Endangered Students: A Radical Solution By Ralph Lynn The findings of the Texas Education Association show clearly the chief reason for the high rate of student failure in the schools that are in danger of being closed. It is not the presence of significant percentages of minority students, but the pervasiveness of poverty and the problems associated with poverty. There are a number of proposals aimed at correcting the academic problems in the endangered schools. One suggested solution is that students might be reshuffled to get fast and slow learners more equally divided among all of the schools in a given district. This would probably result in universal mediocrity; it would certainly arouse resistance among the people associated with the better schools. Or perhaps gifted, industrious, imaginative, dynamic principals and teachers could be assigned to schools currently in danger of being closed but with what results? The constituents of the good schools would raise such a howl over the loss of good principals and teachers that school boards would have to beat a fast retreat. Moreover, if the same students remained in the school to be rescued, the end results would be much the same. Only a handful of the brightest students would show really significant improvement. And the new, gifted staff would suffer early burnout. Still another suggestion is that the performance of teachers currently employed could be improved by additional “workshops.” This is laudable but hopeless; most teachers are already doing the best they will ever be capable of. To enlist good teachers from the Junior League or somewhere would call for the firing of poor teachers. This is impossible. To raise the academic requirements for entry into public school teaching would necessitate significant increases in salaries. It would take many years before results would be visiblebut a taxpayer revolt would be immediate. One thing, theoretically, could be done immediately in Texas: Mobilize intelligent, honest, thoughtful, public-spirited people to force the legislature to adopt a really fair distribution of public funds. But this, too, is unlikely since no imaginable leadership could overcome our anciently built-in traditional selfishness and silly local loyalties. An argument quite often made just now is that entrepreneurial competition among both public and private schools would solve the problem. Parental choice would be available since government-issued vouchers would be good at any public or private school. But some point out that parents still wish to send their children to the closest school. And the dollar amounts available for vouchers typically cover only about half the cost of private schools; poor families could not afford their share of the cost. Also, the law of supply and demand would drive up the cost of private schools with the increase in applications. In addition, the good public schools might be swamped with applications and would probably reject the program. The private schools would likely refuse the problem children. Finally, parochial schools would want to accept government-issued vouchers but would then be faced with the constitutional issues associated with church-state relationships. It seems important to note, moreover, that none of the preced ing suggested solutions begins to address the basic problems entailed by poverty. Only one solution seems to make much sense. It enjoys no popular support. It would be expensive, it would call for radical changes in our social outlook, and it would take a generation for the results to be really visible. But it seems obvious: Since good students come from good homes we must try to make a lot of good homes. Good homes have parents with a degree of economic security and who are ambitious for their children. To make good homes out of poor ones, we would have to begin with full employment at wages which would allow even a single parent home to enjoy a degree of economic security and dignity. We would have to educate our children to be good parents. We would have to begin to educate current parents to supply the books, the positive attitudes about learning, etc., which characterize the homes from which good students come. To be sure, such a program would produce some inflation. It would frighten the business and financial communities out of their wits, and it would be opposed by the pillars of the churches, the luncheon clubs, and the Chambers of Commerce. It would be damned as utopian and as too idealistic by all the self-styled “realists” who dislike the status quo but oppose effective changes in it. But the penalty for failure to solve our current problem is that we will rob our nation of the brains and talents of literally millions of people presently ignored by our system. This has to be true since everything we know about such matters indicates that brains and talents are equally distributed among all human beings. As a nation, we cannot afford this waste. Failure to solve this problem would also deepen and widen the current division of our society between the affluent and the poor. Those who oppose effective reforms in our present system should reflect that there could come a day when they may need a lot of healthy, well-educated soldiers from our presently submerged masses to defend their privileged positions. We are certainly right to be dissatisfied with the performance of our public schools. We are certainly wrong to suppose that private schools are any better save that they take in only young people from “good” homes. All educators, from the kindergartens to the Ivy League are well aware that to turn out good students they must take in good students. We are also certainly wrong to suppose that any quick fix is possible save for the handful of currently poor students who, given a chance, are so gifted that they can relatively easily overcome their handicaps stemming from poverty environments. We are, moreover, certainly wrong to suppose that we can solve this problem without significant social changes since the conditions guaranteeing academic failure have long been built into the social-economic structure of our society. Ralph Lynn is Professor Emeritus of History at Baylor University AILAmerican Income Life Insurance Company BERNARD RAPOPORT Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer Executive Offices: P.O. Box 2608, Waco, Texas 76797, 817-751-8600 Fax: 817-751-8639 18 NOVEMBER 12, 1993
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