Kids send loud message about failings in education

April 18, 2001|By Gregory Kane

I'M WATCHING several youngsters play chess at a Baltimore public elementary school one afternoon. (Using the tried and true "scrape the bottom of the barrel" method, one of the teachers had coaxed me into being the school's chess team coach.) Suddenly, two kids start to quarrel. I ask what the problem is. One youth, a dark-skinned African-American, tells me he has no problem except for "that white boy over there."

He was referring to another youth, a light-skinned African-American. I gritted my teeth to hold my temper and then finally blurted, "Get out!"

The budding militant has not been allowed to return. What incensed me is that I thought black Americans had warned their children against the stupidity of darker-skinned ones putting down lighter-skinned ones -- and vice versa. I thought that whatever else our problems, we were beyond that one. I thought wrong.

But the teacher who recruited me to be chess coach said the budding militant's remark was mild compared to what she sees on a daily basis from some of these children. She showed me notes some students had written to classmates, a virtual solicitation to commit sexual acts. The language was so vulgar it embarrassed me; and I've been through boot camp.

The messages these children -- fourth-graders, which would put them in the 8-to 10-year-old range -- wrote to each other will not be reprinted here. But they do show what's wrong with public education and the parents who condone poor education. A little over two years ago, I spoke to the teacher who recruited me about what's wrong with city public schools. She mentioned lack of discipline, parents who let some kids stay up until 11 p.m. on school nights, who refuse to help with homework, who send their children to school with highly communicable diseases and no supplies, of children who lack respect and listening skills. Most of her day, she said, is spent reprimanding students and establishing order. (And, we can surmise, collecting vulgar and disgusting notes.)

In short, parents are sending their children to school unlearned in the skills they should have and far too knowledgeable about things they shouldn't know. As if to echo the Baltimore teacher, another one some 200 miles away in New York City wrote an article for the April 8 New York Times education supplement. Jacqueline Goldwyn Kingon spent a year teaching second, third and fourth grades at a South Bronx elementary school. She didn't name the school -- the better to protect the innocent, and the guilty, no doubt -- and presented a bleak picture of what's going on in public education at poor urban schools. Tackling the problem of discipline and a challenging curriculum, Kingon wrote:

"Harder work is more interesting to teach, but academic challenges can be threatening to insecure children. Acting out masks ignorance. Work that makes students comfortable and feel successful causes fewer discipline problems. New work is introduced piece by piece at an agonizingly slow pace. Dumbing down is a discipline technique that keeps children who prefer entertainment to instruction orderly and safe.

"Some parents do not see certain types of behavior as unacceptable. `I acted that way and I grew up just fine,' they say, or `I tell my child to stand up for his rights and fight back.' Some get annoyed when notified a second or third time that their child has acted up. ... And some low-income parents encourage bad behavior so their children are labeled disabled and placed in a special education class. They can then receive Supplemental Security Income."

Kingon tells of two second-grade boys who called two girls in their class lesbians. When she asked if they knew what "lesbian" meant, they gave her the precise definition. Their reading and math grades might not be up to snuff, but they knew what a lesbian is. Later, Kingon found one of the boys who had given her the lesbian newsflash groping one of his female classmates in a closet.

Let's move from a classroom in New York to one in Cincinnati, where apparently riots and police shootings aren't the only problem. The April 8 Newark Star-Ledger reported that fifth-graders at one Cincinnati elementary school might have been involved in a ring that involved swapping sex for sodas and candy. Let a conservative advocate school vouchers so that parents will have the choice to send their children to private or public schools where education actually happens and liberals will accuse him of trying to destroy public education. But, as Jacqueline Goldwyn Kingon had the courage to point out, at some poor urban schools, children are being educated in all the wrong things and few of the right ones.

Parents who are required to put their taxes into that insanity and want out shouldn't be accused of destroying public education. Public education in too many places doesn't exist. Such parents deserve a refund because the government is stealing their money.

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