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The separation of state and schools

by Martha Zoller, March 12, 2006

With all the talk about schools and funding, it’s important to think about what schools are supposed to do. Schools are supposed to help parents in their responsibility of educating their children. It is the parents who have the responsibility, and they loan it to the schools.

Schools are not substitute parents, schools are not to be protected from competition, they are not to be the social structure for your children, and schools do not call the shots. I know that is a shock to most of you, but your taxpayer dollars pay for public schools, and that means you are in control.

There has been an assault on parents and their ability to parent by the left. Recently, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Fields v. Palmdale that parents had “no specific right” to control their children’s exposure to matters related to sex, or anything else for that matter. The court said that the Constitution didn’t support parents and that further, the “the deep roots of our nation’s history and tradition or implied concept of ordered liberty” did not support that parents have the final say on school curriculum, including curriculum on sex.

America is tired of being told we have lousy parents, bad kids and we can’t do anything without the help of government and if America isn’t, I sure am. (Another point of view) Yes, there are bad parents out there, but there are many more good ones.

Common sense and the natural law outlined in the Declaration of Independence tell us that the parents should be the final word on the education of children. While the idea of a “department of education” dates back to the 1860s, Congress feared that the department would have too much power over local schools and kept it small until 1980. Until the Lyndon Johnson administration, Congress made clear its intention that the secretary of education and other officials be prohibited from exercising direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, instructional programs, administration, or personnel of any educational institution. Such matters were and should be the responsibility of states, localities, and private institutions.

The Johnson administration began adding many programs designed to help educate the poor, however the report, “A Nation At Risk” put out by the Department of Education (made a cabinet level position in 1980), led Congress to the conclusion that schools needed more involvement from the federal government. The fact of the matter is that the more the federal government has been involved, the worse schools have gotten. And with more involvement of the federal government, there has been more alienation of the parent from the school system. This is not a reflection on No Child Left Behind, which is actually helping the students it was designed to help—those left behind by the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” But, the one size fits all approach of NCLB has made schools doing well before NCLB be so bogged down in bureaucracy that teachers are unhappy.

One of the most important reforms that didn’t make it into No Child Left Behind was widespread availability of school vouchers. Last week, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) spoke to a group of Bronx activist Hillary lovers and predicted that vouchers would eventually lead to the creation of taxpayer-financed white supremacist academies or even a government funded school of the jihad. Hasn’t she learned that people are listening to her and that she will have to justify those remarks at some time in the future? And where is Howard Dean on this issue? His state, Vermont, has had something like vouchers, called “town tuitioning” since the mid 1800s, but you never here him talk about it.

So what to do about education? We need to abolish the cabinet level office of Department of Education. The only function a department of education would have in Washington would be a clearinghouse of ideas with no control over local schools. That would be dealt with on the state level. I believe that President Bush was right on No Child Left Behind in Texas, but it has not translated well on a federal level. Without vouchers in the legislation, then it is just big government intrusion into something that works best on the state and local level. There has been some progress in the target school groups since NCLB, but the one size fits all nature of it is bogging down schools that were already performing. We should leave those schools alone and let them do what they do.

Strong public education benefits everyone in this society. It doesn’t have to be government run, though. In the same way that public schools revolutionized education in the 19th and 20th centuries, we need to be looking for new ways to educate children in the 21st century and the same model won’t work. States should be strong in this mix as well as local communities. The closer the control is to the parent, the better the child will do, you can bet on it.

Martha Zoller is a political analyst, talk show host and public school and public college graduate. Her first book, Indivisible: Uniting Values for a Divided America is in bookstores now, has a detailed review of education in America with solutions.

Martha Zoller is a radio talk show host, political analyst and author---and a wife and mother. She is the author of Indivisible: Uniting Values for a Divided America.

Maybe it isn't the teachers; maybe it's you

by Laura Hirschfeld Hollis , March 17, 2006

In Martha Zoller's recent column, she writes that parents should assert the control that they have by right over the government schools we fund through our taxes. I couldn't agree more. But she makes one comment that merits a challenge:

"America is tired of being told we have lousy parents, bad kids and we can’t do anything without the help of government ..."

While I'd be the first one to dispute the effectiveness of government “help,” I have enough friends and colleagues who are public school educators to say with confidence that there are many, many good teachers out there, and they are struggling to teach children who do have lousy parents.

America has now produced at least two generations of post-WWII children who have grown up with a sense of entitlement to perpetual adolescence. There are vast wellsprings of immaturity, irresponsibility and selfishness in these generations, and their children are the proof.

My colleagues who are primary school educators tell me with chagrin that it is increasingly difficult for them to teach. Not only because their days are dominated by unhappy and unruly children. But also because in the face of larger numbers of children who arrive at school with emotional and psychological problems, teachers are saddled with regulations and bureaucracy intended to address the fact that parents aren't being parents. And so teachers are being forced to try to be parents.

When I say that "parents aren't being parents," (more on this) I mean that in the most basic sense: children come to school not properly fed; their clothes aren't clean; no one makes them do their homework or go to bed at a decent hour each night; there is no discipline or organization (and children desperately need both).

Then there are the parents whose night lives (read what you want into that) send a very clear message to their children about insecurity and promiscuity - not to mention priorities. Oh, and did we mention the parents with substance abuse problems? Or those in and out of jail whose children have been passed from relative to relative or have been in and out of foster care?

And this is not a function of socioeconomic class. There are plenty of wealthy parents who indulge their children with expensive material items to attempt to compensate for the time they don't spend with them.

Neglected, rejected, ignored or abused, these children are needy, angry, resentful, depressed, enraged, aggressive and difficult if not impossible to control. They require extra time. Trips to the principal’s office. Reports. Meetings with parents and social workers and psychologists. Student aides. Conflict resolution training. They are often disrespectful, disruptive and even violent.

How are teachers supposed to do the job they are being paid to do? A teacher with 25 students in a class who has 45 minutes to teach geography, or arithmetic, or reading and who routinely has to contend with even a small handful of students whose antics eat up five or ten or fifteen minutes of that class time is hard pressed to meet his or her obligations to the students who are not causing problems. Add to that the pressures of “teaching to tests” (as teachers refer to the obligations imposed by “No Child Left Behind” and other well-intentioned legislation), and one can begin to understand the teachers’ plight.

Private and sectarian schools will go back to the parents and demand accountability, because they have a model that consists of standards and consequences. Public schools, on the other hand, have lost their way – and their will. Too few of them take a hard line with parents; a stand in which they say, these are OUR responsibilities – and those are YOURS. And if a school’s administration, or district, won’t take that position, individual teachers certainly won’t, either for fear of not getting tenure, or the threat of litigation.

For too long, public education has followed a top-down management model that operates on the principle - as Zoller intimates - that higher taxes and more regulations will enable government to parent - if not better than, then at least as well as - the parents themselves.

Teachers know better.

The combination of irresponsible parents, pie-in-the-sky theorists and Education Department bureaucrats has turned public schools into laboratories where problems fester, education decays, teachers are set up to fail, and all children – yes, even those without emotional, psychological or development problems - suffer.

Unfortunately, America does have lousy parents. But a substantial number of these parents could be – and should be -- held accountable for their children’s problems. This would enable teachers to be teachers again.

Yes, there are some ineffective teachers. It’s true that we will always have some children who need special help. And we will always need school lunches, social workers and other remedial and supplemental programs. Perhaps it’s even true that public schools will never be models of stellar education. But if more parents would grow up, step up to the plate, and be parents, schools would certainly be able to do a better job than they can now.

Don't take my word for it. Ask a teacher.

The third rail

The DeHavilland Blog, May 1, 2006

When we commit to fixing some aspect of public education, the solutions pour forth. Take literacy, for example: to enable every kid to read, we’re increasing funding, commissioning (and actually reading!) research, boosting classroom time, testing (and testing again), increasing professional development, installing scripted programs, bringing in tutors, holding rallies, and pushing formal schooling down to younger and younger children. (Have I missed anything? I’m sure I have.)

But there’s one component to the development of literacy that we dare not mention. It doesn’t show up in any policy discussions, nor do we talk about it (publicly, at least) as being a part of any of the solutions mentioned above. It is The Solution Whose Name We Dare Not Speak.

Parents. There, I’ve said it.

Research has clearly shown that parental involvement - parents seen reading in the home, parents reading to their children, parents ensuring that children have an array of reading materials available to them - is one of the most critical indicators of success in helping a child learn how to read.

And the education community treats this as an unmentionable secret.

Sure, we address it to an extent at the local level: schools send home tip sheets, bring parents in to sign reading compacts, and do their best to keep parents apprised of kids’ progress through updates and report cards. But we’re asking too late – so many of the building blocks of literacy happen before a child ever walks into a formal school – and I think we’re probably beating around the bush, hinting and cajoling without ever laying things out in black and white.

My jaw would drop – DROP – if I ever saw a public figure call us on this. Just imagine the following speech by a politician:

    My fellow parents,

    The ability to read is the single most important indicator of success in life. If your child does not learn to read and read well, his opportunities in life are so limited that you may as well buy him a mop and a bucket right now: he won’t get much further than minimum-wage manual labor for the rest of his life.

    Despite what you hear from the talking heads in the news, our schools are perfectly capable of teaching a child to read. But we have to have children who are ready to learn, who have a supportive environment at home that reinforces what they’re doing at school.

    From almost the time that they’re born, it is your responsibility – and only your responsibility - to prepare them to successfully learn how to read. Fortunately this is simple to do.

    Read to them every day, preferably a few times a day. Let them see you reading. Make sure they have access to a wide variety of reading materials in the home.

    That’s all it takes: do that, and they’ll be ready to learn how to read when they get to school. We’ll take it from there, although of course we’ll still expect you to do your part at home by continuing to read, continuing to emphasize the importance of reading, and holding yourselves and your child accountable when we send home work that reinforces what we’re doing in school.

    And if you don’t? Shame on you. You’re failing your children, relegating them to a life filled with the frustration and despair that come with living on the fringes of society. They will always look longingly at the lives that others are able to build for themselves and knowing that success is permanently out of their grasp. It won’t be the fault of the schools, nor will it be the fault of “society.” It will be your fault, and yours alone.

    So please: read to your children. Let them see you read. Give them access to books and other reading materials. And help them lay the groundwork for a life that can take them anywhere they decide they want to go.

    Good night, and good reading.

Is it really such a political lighting rod to expect parents to be parents? Why aren’t we stating what is so obvious to so many: that parents have an essential role in the education of their children?

Now, I do realize that we’re not in the age of the stable, nuclear family – that some parents are trying to raise kids on their own, some are working two or more jobs, and some are struggling with things I can’t even imagine.

But the fact is, every kid has a limited window of opportunity here: if we miss it, their potential for literacy, and with it an education and a shot at a good life, shrinks dramatically. There are no do-overs – we get one shot, and that’s it.

It’s time for every parent to be reminded of their role in the education of their children - no sense keeping it a secret anymore.


(from 20+ comments)

So, if the parent can't read, or is a poor reader, tough luck? I don't think so.

For generations, schools took kids of illiterate parents (or whose parents did not speak English) and taught them to read.

I've talked to K-2 teachers, and it's amazing the amount of time they will spend on things not related to reading. So, assuming that the parents MAY not read themselves, what can they do?

  1. Teach the kid their colors.
  2. Teach them to count stuff to at least 20 - coins, buttons, spoons, whatever.
  3. Teach them directions - left/right, up/down, etc.
  4. Teach them to sit down and close their mouths when an adult is talking
  5. Do NOT teach them the language of the streets - curse words and the like
  6. Teach them that, in school, they may NOT hit or bite. Teach them to act with courtesy towards others.
  7. Teach them that, yes, they are wonderful, but, no, that doesn't entitle them to all the attention, all the time. Teach them that the world doesn't revolve around them. So, if someone is talking, don't interrupt. Don't stand up and dance, just because you're bored. Don't pound on the table. All of which I wish kids knew by high school. Which some don't.


I greatly appreciated all of the comments - some great thinking and opinion here. Just a few points in response:

  1. I'm certainly not advocating for a parents-only instructional approach - the idea was to instill the emergent literacy building blocks, not replace the teacher's role.
  2. I understand that not every kid is in a loving, stable home, and I hate that these kids end up with the short end of the stick here. As I understand it, educators can still teach kids to read if they come to school without those emergent skills in place - but it's a much longer road to walk.
  3. What am I proposing through this post? That educational stakeholders (parents are the focus of this post, but the lesson can be transferred to any stakeholder group) acknowledge and fulfill the critical role they play in public education. David Mathews of the Kettering Foundation has spoken about how education and the public have split, in large part because of the specialization and inferred authority of the education profession. But it's time for all of us - parents, community members, businesses, governments - to step back in as equal partners in the education of our children.

State Board of Education adopts sex-education standards


By Dana Hull, San Jose Mercury News, March 14, 2008

In fifth grade, students will learn about the risks of sexually transmitted diseases. In middle school, they will discuss the psychological and physical consequences of rape and sexual assault. By high school, students will be talking about condoms and even the morning-after pill.

After nearly two years of debate and numerous drafts, California's State Board of Education quietly adopted its first-ever set of "health education content standards" this week.

The guidelines spell out exactly what California's more than 6 million students from kindergarten through grade 12 are expected to know about health and are required as part of a controversial 2004 law which replaced a patchwork of often contradictory statutes on sex education. The law requires that all high schools give "medically accurate" information about condoms and other forms of birth control.

The health curriculum, which also covers drug and alcohol use, nutrition, exercise and even environmental health, is far broader than sex education. But teaching about sex - and at what age - is an explosive issue for many parents and continued to divide groups Thursday.

Advocates say today's students need to be armed with sound information amid a host of alarming statistics. Earlier this week, a new federal study found that one in four female teenagers have at least one sexually transmitted disease.

"Obesity, diabetes, sexually transmitted diseases - our students have major health problems, and they really need good information," said state Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Los Angeles, who is thrilled the State Board of Education adopted the health standards unanimously. "We're talking about how to stay well, how to protect yourself. Sexual health after puberty is extremely important."

Conservative organizations blasted the new standards, saying they provide too much information to children too soon.

"This is another reason for parents to get their children out of the government school system and into private schools, church schools and home schools," said Randy Thomasson, president of the Campaign for Children and Families, who urged parents to write letters opting their children out of the classes, something allowed by the state law. "These new regulations ensure that children will be taught to use condoms and birth-control pills."

In 2003, Kuehl sponsored SB 71, the "Comprehensive Sexual Health Education Law." The law, which went into effect in 2004, required sex education in California to be medically accurate, objective and respectful of gay and lesbian youth. Since the law was passed, health classes did cover those topics. The new state health standards echo the law already on the books in greater detail.

The law also banned "abstinence-only" sex education in California public schools, in which information about preventing pregnancy and STDs is limited to abstinence from sexual activity. Such abstinence-only programs are preferred and partly funded by the federal government.

The American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood applauded the state board for adopting the new standards. Both organizations were in favor of SB 71.

"We are one giant step closer to ensuring that all of California's students receive accurate and comprehensive information about sex," ACLU attorney Maggie Crosby said in a statement.

And now that the State Board of Education has unanimously agreed to a set of standards, everything else - from teaching materials to the textbooks that California will eventually adopt - are likely to fall in line.

"We're building a house, and this is pouring the foundation," said Mary Marks, a health education consultant for the California Department of Education. "The big news is that we finally have standards, and what's exciting is that we are taking a comprehensive, holistic approach."

Instead of focusing on drugs and alcohol as one piece of the pie and sexuality as another, California students are being taught to think of health holistically: How do drugs and alcohol affect sexual behavior? What skills do you need to assert yourself in a potentially violent situation?

"The law is great, but there's a big question of implementation," said Phyllida Burlingame, an ACLU attorney and coordinator of the California Sex Education Roundtable. "Now, in a significant way, the state is communicating what its values are."

Marks from the California Department of Education says it is critical for students to be taught about drugs, sex and violence early on. Under the new state standards, kindergartners will learn that tobacco smoke is harmful and should be avoided.

"You have to be ahead of the game instead of behind it," Marks said. "It doesn't do any good to teach kids how to resist drugs if in fact they are already using and abusing them."


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Last modified: May 12, 2006

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