The Buffalo School Board is very much in the news today, but it is not unlike so many other school boards around the nation. Education is under fire and it’s not only the boards that are feeling the pressure, but parents, teachers and in general the whole community.
At one time or another, all have been accused of being the problem in the way we educate the young, and judging by the actions and reactions of today’s educators, one is hard pressed to believe that there is anyone who really knows what the 21st century purposes of education are or should be.
No doubt there are things that educators can do better to cater to the demands of society, but if we want to cast blame for our educational failures, then we must cast a much wider net. We must think not only of the problems within the schools, but of the society in which those schools must function: a society consisting of governments, business corporations, social organizations, religious institutions and even our institutions of higher education.
Too often we forget that what happens in communities and their schools is the result of what happens in society in general and in those major corporations in particular. Thus, when schools fail, it’s because society has failed them.
When we speak of the problems that we are having in education, it is educators (to include parents, teachers and school boards) who are the most challenged and pressured, not only within their communities and the states in which they reside, but also by the historical legacy that speaks to what we once were as a nation. That legacy includes children who had the advantage of living and working in safe environments, who had tools in the form of parents and teachers working together and society in support thereof. And even though equality of opportunity was still a major problem, the spate of opportunities that did exist is to be commended.
Today, however, it’s different. Along with shrinking opportunities and high educational cost, teachers and parents have become adversaries while school boards have become objects of ridicule. All parties appear to have been divorced from a society expressly indifferent and one that has become expert in the art of separation, contestation and wealth accumulation. To what degree do we profit when such wealth and unhealthy competition guide every economic principle by which we live and the educational principles by which we teach? Smart students would also like to know.
Today’s educators face challenges daily and they come from many parts of society – governments: No Child Left Behind, Race to The Top, the Common Core; universities: “fill those seats, no matter the cost”; employers: “send us your best, discard the rest.” It is understood that whatever employers want, they get; and as handmaidens we will all work to meet those demands.
But educators have their own internecine struggles as well: teachers to parents, parents to school boards and the school board within. What are the results of these pressures? Ask any teacher who has been caught changing test scores or lying about grade point averages, all for the sake of saving his or her job or the sovereignty of the school, or the 68 Harvard students who were expelled for cheating on a take-home exam, or the many grade-school children who are compelled to do two to three hours of homework every night. How much time is being wasted, along with student interests, in having to prepare for yet another test – and to what avail?
Equally as daunting and no less punitive is the educator’s reification of the American Dream, the nation’s mantra and determiner of all our successes and failures. Teachers, especially, are faced with the never-ending challenge that the money parents spend is going to be worthwhile and will give them a good return on their investment. Teachers are faced with parents who want their children bright, able to compete and, in the end, able to define success as the enjoyment of good contacts, good contracts and a good living. In other words, they want miracles. Meanwhile, the children are watching.
Pressure, then, is the culprit, and any that is exerted at the top must invariably find its way to the most vulnerable at the bottom – the children, fodder in our social, political and economic wars. We used them in the 1960s as child soldiers to integrate segregated schools. We hope to use them today as guardians to maintain our status in world affairs: American success on the backs of children.
It is with little doubt that they are greatly influenced by the models they observe and the behaviors and principles exhibited by immature adults. And if money, for example, is the most important goal of education, then it will be equally so for the young. So what shall it be: schooling for economics (competition and money), or development of the individual child as a concerned human being and contributor to the health and welfare of society? To date, we have proven that it cannot be both.
Our children are being raised in an economic and social environment in which wealth and prestige are keys to perceived success and happiness, and where personal growth is only success when what the individual wants coincides with what society demands. Until there are changes in those demands and their objectives, schools will remain as they are – in turmoil.
If, as some have said, “it takes a village to raise a child,” then it must be equally true that it takes a nation to raise a community, and just as important will be the responsibility of the community and all its citizens to teach the nation the requirements of an environment that is healthy for all. That’s the educational process: every child, every home and every community is important.
One need not ponder the question of whether society has washed its hands of the problems of education; all one has to do is to calculate in degrees by how much. In the meantime, the children will always be watching.
Wes Carter, now retired, was an assistant dean at Canisius College and an adjunct faculty member and a career developer at the University at Buffalo. He lives in Clarence.