As regards nearly every public policy topic these days, myths abound, but few mythologies rival that of public education. A sample:
Myth: Smaller classrooms promote better learning.
Fact: The teacher-pupil ratio has little to do with student achievement, as demonstrated in the 1950s when elementary classrooms were bursting at the seams (nearly three times as many students per teacher than is presently the case) and student achievement was significantly higher than it has been since. This particular canard is promoted by teacher unions, administrators, and politicians on both sides of the aisle who seek to curry favor with teacher unions and administrators. The unassailable fact is that student achievement has declined as classroom behavior problems have risen and teachers have been increasingly hamstrung – by unsupportive administrators, politicians, and the courts – when it comes to discipline. It’s student behavior, folks, not class size.
Myth: More money would improve student achievement.
Fact: As a category, Catholic schools have the best record when it comes to student achievement, including students who represent the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. With rare exception, Catholic schools spend considerably less per student than do public schools. Classroom discipline in most Catholic schools is head-and-shoulders above the ever-deteriorating situation in most public schools, but equally important is the fact that Catholic schools do not suffer administrative bloat. Unlike the case in most public-school districts, one does not find multiple assistant superintendents of this and that in Catholic systems.
Myth: Encouraging parents to oversee and help with homework positively impacts student achievement.
Fact: Wrong again. A 2014 study found an inverse relationship between homework help from parents and school achievement, irrelevant of any demographic characteristic or even child ability level. The fact is that homework enabling – a much more accurate descriptor than “homework help” – is like any other form of enabling: to wit, it has a decidedly negative impact on personal responsibility and, therefore, a negative impact on student achievement. Referencing the 1950s again (which drives my perennial detractors up the proverbial wall), it was the rare parent who rendered anything more than occasional help with homework. Thus, children possessed higher levels of personal responsibility and student achievement was significantly higher.
Myth: Social science research has been a boon to public education.
Fact: Since the late 1960s, public school educators and policy-makers have embraced the progressive notion that new ideas are better than old ideas. The new ideas in question have been supported by social science research (which will support just about anything one wants it to support), yet none of the new ideas – open classrooms, outcome-based education, collaborative learning (to cite but a few) – have panned out. Today as yesterday, the most successful schools are those that adhere to a traditional model.
Myth: Teaching academics prior to first grade (encouraged by both public and private schools) boosts overall achievement.
Fact: A growing number of educators and researchers are convinced that teaching academics prior to first grade increases the per capita incidence of learning disabilities and lowers achievement in the long run. As did most of my peers, I came to first grade not knowing my ABCs. Lest I needlessly repeat myself, the reader is encouraged to re-read Myths 1 through 4 above.
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School Discipline in Steady Decline
I receive a steady stream of missives from teachers, ex-teachers, and other folks who have insider knowledge of America’s schools. They all say the same thing – classroom discipline is falling apart and has been for some time – and ask the same question: What can be done?
Public-school administrators – not all, but entirely too many – refuse to acknowledge the problem. When I bring the subject up, they dismiss it, as in, “Oh, it’s not as bad as people make it out to be” whereas every teacher I’ve spoken to in the past twenty years has told me it’s worse than the public even imagines and getting worse with every passing year.
One insider recently wrote: “Excellent teachers are giving up. They send kids to the office when they're disruptive, and in minutes the child is back after having received a cookie or some other treat while they talked about their ‘feelings.’ Also, almost every teacher says that when they call a parent about a child's behavior, the parent makes excuses or blames the teacher.”
That description is typical. I will simply add that not only are many good teachers leaving, but many good students are as well. They are either moving to private schools (where a disproportionate number of public-school teachers send their kids) or being home-schooled. As a result of this exodus, the per capita rate of problem students rises. Add in the steady increase in under-disciplined children coming to kindergarten and the question becomes: What will public education look like in ten years if these trends continue?
At this point, the reader should know that I flunked fortune-telling in graduate school and had to relinquish my crystal ball and tarot cards; nonetheless, I predict that by 2030 nearly every public-school student will have a diagnosis of one sort or another. In most cases, these diagnoses will be bogus (i.e., pseudo-scientific, as in ADHD and ODD). Increasing the population of “special needs” children will not only compensate for funding shortfalls as student population declines but will also allow public schools to pretty much abandon academic and behavioral standards.
The sound the reader now hears is a mélange of screams, expletives, and general gnashing of teeth coming from the nearest public school, so let me be perfectly clear: In the course of my career, I’ve come to know many public-school teachers. They are, with rare exception, dedicated people. Teachers are not the problem – not for the most part at least. The problem consists of equal parts irresponsible parenting (not confined to any given demographic), parents who make excuses for brats they send to school (just another form of irresponsible parenting), teacher unions that have been given legal power to game the system, federal aid to education (long outlived its usefulness), and administrators who strip teachers of permission to discipline and then discipline teachers who have the temerity to do so. One example of the latter is caving in to parents who accuse teachers of hurting their children’s feelings or having “personality conflicts” with them.
Taxpayer revolt, anyone?
Here’s what no one can argue: America’s children deserve better…much, much better.
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A Look at the Biggest Mistakes Parents Make
A journalist recently asked me for the single biggest mistake being made by today’s parents. I was tempted to say, “Having children,” but stopped myself because even if I’d followed up with “Just kidding!” my bon mot would have gone into print. Oh my gosh! It just did!
I do, by the way, believe that some people are simply not well-suited to the responsibilities of parenthood. Nonetheless, I do not believe that people who want children should have to go through whatever process to obtain a “parenting license.” That would represent government intrusion of the most egregious sort, and I’m not a fan of government intrusion in much of anything.
But on with the show: I don’t know how one would determine “biggest” in a list of common parenting mistakes, but the one that causes the most problems for all concerned is the present proclivity for two parents to occupy the roles of mom and dad such that the roles of husband and wife become akin to the Cheshire Cat in “Alice in Wonderland”: that is, mostly invisible. It is an unarguable fact that in a two-parent family, nothing puts a more solid foundation of security and well-being under the feet of a child than the knowledge that mom and dad are in an enduring relationship.
Along those lines, another bigly mistake is paying children entirely too much attention, effectively promoting them to center-stage in the family and making idols of them. Children don’t handle idol-hood well at all. Let’s face it, adults don’t either. As does the citizen, a child thrives best under libertarian circumstances; meaning he is managed minimally (allowing lots of trial-and-error) while being held completely responsible for the mistakes he will invariably make.
Paying too much attention to children is another biggie. In my experience, which is vast at this stage, ten out of ten children who seem “starved” for attention are not starved at all; rather, they have been for quite some time the recipients of entirely too much. They are attention-addicts, a synonym of which is “obnoxious.” It is entirely unfair to burden a child with obnoxiousness. If I was the Secretary of Parenting, I would only grant licenses to folks who pledged to love their children unconditionally but give them less than fifteen minutes of one-on-one attention a day (excluding during infancy and early toddlerhood, which are unavoidably labor-intensive).
Today’s parents tend to ascribe significance to their children’s emotional output. As a consequence of talking to their children about every emotion they experience, they risk causing their children to become emotionally-driven individuals with little if any emotional resilience. My mother was fond of telling me that I was making mountains out of molehills; that there were children in the world who truly had problems…REAL problems like not having enough to eat. She wasn’t about to lend credence to a complaint about not being given a turn, called a name, or some such trivia. For that (among many other things) my mother receives my enduring gratitude.
Let’s see…I have room for two, maybe three more. Ah, yes! How about the habit today’s parents have of assuming a servile squat when they talk to young children? You know, that absolutely absurd “getting down to their level” thing as if they are bowing to royalty. And then, to add the ludicrous to the absurd, finishing what they believe to be an instruction with “Okay?” So what if it isn’t okay?
Last one: Trying to discipline a child who has misbehaved without causing the child emotional discomfort (guilt and remorse) and inconvenience. That attempt annuls the attempt to discipline, which goes a long way toward explaining why so many of today’s parents complain that nothing they do by way of “discipline” works.
That’s because they are doing nothing.
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Parenting Should Not Be About Instant Gratification
A friend of mine named Scott shared an absolutely brilliant thought with me when I dropped in on him unannounced at his workplace, a bank, the other day.
Everyone thinks all I want to talk about is parenting, like, you know, police only want to talk about the arrests they’ve made and surgeons only want to talk about operations they’ve performed and coroners only want to talk about autopsies they’ve done. So, I drop in on Scott, just to chat, and he starts in on the only topic I don’t particularly want to talk about, naturally.
In fact, he was very complimentary, telling me that he and his lovely wife, Monica, started reading this column when their children were young and still keep up with it. In the course of almost putting me to sleep, Scott suddenly wakes me up by telling me he has a theory about parents.
“You probably won’t think much of it,” he says, “being the expert and all.”
“It’s probably brilliant,” I say, and it was.
Scott has figured out – on his own but remember he’s been reading my column for more than twenty years now, so I feel entitled to take some credit – that the reason so many parents these days want to be their children’s best friends is because we live in an instant-gratification culture and the attempt to be your child’s friend is very likely to bring instant gratification, as in: (a) the parent puts energy into trying to be a friend, (b) the child likes having an adult friend more than he does or would having an adult who accepted the sometimes onerous responsibilities of being an authentic parent, and so (c) the parent receives approval from the child – a synonym for approval being, in this case, instant gratification. (The preceding is known, in literary circles, as a run-on sentence. Thomas Jefferson was famous for them.)
Brilliant! Remember, this was Scott’s idea, but he wants to remain anonymous. Indeed, when done properly by properly-thinking people, parenting is not likely to bring instant gratification. Raising a child out of narcissistic incivility into responsible, compassionate adulthood is, after all, a slog that requires of parents that they sometimes do what they would rather not do, like administer punitive discipline.
“Do you mean, John, that parents should never try to have fun with their kids, like take them to Disney World?”
I’m not the person to ask that question. I’ve been to Disney World four times: once with my own kids when they were young; twice with grandchildren; and once with another adult couple. I’ve had a genuinely good time at Disney World once. Guess which trip the “once” was. Right! But seriously, I’m not – and neither would Scott – saying that parents or grandparents should never have fun with their kids/grandkids. We’re referring to parents who avoid entirely the responsibilities of parenthood by trying to turn it into something it is not: to wit, a friendship.
When you avoid responsibility for something for which you are, in fact, responsible, you are being irresponsible. So, Scott and I are indeed saying that trying to be your child’s friend is irresponsible. Children do not need 30- or 40-something year-old friends. They need adult parents who are willing to take the occasional heat and perform the occasional distasteful function, like informing a child that he is not yet well-behaved enough to go to Disney World or even the local petting zoo.
I wrote a similar column years ago, by the way. In it, I coined the term “McParenting.” It’s what instant-gratification-oriented parents do. They take the easy way out of everything concerning their kids, including trying to be their best buds. The opposite of McParenting is Real-Life Parenting Done By People Who Raise Children Who May Not Realize Until They Are On Their Own That They Were Raised Well And Call You One Day And Thank You.
That’s the prize. Go for it!
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