The Road to Progress?

While skimming the local newspaper this morning, my attention was arrested by a list of local public schools and their corresponding School Performance Scores (SPS). For anyone who values education, the scores were abysmal. While in most cases there were slight increases in SPS from 2010 to 2011, the letter grades representing the schools’ final score were enough to make one cringe. The list was rather objectively titled “The Road to Progress,” but I wondered whether it was as a result of an acknowledgement of the pitiful state of Louisiana’s education system that the author had not, in a spirit of greater positivity, titled the article “On the Road to Progress;” perhaps it was merely for lack of space.

Louisiana is embarrassingly and unquestionably in the lowest tiers of public education in the United States, and has been for quite some time. The question is not, then, where Louisiana falls in the ranks or how to find ways to justify moving it up a few notches on the scale, but, rather, what to do about the problem. Is the fact that Louisiana’s school system is failing to adequately educate its students a result of lack of funding? (I am certain there are areas in which more funds would be beneficial.) Is it a result of a lack of state or federal programs? (This is doubtful.) Is it the result of unqualified teachers? (In some cases, perhaps.) But I would maintain that the source of the problem is found in none of these things. Instead, it is the result of a state of affairs far more terrible, infinitely more daunting, than even the combination of these other issues. That is, the dreadful reality that students are largely part of a culture that is, at worst, antagonistic to learning and, at best, apathetic about it; and it is not the students who are to blame, but the parents.

In speaking with a woman who teaches at one of the local high schools, she indicated that while her direct frustration is dealing with apathetic and unruly students in the classroom, the greater disappointment lay in the fact that the parents are, almost without exception, just as indifferent in regards to their children’s education as the children are to their own. Recently, a parent-teacher conference was held at her high school. Not a single parent arrived on behalf of any of her students. For teachers whose true motivation is to see their students learn, this is a seemingly insurmountable problem, one that is understandably de-motivating in the most profound way: teaching students, often with great difficulty in the process, to actually value learning, only to have them taught the reverse at home.

As is quite obvious, parents apathetic about their child’s education tend to be apathetic in other areas as well, such as discipline, and teachers who would otherwise prefer to spend time helping students learn the material instead find themselves performing a role more akin to that of riot police. Ideally, teachers should rarely have to take disciplinary measures, since any actions in that vein should merely be reinforcements of that with which the children are already being inculcated at home. But the world of the ideal is not the one in which we live, and teachers are being forced to perform the dual role of parent and teacher at the great expense of the child’s education. The sentiments I would like to express to these parents, at least in the way I feel like framing them, are not fit for print.

Motivating students to learn has enough difficulties of its own, but how does one encourage parents to reject a dispassionate attitude? Is it even possible on a large scale? Throwing money at the problem, creating new initiatives, new programs, seem like far too simplistic solutions to a deeply-rooted and complex issue that has far more to do with philosophy than it does financial and bureaucratic deficits. I wish that I could here begin my neatly-outlined Three-Point-Solution plan, but I have none; the problem is immense, and I have only just considered it. But a clear understanding of the problem is at least the first step to true progress, and in Louisiana there is much room for it.

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