Something needs to be done about public education in America.
Both presidential candidates are slinging ideas around this arena, and neither one appears particularly convincing. Obama plans to reform President Bush’s No Child Left Behind policy, and McCain talks a lot about charter schools, vouchers, and “spreading the wealth around,” the “wealth” in this case being quality teachers and schools. Both candidates graze a tangent of the real solution: Obama promotes his belief in early childhood education and recruiting more adequate teachers, while McCain proposes empowering parents and throwing more money teachers’ way.
According to his website, McCain believes that “too many of our children are trapped by geography and by economics in failing schools.” And he would know, too — the guy was apparently so strapped by geography that he graduated fifth from the bottom of his class at Annapolis. Personal attacks aside, he is essentially promoting for education what Obama is promoting for the economy. The McCainism, “spreading the wealth around” has appeared all over his anti-Obama propaganda, and it ironically summarizes his take on the public school system, providing “bonuses for teachers who locate in underperforming schools” and cultivate academic improvement. To his credit, the senator does back his claims with a lot of numbers and charts, particularly concerning funding such measures.
Obama’s plan (like much of his propaganda) is as vague as McCain’s is specific. He glides over practicality like money and law, instead choosing to focus on happier thoughts, like early childhood education and teacher service scholarships. One bright spot in his stance is the expressed emphasis on math and science, though the only applicable notion is his desire to “recruit math and science degree graduates to the teaching profession,” and “that all children will have access to a strong science curriculum at all grade levels.” Despite sounding slightly more convincing than McCain’s plan, Obama’s fails to mention implementation and cost.
The two candidates flirt unaware with the most accurate explanation of the American education failure of the last twenty years, mostly because of more pressing issues. In lists of this election’s top 20 issues, education ranks in the distant 12-13 range, somewhere just behind climate change, and somewhere just ahead of the fading border security controversy.
So what is this undeniable facet of education that isn’t present within either candidate’s plan? What could be so easily possible to revolutionize the American education system that neither candidate would consider it? Perhaps we ought to consult an early 20th Century British thinker.
In her 81 years of life, English educator Charlotte Mason’s eternal gripe with conventional education could be summed up in a single, groaned word: Textbooks. She criticized them for their failure to vivify a subject, and stimulate a child’s mind, claiming that they are an insult to a child’s intelligence. It was ideas like this one which established Mason as one of the main sources for parents who choose the homeschooling option for their children. If Obama and McCain were to, per Mason’s suggestion, expel textbooks from school curricula, and replace them with more vigorous, passionate, ‘living’ books, we would see an immediate improvement in public education, with results similar to the better numbers posted by homeschoolers.
I realize this recommendation is particularly specific, and a plausible argument would be to simply leave such a decision up to individual school districts or even teachers, however I see it as a foothold to begin the journey to successful and complete reform in the arena of education. This possibility, combined with the future president’s desire to provide quality teachers (both have vowed for different versions of this promise), as well as a little ideological elbow grease, the American education system could, given time, redeem itself.
True education, Mason understood, is “the science of relations.” Obama and McCain each want to recruit a smattering of intelligent, motivated teachers to raise up the future of the country. I say push one step further into Mason’s idealistic philosophy, and completely revolutionize the career altogether. A practicing Christian, Mason drew upon the example of Christ and his followers as a model for educational relationships. She envisioned, not a teacher, but a mentor in a classroom filled with disciples.
But what exactly does a “mentor” do to qualify himself or herself with such a title? That’s where the re-vamping begins. Ideally, students and their mentor would remain together for many years of education, at least until the student was old enough to begin learning from a specialist (around high school age). A true mentor will eventually be able to understand his or her students completely, and could cater to the specific needs of each one. Similarly, the students would ultimately know and trust each other well enough that they feel completely comfortable and accepted in their learning environment.
I realize this all seems fairly overwhelming and unconventional, but it has seen results. There’s a reason Mason’s methods are utilized by homeschooling parents, and there’s also a reason why homeschooled students perform better academically at higher levels of learning than do public and even private school graduates. It’s because they work, and they carry with them the weight of concern, love, and patience from a mentor.
Granted, this highly ideological method is not immediately accessible, at least to all Americans, but we could get there in time. By establishing charter schools and doling out education vouchers like McCain has suggested (Obama has mentioned charters as well, but he’s very vague about their practicality), a critical first step will be taken toward implementing this model. Certain schools could feature a Mason-bent, while certain schools could cater to other needs. Give it all time, and in 50 years, the country will boast a fresh, young generation of carefully-educated and deep-thinking Americans who understand how to function properly within a democracy. America is hurting for idealistic, intentional educators. I have only experienced a small handful in my life, and I honestly recall very few lessons outside of theirs. We are ripe for a revolution, and perhaps the next president will bring it forth.