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There is No End to This Stuff!

Every Saturday I teach a college class to recent college graduates who have decided to become teachers. The class is a combination of the history of education, educational philosophy and an overview of school curriculum and teaching methodology. Recently I gave my students a homework assignment to read an article called "Scare Tactics" by Glenn Hodges, which first appeared in the Washington Monthly.
It is an indictment of the media's practice of exaggerating statistics to scare people into believing there is a crisis when in fact there isn't one. I gave them this assignment because often the result of such a media scare is an outcry for the public schools to address yet another crisis. Our class spent a good deal of time discussing the supposed child abduction crisis in the 1980's as a way of exploring this American phenomenon of constantly making the latest scare another subject to teach in out public schools. We in education are so convinced of the truth of this story that we began fingerprinting children, providing ID numbers and establishing rigorous security checks in schools to keep out abductors. We were joined in the paranoia by well meaning but equally duped supermarket chains placing pictures of lost or abducted children on shopping bags and milk cartons. Remember?

The scare all started when a man called John Walsh testified in Washington before the House of Representatives that 50, 000 children a year were abducted. To this day, most Americans believe the story to be true. In reality, The Dever Post exposed it as a hoax by Mr. Walsh to gain sympathy and support for a cause that he thought justified a "big lie." The Denver Post recieved a Pulitzer Prize in journalism for its efforts, but in the meantime, millions upon millions of Americans did and still do believe there is a child abduction problem in our nation. The reality was that 50,000 children quoted to Cogress as having been abducted was closer to 200 or 300. Most missing kids, roughly 95%, were runaways and most of the rest were "abducted" by non-custodial parents in custody battles.

This whole notion that the end justifies the means is used over and over in our nation as an excuse for misleading Americans about the seriousness of a variety of problems from rape in our colleges (remember the statistic "1 in 4 women will be raped by the end of college", Ms. Magazine, 1987) to global warming. The college rape scare was later refuted by research done by Mary Kate of Kent University who discovered that 73% of women defined as victims of rape did not themselves think they had been raped and 42% continued to have a relationship with the man who had "raped" them. Global warming? Well, we'll see.

Another crisis, which continues to date, is the "drug baby crisis". The National Association of Prenatal Research and Education reported in the late 1980's that 375,000 babies are born each year exposed to drugs while in the womb. Douglas Besharov of the University of Maryland, however, pointed out that the figure is closer to 35,000 since the orginal study counted babies whose mothers ingested alcohol or other "legal" drug at any point in thier pregnancies.
Schools are asked again to address such crisis. To do so takes valuable class time and resources. When parents are unable to discern the real crisis from the grossly exaggerated ones, they go along with their school--assuming that we have checked out the truth of the lastest "epidemic".

Let's take the issue of gender equality. The reports we all read in the early 1990's stated that girls were getting unequal treatment in our schools. We in the schools mobilized yet again. Teachers were sent off to workshops to learn about and correct their gender biases. We modified teaching strategies and curriculum to create a level playing field for all the schools' children. Yet a recently-published report on research funded by the Metropolitan Life (The American Teacher, 1997) reported that contrary to the statistics of the early 1990's, they found the following: (1) Contrary to the commonly held view that boys are at an advantage over girls in school, girls appear to have an advantage over boys in terms of future plans, teachers' expectations, everyday experiences at school and interactions in the classrooms; (2) Minority girls hold the most optimistic views of the future and are the group most likely to focus on educational goals; (3) Minority boys are the most likely to feel dicouraged about the future and the least interested in getting a good education; (4) Teachers nationwide view girls as higher achievers and more likely to succeed that boys; (5) Girls are as likely as boys to aim high, to expect to have opportunities to succeed in life equal to those of boys and as a group, are percieved to be as competitive in school as boys; (6) Compared to boys, girls appear more definate about going to college and more focused on education as one of their top goals; (7) Girls are also more likely than boys to recieve encouragement from their teachers; (8) Minority girls are the most optimistic of all groups; (9) Teachers consistantly express a more optimistic view of girls than boys; (10) Teachers beleve girls are more likely than boys to graduate from college; (11) Minority boys appear the least focused on educational goals and the least optimistic about their future work life; (12) Boys like school less and are less likely to feel as positive as girls do about their daily experiences in school; (13) Minority boys are the least likely to feel that they are treated fairly by their teachers, and white boys are least likely to feel that teachers encourage them to do their best.

One would hope that this most recent report about girls in school was a result of becoming aware of gender inequalities some ten years ago and the efforts of teachers and parents to correct the unequal treatment of girls in school. However, because we are not careful about examining the research presented to us, often by the media or by groups with a strong point of view, public schools often go into corrective measures only to discover years later that the research was falsely reported to begin with.

When I asked my college students to give me their opinion on the most current over-exaggerated "crisis" forced upon the schools, fully one thrid of them saw the hype for computer use in public schools as the culprit. Surprised? I'm not. Being in the elementary school daily, watching our teachers and understanding the real mission they face: teaching reading, writing, arithmetic, science, history, spelling, geography and the like, I know just how limited and how relatively irrelevant computers are to that mission. When television commericals blurt out, as they did this Sunday, "What about the (poor) child who lives in a family that hasn't got a computer" as if computers are some educational miracle medicine that can save children from a deadly disease.

The truth, at least at the elementary level, is closer to what was said in the article written only two weeks ago in the Press Democrat: "What have we learned? After a decade of computers in the school, after billions of dollars were spent on the promise of reinventing education, and growing numbers of taxpayers who have footed the bill to wire schools are asking where the payoff is."

Yet the President of the United States again has as his goal, computer in every classroom in America as if that expenditure above all other will save our schools. What drive! How can we be so gullible as to accept this hype and all the other invented "crisis" that come our way and in the process, lose focus on our real mission?

My wife teaches seventh grade English. She just recieved from her school district a new computer with E-mail and voice mail, but at the same time, can't get enough copy paper to teach her class, so she buys her own and keeps it in her car trunk to give to students. She teaches literaure, but is short of books. What she needs is good literature and time for great discussions that only literature can elicit, and frankly, to be free from checking her E-mail and returning the increased phone calls because of her district required voice mail. She simply wants to be free to teach. Silly girl.

It's not that there isn't a place for computer in our elementary school or legitimate concerns over gender, child safety, drug problems, global warming, the spotted owl or myriad of other social problems that have often been blown out of proportions -- but let's not go crazy. We Americans must be gullible -- otherwise why would there be five unused exercise machines in every house in America? We'll believe anyhing and buy anything!

Between the crazes, crises, and fads, it's a wonder our schools get anything done!

Read the next parenting article on school bus legislation >>
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