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David Danbom, Published October 03 2010

Danbom: It’s not teachers, it’s parents

You may have noticed that the state of American education has been in the news again, and is getting almost as much attention as the Ground Zero mosque and Bristol Palin’s debut on “Dancing With the Stars.”

President Barack Obama has pointed out, correctly, that the United States cannot retain its economic dominance when our students’ test scores are embarrassingly below those of students from other countries, and when we have slipped to 12th in the world in the percentage of young people who graduate from college. He has touted his “Race to the Top” initiative as one answer. Others are praising charter schools, Teach for America, and a variety of other solutions to one of our longest-running and most intractable problems.

Whenever we have a problem in this country, we have to blame somebody for it, and the teachers unions, with their seniority and tenure systems and their apparent willingness to protect weak instructors in their midst, are seeing lots of fingers pointed in their direction.

I’ve conducted a lot of workshops and continuing education classes for teachers in Fargo and northwestern Minnesota. Some of them are dedicated and devoted professionals, and some are timeservers – just as in any other occupation.

Maybe teachers are different nowadays, but I don’t think so. When I was in the Denver Public Schools in the 1950s and ’60s, some of my teachers were admirable in every way, and others – the coach who devoted much of geography class to chatting with his players about Saturday’s big game comes to mind – were not.

But I do think that parents might be different.

My parents valued education, probably because they had enjoyed less of that precious commodity than they desired. Dad had to quit school after the eighth grade to help on the farm. Mom’s dream of a college education was frustrated by the Great Depression. They didn’t intend to let us squander the sorts of opportunities that had been denied them. My brother and I were expected to get good grades. If we did not, they blamed us, not the teachers. They would not think of complaining that teachers assigned too much homework; if we got a lot of it, there must be a reason. They attended every teacher conference, back-to-school night and PTA meeting, even when they were bone tired. They would never think of taking us out of school for a family vacation, and the idea of “forgiving” days lost to floods or blizzards would never cross their minds.

I wonder whether the children and grandchildren of the so-called “greatest generation” have come to take education for granted because it is so readily available, and to see it less as an opportunity than a burden.

If so, then our education problem goes beyond union seniority rules, and it’s not going to be solved by more charter schools or government programs. It will be solved by retrieving that thirst for achievement, accomplishment and opportunity that we used to have but that may be slipping away.

Danbom, an occasional contributor to The Forum’s commentary pages, is a retired university history professor.