JENKINS: K-12 education: Right crime, wrong culprits

A lot of people have become disillusioned with our public schools, and, to be honest, it's hard to blame them. These days, hardly any of the news about K-12 education seems to be good news.

Graduation rates are poor. Test scores are even worse. We're slipping further and further behind others developed countries in math and science.

Of course, part of that is simply the news media's penchant for reporting the negative. Still, the overall picture appears far from rosy, and public scandals like the one in the Atlanta Public Schools haven't helped.

Unfortunately, when things go bad in the schools, we naturally want to blame the teachers first. If our kids aren't learning, it must be their fault, right?

Wrong. I can think of a lot of people who are far more to blame for our kids' poor academic performance than teachers, starting with ...

* Parents. Studies show that children who have relatively stable homes with parents who emphasize education tend to do better in school.

Well, duh.

Even kids from economically depressed areas who end up succeeding will tell you it was because of a parent who pushed them. Want your kids to do well? Start by examining your own actions and attitudes.

* The national education establishment. Some seem to think that No Child Left Behind, with its emphasis on high-stakes testing, is responsible for many of the problems in our schools. I don't necessarily disagree.

Just remember that NCLB is a federal mandate. Our local teachers have nothing to do with it, beyond frantically trying to make sure their students do well enough on the standardized tests to keep their schools from being penalized -- or themselves from being fired.

* Local school boards. One thing we've learned from the APS fiasco is that schools don't function well when the board is dysfunctional.

True, it wasn't members of the board who changed answers on tests -- as far as we know. But apparently they were more concerned with something that wasn't their job -- interfering with day-to-day operations -- than with their actual job of oversight.

* Administrators. Another lesson from APS is that administrators, not teachers, were primarily behind the cheating. Those individual teachers who were implicated cited a "culture of fear" -- fear that they might lose their jobs if they didn't go along.

Those of us who live in affluent suburbs with above-average schools might think that sort of thing can't happen in our communities. But try asking the teachers you know if they live in fear of heavy-handed administrators, determined to achieve the required test scores at all costs. Their honest answers might surprise you.

In my experience, most teachers do a good job when given adequate support and the freedom to do their jobs. Let's stop pointing the finger at them for all of education's woes and start placing the blame where it belongs.

Rob Jenkins is a local writer and college professor. Email him at rjenkinsgdp@yahoo.com.