Put a Ding in the Universe!

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Oct 21 2013

How to fix the education gap (part 2 of several)

One of the reasons I see education devolving to a colonial model rather than a nationalized system is the inability to separate teaching values and culture from math, science, and reading.  No matter what you teach, you’re teaching values and culture.

In our school we begin the day by saying the Pledge of Allegiance and standing for a moment of silence.  In my classes, which are comprised mostly of Mexican children, this is a daily ordeal.  Most of them have no heartfelt connection to the concept of “America.”  They consider themselves Mexicans living in America, even the ones who were born here.  I have taken time to explain to them what the pledge means and why we say it.  In particular, I’ve tried to connect them to America from the position that somebody in their families made a sacrifice to come here.  They left roots and family in another country and came to the United States with hopes for a better life.  I tell them that saying the pledge honors their sacrifice and that hope.  No matter how they feel about America, someone in their family made a difficult choice and possibly risked everything to come here to start fresh.

My explanations maybe reached a couple of them.  I have also explained the history of the “moment of silence.”  I explained that, when I was a kid, we used to begin school with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance.  People decided that the prayer was exclusive, because a Muslim, a Jew, or a Jehovah’s Witness might not feel comfortable reciting a Christian prayer.  So we got rid of the prayer and now we’ve settled on having a moment of silence to reflect, pray, or meditate on a personal level.  For the kids, it’s an awkward moment of silence after an awkward recitation of words that have no meaning to them.  If one thing is true about this entire generation of children raised in a constant barrage of electronic noise, it’s that they are uncomfortable with silence.

Families used to be the vehicle for transmitting values to the next generation.  Today, it’s the Internet and mass media.  The broken economic system we have today requires two parents to be in the workforce to provide a decent standard of living for their families.  Parents used to transmit the values that are important to society: honesty, selflessness, kindness, responsibility, the value of hard work, self-reliance, etc.  Those living parental lessons have been replaced by Wiz Khalifa, Nicki Minaj, Mylie Cyrus.  The “Family Guy” has replaced a real family.

The result of turning values education over to the mass media by default is that the kids today are cynical of everything.  They are disconnected from any generation before them.  What they value is totally materialistic and hedonistic.  They are enamored by a culture of bling and drugs.  What the parents have taught their children, in most cases, is that it’s OK to focus so much on the acquisition of material goods that any sort of behavior can be justified.  With rare exception, my students have no sense of aversion to theft, violence, or immorality.  Stealing and fighting are accepted as a normal part of life.  They sit uncomfortably in class wearing their backpacks in their chairs because, if they remove them, someone will steal their stuff.  I had to miss two days of school a couple of weeks ago and my desk was looted.

In times past, there was a culture of faith that permeated America.  Whether a kid grew up Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, or whatever, there was a foundation of accountability.  People believed that they would answer for the good and bad they did.  Now, the messages that kids receive through the media is that anything is acceptable.  There is no bottom to behavior anymore.   It’s a downward track toward depravity.

Earlier this year, we read a story from our literature book that was a screenplay from an old Twilight Zone episode written by Rod Serling.  It was caused “The Monsters on Maple Street.”  The story relates the fictional account of a neighborhood that gets spooked when what appears to be a meteor flies overhead, causing the lights to go out.  The neighbors in a typical white-American neighborhood end up turning on each other and resorting to mob violence against their own because they fear a space-alien invasion.

As a writing prompt, I asked the kids how they, their families, and their neighborhoods would react in a similar situation.  I was stunned by the responses.  Almost all of them said that they would resort to theft, looting, and violence to get what they needed to survive.  Shades of Katrina!  Out of a hundred kids, there were only a couple who displayed any real aversion to such a course of action.  In each case, these students’ answers included an unsolicited personal comment about their faith.

When it comes down to it, society has marginalized religion.  It’s regarded as a quaint anachronism–a vestige of less “enlightened” times.  Secularists and atheists dominate the dialogue.  Now, I don’t advocate teaching religion in schools, aside from classes in comparative religion or from a sociological perspective.  However, it appears that, unless a child is taught that there is an ultimate Authority by his parents, he or she will grow up with no fear of consequences.  The State doesn’t have the clout to fill that role.  Many of my students are already involved in the correctional system.  Some are on probation.  Some have spent time in juvenile hall.  Some are involved in drugs and gangs.  My students disregard law.  I have 13 and 14 year-olds whose parents already have taught them to drive.  They drive without licenses or insurance.  One of my students said he already has over a thousand dollars in fines for various juvenile offenses.  He doesn’t care.  The law has no teeth if the parents are scofflaws, too.  With that attitude prevailing, is it likely that I will ever get this kid to invest his heart in getting an education?  Realistically, no.

How can we teach values without teaching religion in school?  A school district in Independence, Missouri is teaching their kids Steven Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Successful People.”  The program is expensive, but it has been effective.  Critics say that the late Covey simply taught watered-down Mormonism in his hugely successful book.  Advocates point out that there is no religious content whatsoever in the material.  The habits that the program cultivates are:

  1. Be proactive
  2. Begin with the end in mind
  3. Put first things first
  4. Think win-win
  5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood
  6. Synergize
  7. Sharpen the saw

None of those precepts is inherently religious in nature, but they do invest students in the outcome of their efforts.  Yet there are people who resist teaching the seven habits because it might violate the values someone might be getting from “Family Guy” or “SpongeBob Squarepants.”

The more I look at the achievement gap, I see the problem as having its origin in failed families.  I grew up poor.  However, my parents taught me a moral (but not particularly religious) code.  I knew (and know) many poor families who have taught their kids right and wrong effectively.  Teachers are not equipped to be full-time family advocates.  Somebody has to teach!  School officials who are trained are often swamped and bureaucratic in their approach.  They aren’t effective because the system turns its workers into tired, burned-out civil servants, who will collect a check no matter whether they’re succeeding or not.

If we continue to try to run a values-neutral education system, we’ll fail miserably (as we are doing already.)  Public schools will inevitably decline because the society itself will suffer so severely from the lack of values that there will be a backlash.  Private or parochial schools will ultimately rise to fill the need, but fewer children will be educated in such a system.  The remedy is for parents to unplug their kids from mass media and shoulder the burden of transmitting proper morals and values to their children.  Obedience, compliance, following rules, dealing with antisocial behavior, needs to be taught at home.  Schools need to expel students who can’t behave within certain bounds and place the financial burden of educating children back on the parents who failed to teach their children how to succeed in civil society.  Churches need to establish aggressive mission efforts in their communities to strengthen families and teach youth that there are eternal consequences.  The churches need to do this without state funds and demand sacrificial contributions from their members to get it done.  There needs to be a new Great Awakening or we will have a lost generation that reaches adulthood, not only without essential skills in reading and math, but without moral roots and branches.  The damage will be devastating.

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YOTFAO BACTAG = You only teach for America once, but always challenge the achievement gap.

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