A teaching moment

This week's big speeches by Gov. Brian Sandoval and President Obama offered an intriguing contrast on the subject of education reform.

Sandoval, a Republican, went into great detail blaming "the system" for the failings of Nevada children to learn and to finish school. "Our education system is broken," Sandoval said. "Not the people, but the system. While many teachers, professors and students are excelling, collectively they are held back by an antiquated system that emphasizes too many of the wrong things."

Mentioning the dismal graduate rate and students' lackluster performance on national assessment tests, Sandoval laid the blame squarely on teachers. While praising "effective teachers," he stressed that some "have no business teaching." "It is unacceptable that children in classrooms literally across the hall from one another achieve at dramatically different levels because of the quality of their teacher," he said.

Obama, a Democrat, took a different approach. While he also bemoaned the sad state of test scores and graduation rates, his first solution was to focus on parents.

"The question is whether all of us -- as citizens, and as parents -- are willing to do what's necessary to give every child a chance to succeed," Obama said. "That responsibility begins not in our classrooms, but in our homes and communities. It's family that first instills the love of learning in a child. Only parents can make sure the TV is turned off and homework gets done. We need to teach our kids that it's not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair."

So, it was Obama, a Democrat, who said that personal responsibility -- a hallmark of conservative doctrine -- is the most important way to improve student achievement. It was Obama who said parents must instill a love of learning and make sure kids do their homework.

Sandoval, by contrast, did not mention parents. In fact, he didn't say anything about personal responsibility as it pertains to education. His focus was on "the system," which, typically, is the target of liberal doctrine.

Not all teachers are created equal. Some are more talented than others, and some are more committed to their jobs than others. As in every profession, the bad eggs should be thrown out.

But for Sandoval to suggest that teachers should bear the entire responsibility for low test scores and high dropout rates is absurd. Nowhere in his speech did he acknowledge that a vast array of social, economic and cultural factors go into the success of schoolchildren.

My experience and research into this topic suggests that teachers are not the primary problem -- lousy parents are. Nevada may not be special in this regard, but it seems to have an unusually high number of parents who, to be kind, don't place a great deal of importance on their children doing well in school.

This blasé or negative attitude manifests itself in kids not showing up for school, not showing up on time, disrupting classrooms, disrespecting teachers, not doing homework, not studying for tests, bringing drugs and weapons to school, and probably a dozen other antisocial behaviors. It also includes families constantly moving, which means kids are constantly changing schools, severely hampering student achievement.

Most frustrating are those parents who refuse to acknowledge when their kids are failing or acting up. Instead of trying to deal with the problem, they accuse teachers and administrators of lying about their kids' behavior, discriminating against them for some reason, or otherwise failing to do their jobs. The parents, of course, are faultless, and their kids are angels.

None of this earned a mention in Sandoval's speech. But he did outline a series of proposals aimed at rooting out all those bad teachers he believes are fouling up "the system."

Meanwhile, Obama celebrated the importance of teachers to improve public education. "After parents, the biggest impact on a child's success comes from the man or woman at the front of the classroom," he said. "In South Korea, teachers are known as 'nation builders.' Here in America, it's time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect."

Recognizing that many teachers from the baby boom generation soon will retire, he called on young people to become teachers. "To every young person listening tonight who's contemplating their career choice: If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make a difference in the life of a child -- become a teacher. Your country needs you."

Indeed it does. And just as much, if not more, the country needs parents to unplug the video game consoles and other diversions more often and create a home environment that helps their kids to excel academically. This message of personal responsibility has long been a core element of conservative politics, yet it's been lost amid an unhealthy obsession with the notion that "bad" teachers are to blame for everything.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is the Review-Journal's director of community publications. Starting next week, his column will appear Thursday.