officials other than President Obama.)

Perhaps parents who respond to polls don’t want to admit the truth: Even their own child’s schools — even the best public schools in America — are part of a crumbling educational infrastructure.

When it comes to our nation’s public schools, our collective lack of confidence is not unwarranted. Even as our nation’s children demonstrate their lack of educational progress through standardized tests, America’s schools of education continue to churn out teachers trained to pursue the status quo.

Consider that “progressive” activist Bill Ayers remains a guru of teacher education, despite his retirement from teaching two years ago. Throughout his long and illustrious career, he wrote and spoke to a generation of new teachers, and what he told them was that the purpose of education is the “doing of social justice.”

Not transmitting a body of knowledge and cultural competence. Not ensuring that young people are prepared with skills and abilities to earn a living for themselves and their families. Not to uphold the republic by internalizing the values and virtues upon which it was founded.

But rather, according to Mr. Ayers and most of America’s schools of education, teachers ought to be committed to cultivating “critical thinking” and preparing people to participate in a “democracy.”

I’m not sure how you can think critically about things you don’t know, or participate in a democracy when we live in a republic, but maybe that’s me being picky.

One positive outcome of the lack of confidence in public schools might be action on the part of parents and legislatures to do some critical thinking of their own about the purpose of education, and the conflicting goals of those who seek to prepare our children for the future, as opposed to those who use our schools for social engineering.

Perhaps we’d all have more confidence in our schools if the folks setting the educational agenda in America stopped using them for incubators of social change, and instead simply educated our children in a rigorous curriculum of core knowledge.

Progressive? No. But it would be progress, that’s for sure.