The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

December 29, 2013

Bus to the magic kingdom II

By Gary Grossman
The Daily Item

— In New Jersey, I met people who thought Delaware’s nonchalance toward public education was just what their children needed. So every morning they would meet a bus in the parking lot of the local library and send their kids south to get smart.

Jersey suburban schools were among the nation’s best. The culture is comparatively aggressive, competitive, status-conscious, motivated and expressive. Give me a room of Jersey-schooled reporters, I will deliver a newspaper that crackles most every day. I did it for seven years.

Delaware, on the other hand, had a reputation for barely offering functional literacy.

People of means and people who have hopes for their children did not bother with Delaware’s public schools. Neither did my friends in New Jersey. Delaware’s residents had developed a network of private schools where taxpayers who paid the minimal tax for under-funded public education would invest the balance of their money in serious tuition.

These private schools accepted out-of-staters from Jersey and were better off for it. The people I knew sent their kid to Delaware because their son was developing intellectually faster than hormonally. He was into international politics, thrilled by forums on global trade and couldn’t wait for the field trip to the United Nations.

They believed junior might sing “Hello Mary Lou” some day. But for now, private school had better antennae for tough guys and mean girls. It was safer there to be a geek.

As we wonder how to invest in public education here — whether Midd-West’s monumental investments will improve test scores, why Lewisburg’s field of dreams is where education is headed and how come Shikellamy may want to air condition only administrative offices against encroaching global warming — education’s underground railroad between Trenton and Wilmington may be instructive.

In Snyder County these days, Midd-West School District is looking for a new superintendent, one who can lift morale in the Taj Mahal on the hill overlooking Middleburg. Having checked all the boxes for furniture, classrooms, equipment, auditoriums, gymnasiums, cafeterias, computers and athletic fields, the district is in search of charisma. Well, why not? What’s left?

Parents. In education, no one has more influence than a parent. It is a straight line between involved parents and better students. It may be easier for people of means to outsource that responsibility, but poor people and single parents in struggling neighborhoods who invest time and effort have found a pathway through extra hours, focus and discipline.

Newer buildings, comfortable offices and improved athletic fields help, but the last 10-12 years have proven that motivating administrators to harass teachers doesn’t necessarily improve test scores, regardless of setting.

The entire “no child left behind” matrix bypassed parental responsibility. From what seemed demonstrably true, that there was an achievement gap between children with demographically identifiable characteristics, politicians concluded that educators were pre-disposed to favor or ignore students of a sort.

Attaching job security to across-the-board achievement was meant to redirect discriminatory practices, subconscious or otherwise, into survival behaviors that would universally advance learning in public education.

It was half of an idea.

Teachers want to succeed. They know the big wheels in town. They also know the moms and dads who join the PTA, volunteer for events, hold fundraisers or bring a serious commitment to parent-teacher night. Those partners will move the needle.

If we are going to get children to thrive, we need to do it “with” parents, not “despite” parents. We need incentives for parental involvement — not just teacher survival.

Tennessee recently considered legislation that tied social safety net support to student achievement. The poverty lobby went nuts. That would punish kids for their parents’ poverty, they said. Some kids are just dumb, they said. Some teachers are too lazy, they said. Who can study when they are starving, they asked.

Fine. Still, we know: 1.) Poor people have children. 2.) Poverty is the constant where education fails. 3.) Education is the ticket out. 4.) Caring parents can change the equation.

Someone once said you are never so poor that you cannot pick up the yard or look after your own children. Getting the kids on the bus to a better future isn’t asking too much. It should be basic.