Cover Story

Putting the pieces together: by Dan VanderArk

Turning well-intentioned government slogans

Issue: "Ideal schools," April 28, 2001

"No Child Left Behind" is the Bush administration slogan for educational reform. It's a good slogan; the focus is on the child, and the government's eye will be on children who are at the back of the pack. And it suggests that the educational bus is ready to move toward the goal, but only when every child is on board. But the administration needs specific principles and concrete measures if it's to have anything more than a good slogan. Here are the five rules I would adopt as secretary of education. (1) Keep our eyes on the child. The heart of education is the bright moment of connection that occurs when a teacher transfers knowledge or insights or wisdom to a learner. It's light where there was darkness, rich color where there was plainness, substance where there was vapor. The best teachers are those who know each child well and can connect a piece of truth to what a child knows already. Educational policy should focus on that connection. Not on whether schools are shiny or dull, not whether technology is terrific, not on whether the percentage of spending by various government units is strictly proportional. The key question is what do kids need to know for their good? Public schools maintain that the highest good that schools should teach is the "common good." The mission statements of public schools include phrases such as "participating in a democracy," "becoming good citizens," or "preparing to work in a global economy." In contrast, the mission statements of faith-based schools speak of "learning a worldview," "becoming God's servants in a hurting world," and "seeking justice and peace." Unless children learn how information fits into a larger picture, the education they receive is like a box full of unconnected pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. What passes for education in most schools, perhaps also in the home and certainly in the mass media, are bits and pieces of information that pass into children's minds. No fact or opinion is more valuable than another. The quadratic equation sits next to the battles of the Civil War, which stand alongside "i before e except after c," which all sit atop the themes and characters of To Kill a Mockingbird. Most of today's education is like asking students to put together a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle without looking at the picture on the box. The best education for a child includes the picture on the box-a design of the way the world was, is, and will be. In the midst of a knowledge explosion, enhanced by the monstrous storage capacity of personal computers and access to the Internet, our children need more than just the facts. They need a framework in which to fit the pieces of knowledge. No child should be left behind with a clutter of bits and bytes of knowledge; every child deserves a view of the world that is whole. (2) Parents are responsible for their children's education. Jewish and Christian parents are part of the covenant expressed in Deuteronomy 6:4. God loves His people and expects love in return. An integral part of our love for God is teaching our children God's commandments; "Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up." In practice, however, many parents have given their responsibility over to the state. And what the state drums into our children, when they walk along the road, when they lie down and when they get up, is a worldview devoid of God. In today's culture it's vital that parents take charge of their children's education. In the past, the institutions of society-extended family, neighborhood, schools, and even the media-helped parents teach their view of life. Not any more. Families are frayed or torn, neighbors ignore each other, and the media package lies so slickly that kids believe the lies to be true. One of these whoppers is the outrageous notion that children and young people can be tolerant of everything and value all things equally. It's an unlivable doctrine, of course; our children will have values when they are 30 and 40. They will have a worldview in which some things are good and others bad, some beautiful and others ugly. It's just a matter of whether the right values are transmitted formally, or whether our children are left to pick up their values piecemeal in an unhealthy cultural cafeteria. Parents must teach their children what's right, from infancy to independence. (3) All parents should have a choice in the education of their children. If parents are to have a real range of options in how they educate their children, they must have money, either to purchase a private education (a hefty burden on top of the tax dollars they already pay for government schools), or to move to a district where the school's mission better matches theirs. Many parents do not have these options. They may be financially strapped, unable to move to a neighborhood that has good schools. They may be unable to afford the tuition for a private or parochial school nearby. It's the child of the single parent who most needs school choice. And yet we know that most single parents have too little time to spend with their children and too little money to choose the right education for their children. That leads to the fourth principle. (4) A just government will provide its first resources to help those parents who have the least choice. America's model for helping parents who are having trouble feeding their children is food stamps, not providing government stores full of free food to all its citizens. Food stamps allow poor parents to choose the food they want and need, with some limitations to prevent them from buying things that aren't food at all, such as alcohol and lottery tickets. This model should apply to education: Help the needy, and let the others be. Government ought to expect parents who are well off to pay for the education of their children, just as they buy groceries as they please, with no government subsidy. Any group of parents could establish a community school with whatever mission that group decides is best. Let them do so, and let them use the money they've been paying in property taxes to fund their own schools instead. (5) Parents need encouragement to nurture their children-but the right kind of encouragement. The best education for a child is one that reinforces the same themes taught by the parents. A good government would support parents in their fundamental responsibility to educate their children. It's not enough for us to demand that the state do a better job of raising our kids for us; we must raise them ourselves. That's why we shouldn't spend our time trying to get prayer back into public-school classrooms. Instead, we should be lobbying legislators to provide support to needy parents so they can choose the right education for their children. Government can also encourage those of us who aren't needy by making those community schools more feasible. Without running afoul of the establishment clause of the Constitution, the government could provide transportation and computers to students, no matter what worldview is taught at the school they attend. Government could also supply vouchers for professional development of teachers, allow tax-free bonds for the building of independent schools, and provide extra stipends to students who have special needs. Some students are left behind. Some are lost in schools so big that only the noisy and the naughty get attention. Some children have parents who see school as a cheap holding tank, a place where their kids will be safe while the parents go off to work. But all of God's children deserve loving parents who choose the education that best comports with their view of the world, their big picture. In a just society, all children and young people should be able to develop their unique gifts for service to others. The best education for children is a seamless one: the truth taught early in the home and with the help of agencies of the parents' choosing. Every child deserves this attention. America needs an array of angels, parents, and their helpers.

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