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Obama and McCain miss the mark on education

Although Barack Obama and John McCain try to offer solutions to help America break from conventional thinking on educational policy, both senators are missing key pieces to the puzzle of why our public schools are failing.

In an article that ran recently in the Los Angeles Times, McCain told the NAACP, “I want to reward good teachers.” McCain’s education platform is built on merit pay for teachers and school vouchers for families who would like to trade in their students’ failing schools for private schools. According to McCain, families whose children are stuck in failing schools should have choices and opportunities that are not limited by entrenched bureaucracy or unions. Although Obama has opposed school vouchers, he has encouraged merit pay for teachers.

What they fail to take into account is that we’ve become spoiled. Not too long ago, a free and public education was appreciated because families remembered when education was not free or even available. But it has been so long since anyone in this country has been denied an education that there are now three or more generations that take the benefits for granted.

That’s not to say public education does not have its issues. As a teacher who has made it past the standard four-year dropout mark, I am worried about the state of public education and my role in changing it. I hear McCain say the goal of his education platform is to boost pay for great and outstanding teachers, and I wonder if I am one of those teachers. My principal thinks highly of me -- and other staff members regard my teaching as outstanding -- but my students are still failing. I know my weaknesses as a teacher, and I try to find remedies for them -- remedies that often include sacrificing my own time and needs.

This summer, I have spent five weeks participating in the Inland Area Writing Project, a part of the National Writing Project, in order to develop my skills as a teacher of writing, an area that I know I need to improve regardless of the praise I receive. I am responsible for teaching students how to read and write critically, but I cannot do so in isolation. It would be easy for me to blame the teachers who have previously taught my students. In each student’s background, there may have been teachers who did a poor job, but we, as a society and a bureaucracy, forget that although we can educate and guide students, we can’t control them.

Students and their families make choices. Students choose to attend school or not, often manipulating their parents into letting them stay home or excusing the absences that accumulate from ditching. Other students and their families decide that although an education is valued for all you can do with it, there are other activities and people deserving more time and attention. Yes, the responsibility of educating should rest on the shoulders of teachers, but as teachers, we cannot change the choices of students and their families.

Unfortunately, neither presidential candidate is capable of the mind control necessary to influence the choices that students and their families make regarding education. True education reform can only begin with an adjustment to the attitudes and beliefs of the individuals directly affecting the state of education: the students and their families; it’s an adjustment that remains nearly impossible in a democratic republic.

Will I meet McCain’s or Obama’s qualities of a great and outstanding teacher? I don’t know. The answer, and perhaps my pay, is held in the choices and desires of my students and their families.

Kate Applebee is a high school English teacher in the Inland Empire.

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