The Problem with Public Education

There are a great many articles being written which discuss the many problems being experienced by our nation’s public school systems. Most of these articles state that the problems are generally related to the lack of competition, compulsory student attendance and the near-impossibility of removing poorly-performing teachers and administrators. There are, however a few other contributing factors to poor student performance that are commonly overlooked when discussing this topic. These factors affect public and private schools alike.

More and more students are coming from single-parent homes. While many single parents are capable of handling this burden, the sheer volume of responsibility that falls on their shoulders often means that the child may not receive the amount of attention he or she deserves, especially with regards to schoolwork. Even the most loving and dedicated parent will find it difficult to balance the demands of career, homemaker and parent.

In many other traditional, two-parent households both parents may work. Sometimes one or both parents must leave for work before the children leave for school and they may arrive home well after dinner-time. The children therefore, must get their own meals and may be left home alone (if they’re older), or with baby-sitters
or in after-school programs. The parents are often too tired or distracted to check on their schoolwork, or they may prefer to ignore it altogether and spend what little time they have with their children in more enjoyable pursuits.

Even parents with the best of intentions may lack the time or the skills necessary to help their children complete their homework successfully. Parents may ask the child if they had homework, or if they’ve finished their homework. Many children will say that they didn’t have any, or that they did it in school. A better approach would be for the parent to tell the child to show them their homework. This way the parent could review it with the child, checking for neatness, accuracy and completion. Even a cursory parental inspection will help teach the child accountability. Parents should insist that the child have and use a homework-assignment tablet, and use that as a checklist when they’re packing up to go home at the end of the school day.

Many children are involved in organized after-school programs, and must be ferried about to games and activities. While these programs are valuable and can contribute to physical fitness and socialization, there are only so many hours in the day. One would expect that somewhere in the midst of all these activities the child find the time to do some homework. Most do. As a matter of fact, it has been my experience that students who are involved in an after-school sport or activity must learn to budget their time and so they are better able to schedule their homework and ensure that it gets done properly. Conversely, students who are uninvolved in extra-curricular activities have large blocks of unscheduled time each day, and often put off doing homework until it is too late. Students and parents must find the balance between the responsibilties of school, activities and family life. Scheduling and prioritizing responsibilities are skills that must be taught and practiced. It is unreasonable to expect that children (and parents) know how to do these instinctively.

Even the most dedicated and skilled teacher will have difficulty motivating and instructing students who have little or no supervision at home after school, who choose not to carry their books and academic materials with them, complete homework, put in any study time at home or spend their classroom time daydreaming or refusing to work. Teachers also have great difficulty in attempting to finish a curriculum when the instructional days are interrupted with assemblies, announcements over the PA system, half-days and impromptou holidays. American schools typically schedule 180 instructional days spread out over 40 weeks. In reality students may only spend 140 or 150 full days in school, and may only have 3 or 4 weeks per year (that is not a typo) that are not interrupted with a half-day or some school function that pulls the student body out of class. These interruptions break the instructional rhythm and destroy any possibility of continuity. Sometimes I suspect that school administrators all have ADD/HDD.

Most school days begin around 8 or 9 am and end at 2 or 3 pm. High school students may reasonably expect to have 7 or 8 class periods per day, one of these typically being a lunch period. Some students will also have a study hall. Each class period will run roughly 45 minutes which means that the student will receive 3 or perhaps 4 hours of instruction in any given academic subject per week. The first and last five minutes of every class period are typically spent with adminstrative and clerical tasks such as taking attendance and assigning homework, answering questions about upcoming assignments and so on. It is also not unusual for any given class period to be interrupted by an announcement, a student arriving late, leaving early or some other distraction. Realistically, teachers can only expect 30 minutes of uninterrupted instructional time per period. If the periods are shortened because of an early-release day or a fire drill, it is even less. Add to this situation a student who hasn’t eaten a healthy breakfast or who is unprepared or unmotivated and it’s no wonder why they’re doing poorly.

What do teachers need? Among other things we need to be left alone so we can do our jobs. We need school administrators to give us the materials and the time we need and to protect us from interruptions. We also need them to support us when we have students who are disruptive or apathetic.

What do students need? Lots of things, but chief among these are parents and teachers and administrators who will provide them with the structure and support they need so that they can learn how to learn. They need to learn that there are consequences for their actions and that these consequences may be good or bad, and that they must accept the consequences for their behaviors.

What do parents need? In my experience parents most often ask to be kept informed of their child’s progress in school. No one likes unpleasant surprises, and the best thing that schools can do for parents is to let them know how their child is doing. If the child is doing well, the parent should know about it. If the child is experiencing difficulty the parent should know about it right away and should also find out what they can do to help their child succeed.

We’re all on the same side here. We all want our children to do well and grow into the people that God wants them to be. If we work together, we can help make that happen.

Brother Kevin M. Finnegan, sc is a member of a men’s Catholic religious order. A teacher and school database administrator, he holds a Master’s Degree in Educational Administration and has published one book and numerous articles on relational databases, computer operation and education. He has spent the last 20 years teaching students Algebra and Biology. He holds a third degree black-belt and instructor’s certificate in Tae Kwon Do, and a purple belt in Vietnamese Kung Fu. He is an accomplished hang-glider pilot, sailor and motorcyclist.