I cringe every time President Clinton tells us how the federal government is going to spend more of our hard-earned tax money in order to improve public education. We know the federal government isn't responsible for education - local school districts are - but the President doesn't let that fact interfere with a good photo-op.
So there he is, surrounded by fidgeting school children, promising that he's going to (a) put more teachers in our schools, (b) reduce class size, (c) establish tough new federal education standards and/or (d) provide a daily lunch to each and every school child in America. Then he grins and bites his lower lip as the cameras continue to roll.
But there's one important factor President Clinton almost never talks about when he discusses the shortcomings of public education: parents. Which is why I was delighted to read a recent column titled "Education reform starts with parents," by syndicated columnist Suzanne Fields. American school children "don't know enough to know what they don't know," she wrote. What a concept!
Ms. Fields based her observations on a study of several hundred mothers from the United States, Japan and China about the school performance of their fifth-graders. More than half of the American mothers pronounced themselves "very satisfied" with their children's progress in school. Only 5 percent of the Asian mothers concurred "although they were more or less entitled to since their kids scored far above the Americans" in standardized tests.
And while American mothers blamed their children's innate "nature" for poor academic performance, Asian mothers said their children simply didn't work hard enough. According to Ms. Fields, "Well-meaning parents who say they believe in school reform are often unwilling to make the tradeoffs necessary for their children to do better in school." Further, "No matter how good a teacher may be, parents who don't pay critical attention to what their children are learning in school ... contribute to lower academic standards." And that's why hundreds of Nevada high school graduates can't read or write.
Consider the reaction of the parents of Nevada high school seniors who were informed last spring they wouldn't be receiving their diplomas because they couldn't pass a basic high school proficiency test. Did most parents demand a tougher curriculum or more homework? No, they blamed teachers and urged that the state proficiency test be watered-down so that everyone could pass.
Ms. Fields exposed such misguided thinking when she wrote that public education is "too often interpreted as a narcissistic exercise" where "schools become 'therapeutic' environments, inflating grades and egos on behalf of encouraging a child's self-esteem." Of course a child who is never challenged academically and does little or no homework, but still moves easily from one grade to the next, feels pretty good about him or herself. School is easy. Hey, I'm having fun!
And why shouldn't they be having fun if they spend far more time watching television than doing homework? A Temple University psychologist who studied how American teens spent their after-school time each week discovered that the average American high school student spends 10 to 15 hours per week in sports, 15 to 20 hours working, 20 to 25 hours dating and socializing, but only four hours doing homework.
Real self-esteem doesn't come from a bumper sticker proclaiming your child to be a super-star at his or her elementary school. It comes from solid academic achievement based on high standards and hard work, including plenty of reading and homework.
Suzanne Fields thinks there should be as many "scholar moms" and dads in America as "soccer moms" and dads. (Let's not forget fathers as we look for reasons why children fail in school). Scholar moms and dads could become a political force by helping their children with their studies and getting the attention of politicians at the same time. That's how we should cross that famous bridge to the 21st century.
We have a candidate for Dysfunctional Parent of the Year right here in Carson City - the mother whose 11-year-old daughter missed 59 days of school between September 1998 and April 1999. School officials and counselors made numerous attempts to work with the mother before charging her with failing to prevent her daughter's serial truancy, a misdemeanor under a rarely enforced 1967 law. Justice of the Peace Robey Willis called it abuse and gave the mother a suspended jail sentence; she'll have to serve 15 days in jail if her daughter has any unexcused absences this school year.
"I don't think I was being neglectful," the mother told Judge Willis. "I think I was being overprotective." Well, as they say over at the White House, it all depends on what you mean by "overprotective." Perhaps a better word would be "oblivious."
"It's just a tragedy that a child capable of getting A's and B's in school had to lose a year," said Deputy District Attorney Jason Woodbury. The good news is that the girl hasn't missed any school since September and is described as a "top student" by her teacher.
The real tragedy is that the mother had to be taken to court before she began exercising her parental responsibilities. Unfortunately, her attitude toward her child's education is all too common. Until such attitudes change, however, our public schools will continue to produce a generation of undereducated and apathetic adults.
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.