Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Problem with Public Schools, continued

Johnny has a problem, indeed. The schools may be part of that problem. The schools are undoubtedly part of the solution, but only part. For, the schools are an institution in a broader society that, frankly, is showing some educational erosion. Go back and consider some of the factors, besides the particular reading curriculum, that might have been in play from the 1950s forward. Female labor force participation began a long steady climb after World War II. This meant that some mothers, or even extended family relatives, were less available to be reading (or overseeing homework, generally) as much with Johnny. Suburbanization, with its longer commutes, also meant fathers had a little less time at home. Finally, we lament the effects of too much ‘screen time’ today, but, of course, the long march to this unfortunate situation began with television, in the 1950s. (Read Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone for a good treatment of all these issues. Here's a brief overview.)

Screen time, of course, is arguably the biggest problem for Johnny. If he’s average, he engages in about 6 hours of TV watching and video game playing each day. That means he spends more time in non-reading screen activities each day than he does in language arts class all week. Every year, he will get about as many hours in screen time as he would in the 7 more years of reading classes, provided he gets the double dip of classes for all 7 years. Of course, Johnny is quite likely the kind of youngster that drives the screen time average as high as it is, so the numbers might actually be worse.

The point of this composite example (which has a direct parallel in math, by the way) is to show that the process of helping a struggling student is a) very different from helping a student who is performing at grade level, b) an organizationally and pedagogically daunting task for individual schools, and c) reflective of the kind of social and institutional strain schools live with. For, Johnny’s story does highlight something of the mess schools are in.

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