Now that we've settled into the routine of the back-to-school season, I think it's time to consider what President George W. Bush once asked: Is our children learning?
Critics had a field day with that one, but no matter how he said it, the famous question is more valid than ever. Even more importantly, WHAT are our kids learning? No doubt some people are most concerned about helping youngsters learn "sensitivity" and revisionist history. It's more about feelings than facts. For years we've been told grading systems are too harsh and that it's better if everyone gets an "A." The word "failure" is out of fashion, and then too many high school students are unprepared for college. We shouldn't be surprised.
Let's also consider some of the people who want to un-do Proposition 8 and redefine marriage in California. Many would love to classify any classroom talk about "husband and wife" as hate speech. And across America there are pushes to indoctrinate more very young children in sexual matters. On so many fronts, social engineers are trying to transform education into something most parents do not approve. Forget the old days of "reading, writing and arithmetic" Like or not, we're in a "brave new world." We need to consider the consequences and what future indoctrination might look like.
A couple of years ago one of my favorite stories involved a rush on purple pens for teachers. The reason? Some psycho-babblers "experts" thought purple would be less offensive to students when teachers grade papers. You see, red was just too, well, "judgmental."
Dog and pony show
In an election year it's always popular to discuss education and spending. Most attempts to get citizens to embrace new schemes for bonds and taxes are wrapped around our fears and guilty feelings of being too busy to be involved. We want quick fixes to problems. Administrators claim everything that's been cut has been cut, and there's no alternative to raising new revenue. While the pencils are sharpened and new school year budget meetings commence, the experts rachet up their theories about how to solve challenges.
As the debate rages, it's not unusual to see stories about how teachers are forced to make dollars stretch by paying for their own classroom supplies, because miserly Americans aren't coughing up more revenue. A recent photo in a local paper showed a teacher cutting erasers in half to save some bucks. The message: It's your fault, so pay up.
As campaign season talk on this topic increases, too often it's focused on everything and everyone except the students. Most energy is spent on grand promises of magic solutions, union rallies, avoiding budget reductions and fighting any new standards for teachers and schools. There are some notable exceptions, such as the success of charter and private schools (and some better public facilities), but clearly we have lots of work to do if all American kids are going to get an education that really matters.
We also need a serious national debate on school choice, to allow those stuck in underperforming government schools to be given better opportunities elsewhere. Unfortunately, too much of the discussion over the years has given us the same situation, ending up with a consistently less-than-effective learning environment. No wonder so many people are turning to home schooling, which the education elites continue to belittle, despite some excellent results.
It's hard to admit the truth: After years of investment in K-12 education, we don't have a lot to show for it. And the fact is, we are spending more on education than ever before. So the question is: Where does all that money go?
You already know the answer. It goes to overhead and bloated pension plans and more promises made over the years, often with the best of intentions. But in today's economy all of what has been seems like ancient history. It's a new day, whether we like it or not. We have to realize that the way we've always done it is now unsustainable.
So let's review: Despite larger-than-ever education expenditures, the kids aren't learning more overall. The gold-plated deals of past years don't work, and citizens are wising up to empty promises from politicians.
It's time for parents to take a hard look at the system and become more discriminating when it comes to the bottom line, teacher performance and what today's children are absorbing. Without a fresh demand for new standards, accountability and results, our future is too chilling to imagine.
Larson is a veteran Southern California radio/television personality and media consultant. He can be heard daily in San Diego on KCBQ 1170AM from 7 to 9 a.m., and on KPRZ 1210AM from 2 to 4 p.m. E-mail: email@example.com.
Published, September 2010