Public school ignorance that has nothing to do with test scores

I attended Catholic schools, and so did Chris Matthews, the host of MSNBC’s Hardball. Last night, I saw what happens when a person who knows nothing about American public education talks about its failings.
Should we listen to what Matthews says about public education? You can search for the video here:

Chris Matthews’ crap:

Matthews is the host of a national television talk show, but he did not attend public schools. Therefore he can’t understand either public education, or the differences between the Catholic schools he attended and the public ones he did not. Last night he made Michelle Rhee look like a deep thinker. (I’ll return to that, later.)

Matthews has no experience in public education, so he asks Rhee what it’s like in pubic schools. So far so good.

But he goes on to cite international math, reading and science test score data, ridiculing the scores of our 15-year-olds. Why does he value these scores? Does he assume they are accurate indicators of the quality of America’s public schools and their teachers. Does he only value the virtue of understanding? Didn’t he learn all six virtues of the educated person from his Catholic school teachers? I did.

1. Didn’t he learn that the example and sacrifices of the nuns, priests and brothers deepened our education in ways that do not happen in public schools?
2. Didn’t he learn that virtue leads to knowledge and skills, but knowledge and skills don’t lead to virtue?
3. Didn’t he learn that parents who could not afford tuition sent their children to public schools?
4. Didn’t he learn that students kicked out of Catholic schools went straight into the public school down the street?

Cut the Crap

Matthews and I attended Catholic high school and college, but the difference between our knowledge of American schools is vast. Catholic schools taught me that the sacrifices of the nuns, priests and brothers gave us the privilege of attending Catholic schools. I learned that virtue leads to knowledge and skills, but knowledge and skills don’t lead to virtue. I learned that students whose families could not afford tuition, and students who were kicked out of Catholic schools, went straight into the public schools.

And then I learned the following from my public school years (1978-79, and 1982 to present):

1.  Catholic and public school teachers are equally dedicated to student learning.

2.  The difference between the two kinds of schools is that Catholic schools are communities, and public schools are bureaucracies. (This is covered in Chapter 7 of TSVOTEP.) Consequently, Catholic schools treat students as community members; public schools treat them as clients.

3.  Public school educators are so focused on achieving higher standardized test scores that they now model and teach only the virtue of understanding. (Those silly character trait of the month programs don’t count.)

Shame on Chris Matthews for condemning what he knows nothing about. Both Catholic and public school teachers are dedicated to student learning. But thanks to people like him, public schools focus on producing high test scores (knowledge and skills). His focus on standardized test scores is the reason public education is of a lesser quality than the Catholic schools he admires. I love irony.

Finally, some of Michelle Rhee’s comments were on the mark.

She went straight to the fundamental purpose of teacher unions. She correctly stated that the union’s purpose was to advocate for and protect its members–end of story. And then she pointed out that somebody needs to advocate for students, which is why she started a student advocacy organization. Good for her.

She identified the essential purpose of teacher unions, but I have to point out that, as Chancellor of DC public schools, she was unable to identify the essential purpose of public education. She claimed over and over that it was to achieve higher test scores.  Really?  The essential purpose of any school system always has been and always will be to model and teach the six virtues of the educated person. In so far as any school system’s teachers and administrators do that, higher test scores will be achieved.

Matthews was angry with public education because of test scores. Didn’t he learn in Catholic schools that some students score better than others, and that is no big deal? Didn’t he learn that some are simply more academically gifted than others, just as some are more athletically or musically gifted?  Why does he care about test scores on tests designed to form a bell-shaped curve? Didn’t his Catholic school education teach him to develop the other five virtues of imagination, strong character, courage, humility and generosity? Should we fail to model and teach those because they are not easily measured? Who is discussing these philosophical questions? It isn’t Chris Matthews or Michelle Rhee.

Save your anger, Chris. Save it for the level of our educational discourse. That’s what angers me.

1 comment so far ↓

#1 Pete Pennings on 12.17.10 at 5:04 pm

Casey I think that you have hit upon a key point. There was a sense of community in the catholic schools I attended and taught. It was lacking in the public school where I taught. If that sense of community and shared purpose results in a virtue based education then the question is how do you get that incorporated into the public education setting?

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