Mug-Thornton, Mark

Mark Thornton

If you’re just itching to have a spirited conversation with friends or total strangers, sit down and say what you think is wrong (or right) with public education and, if you want to make an afternoon of it, offer your proposal for school security (a column or editorial for another day). 

Whether you have a seat in the Legislature or a seat in the Hardee’s on 16th Avenue, your suggestions aren’t going to mean much. Oh, sure, the lawmaker can enact a law that requires funding and all sorts of things that concern our public schools. But there’s one thing the lawmakers can’t do: Make students become educated.

They can help provide the tools and environment for learning to take place, but that’s about it. The rest is up to the students and their parents. An old saying about the hydration of horses comes to mind … You can lead a kid to the library, but you can’t make him learn.

That’s why I always take test scores, district and school grades with a grain of salt. Those statistics say a lot more about the community that they’re in than they say about the educators. You could send an army of mediocre school administrators to an outstanding community — where children grow up in loving, secure, working families who have been emphasizing and working on educational goals and expectations since birth — and those administrators would be the “stars” of what has become the Education Industry.

Conversely, you could assemble an army of the greatest administrators from around the country and put them at a school district in a community where the parents are disengaged, don’t work and are watching their kids get raised by grandmothers while they all subsist on government assistance … and, well, you’d just wind up with a highly paid group of “failures.”

No degree, salary, training or experience can help an educator overcome community apathy. That’s a realization that officials in the Department of Education, on the state and (unnecessary) federal level, need to acknowledge. Sure, there are a few heartwarming stories about an amazing superintendent or principal or teacher reaching some hard-core kid whose background is horrific … but those are the exceptions. That ain’t happening en masse, and it’s pie-in-the-sky to believe otherwise. Usually, it’s people who have been outside of the classroom for too long (or have never been there) who think that’s possible. And unfortunately, that describes most of the people who are making the rules and guidelines that our educators are having to follow.

Now, despite all of that, it doesn’t mean I don’t think they should try. Absolutely they should. Lawmakers and administrators should do everything in their power to provide support and an environment that’s conducive to learning so those who want a quality education can receive it. It’s incumbent upon the teachers to try their best. But they can’t be expected to work miracles. They can’t be expected to overcome what’s being instilled (or not instilled) in their students during all of their out-of-school hours.

Administrators and public education activists are fond of saying it takes “parental involvement” for a school and/or school district to be successful. They really should be more specific when they say that. They’re talking about basic discipline at home, and setting expectations early on, with toys and games that make learning fun.

Too many “parents” interpret their call for “involvement” as storming into the school and raising hell with the first teacher or principal they think has wronged their precious spawn. That’s not how things get better. Sure, teachers and principals need to be available and accountable to parents, but only as it pertains to the education of the child. Theatrics and confrontation rarely make a bad situation better.

Over the years, I’ve written many columns about the problems and triumphs of public education. One observation has been the dropoff of test scores that takes place in the middle-school years in the failing schools and districts. The students in those same schools and districts may be scoring average or better in the early grades, when teachers may be the most influential people in their lives, but then the worldly influences start to take hold around sixth or seventh grade, and that’s it. They’re gone. Forever. 

If public education advocates were really serious about saving those students, someone would propose — and give serious consideration to — year-round school, with three or four two- to three-week breaks instead of a summer vacation. That would keep as much consistent structure in their life as possible and give less time for the world to get ahold of them. 

But superintendents who take the biggest chunk of our tax dollars — and are authorized to take even more, if they see fit — aren’t willing to even discuss that. But I guarantee you if one of those engaged communities was seeing failing results, they would demand some sort of solution, even if it was that radical. 

The most frustrating thing about the Education Industry, though, is that when a district is failing, the automatic response is for the leaders to ask for more money. That’s where they create a backlash with the public. Here in Laurel, the majority of taxpayers aren’t direct stakeholders in the school district, so the backlash is understandable.

One could hypothesize all day about which came first with the Laurel School District — the failure or the flight?

Figuring that out wouldn’t be constructive. The bottom line is, we are where we are, and that’s what has to be dealt with now. Schools all around us are among the best in the state — Petal, Enterprise, Mize — and they aren’t “rich” districts. Heck, the Jones County School that is closest to the city, Glade Elementary, got an A rating. 

It’s embarrassing that The City Beautiful’s school district got an F. It’s right there at the bottom, with the poor schools from the Delta and the Jackson Public Schools. How did that happen in our great city?

Again, it doesn’t matter. But we’ve got to fix it. Or at least try. There has to be an effort. And if the school leaders want to have the backing of the public, they will try to come up with practical goals and suggestions, not bureaucratic “solutions” that cost more money, construct more buildings and enrich more “professionals” from the Education Industry.

Mark Thornton is editor-in-chief of the Leader-Call. EMail him at editor@leader-call.com.

 

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