Saturday, May 3, 2008

Educating Jazmine

Yesterday's on-line Wall Street Journal features an opinion piece by the newspaper's "deputy Taste editor", one Naomi Schaeffer Riley. I don't read the Journal on a regular basis, so I don't really know what a deputy Taste editor does other than assist the Taste editor. I presume from the capitalization that Ms. Riley works for that section of the WSJ that other papers refer to as "Style" or "Living". That is, her life is devoted to whatever it is that the spouses of mortgage bankers do on weekends before their mates are carted off to country club prisons for swindling the public. Or something like that.

Anyhow, Ms. Riley has decided that a devotion to Taste shouldn't prevent one from throwing one's in-laws under the Uptown Express. So she tells us the story of her niece Jazmine, a young lady who, in Ms. Riley's gentle opinion, "goes to one of the worst schools in Buffalo, N.Y." Now, I have no metric to judge such an assertion (for all I know, Buffalo schools are fabulous), but I'll proceed from the assumption that poor Jazmine attends one of those prisons with blackboards that Tom Berenger was forced to come in and clean up several times in those awful 1990s movies. "There are," Ms. Riley helpfully informs us, "security guards at the door", something that evidently shocks the conscience of the deputy Taste editor.

As an act of what sounds a great deal like noblesse oblige, Ms. Riley invites Jazmine to her side of the tracks to help the youngster complete a successful college application (this notwithstanding the fact that "Jazmine has learned very little in the last four years"). The deputy editor is forced to shoulder this burden because Jazmine's "parents and teachers seemed disinclined or unable to help." The niece's name may be a pseudonym, of course, but Ms. Riley's surely isn't, so by now Jazmine's mom and dad, their neighbors, and their friends probably know exactly which set of parents have been outed in the national press for dereliction of duty. One suspects that Thanksgiving at the Rileys' will be a little awkward this year, even assuming that people "with incomes of less than $40,000" actually know how to eat turkey that doesn't come in a plastic wrapper.

This would obviously not be the Wall Street Journal without a little editorializing about the supposed failure of public education, and Ms. Riley makes her de rigueur contribution:

"Public schools used to be the great equalizer in America -- the institutions that allowed the children of immigrants and the descendants of slaves to become fluent in the English language and prepare them for careers. In too many urban areas, they don't perform such basic educational functions. But they don't offer structured environments, either, for the few students who are trying to lift themselves up and get a better educational experience at college."

To her credit, however, the deputy editor offers not a single aside about the need for private school vouchers, that persistent right-wing hobby horse. Indeed, once she's done with the hackneyed public school bashing, Ms. Riley finishes with a fairly reasonable case against the unnecessary bureaucracy involved in the college admissions process. Jazmine evidently had to contend with some schools that were prepared to write her off simply because one small piece of her application package was incomplete and others that required additional letters and essays just to qualify for a vitally needed scholarship. If all of this is true, it is certainly something that American universities should correct. No teenager should be required to decode the Rosetta Stone just to further her education.

And what about the public schools? Well, Ms. Riley favors us with stories about teachers who couldn't be bothered to write meaningful letters of recommendation or even correct the grammar and punctuation on those they did manage, reluctantly, to generate. One teacher supposedly hand-wrote an illiterate paragraph ("Jazmine is enlightened by the journey of academia the twist, turns and heights elevated to farthest stretch imagined") and then told the girl to type it up herself.

The problem with all discussions of failing public schools is that writers tend to speak about the school entirely out of the context of its environment. Thus, Ms. Riley can oversimplify the issue by opining that "kids need a real high-school education, complete with literate, motivated teachers". Well, of course they do, so let's fire this sorry lot and airlift in Mr. Chips, Jaime Escalante, and that Robin Williams character from "Dead Poets Society". Or better yet, let's start a voucher system and auction these kids off to the lowest bidder.

Even Ms. Riley seems vaguely aware of the complications inherent in talking about failing schools. The security guard who so shockingly guards the school house door is not employed to protect the kids from grammatically clueless English teachers. He (or she) is there because the environment outside the schoolyard is one of hopelessness, violence, and desperation. As a society, we allow our inner cities to rot and then wonder why the only teachers willing to walk past the security guard every morning are those who are otherwise unemployable.

The other unintentional revelation involves Ms. Riley's swipe at Jazmine's parents, who "seem disinclined or unable to help". What superhuman motivation is required on the part of a teacher in the face of a classroom full of kids whose parents don't care? Presumably, since Ms. Riley refers to parents in the plural and speaks of her niece as "a smart, respectful young lady who has steered clear of trouble", Jazmine represents the best-case scenario at Buffalo's high school from Hell. And yet, even her mom and dad apparently won't gather themselves together sufficiently to contribute to their daughter's upward mobility. And this is primarily the teachers' fault?

Sure, there are some lazy, stupid, and burned out teachers operating in our nation's classrooms. But everyone who has been within ten miles of a public school anywhere in the country knows that they are a small minority of the total. Levels of competence vary, of course, but the overwhelming majority of school teachers works hard and cares about their students. Indeed, many of those who have given up have done so only after decades of walking past security guards and being stood up after scheduling meetings with parents who stopped trying years earlier.

If you can’t throw money at a problem, as conservatives invariably insist, then why is it that everyone wants to become rich? There are no doubt pathologies in our inner cities (and elsewhere!) that will not lend themselves to monetary solutions. But money can attract more talented men and women into public education. It can reduce the size of classrooms and allow for more individualized instruction. It can pay for the technology and other supplies that will allow poor kids to enjoy the same classroom benefits as youngsters whose parents read the Wall Street Journal's Taste section. And it can support early morning and late afternoon programs for latchkey children who must otherwise negotiate dangerous neighborhoods on their own.

In short, an infusion of financial support might just give hope to Jazmine's classmates who are neither so lucky as to have a successful aunt willing to help, nor so unlucky as to have one eager to spill the entire story on the pages of a national newspaper.

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