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Commentary: Fixing our schools

by on December 28, 2013 10:19 AM

What’s wrong with this sentence? “White suburban moms — who all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”

Most grade school students, at least the ones I know, could tell you in a minute that the sentence is a flawed mixture of plural and singular that probably would earn them a failing grade on any English examination. Even if one takes into account that the sentence was spoken and not written, it is a grammatical nightmare.

But what really is wrong with it is that it is attributed to Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education who made it in defense of a controversial proposal to establish a core curriculum in the nation’s public schools. The quote appeared in the Washington Post which also reported that Duncan further characterized opposition to the curriculum as “political silliness” and “a rallying cry for fringe groups.”

However one comes down on this issue, I would hazard a guess that most Americans could agree that Duncan of all people needs desperately to brush up on his sentence structure to make it at least compatible with what is being taught and has been for generations in classrooms across the land.

Or is that too much to expect from a child of the television culture where grammar is slaughtered day in and day out? Where tenses don’t always agree and the rules about prepositional objects are ignored just between you and I? (Oops).

This is a culture where people are hung like gates instead of hanged as they should be. He should have “went” some place has become standard among sportscasters. Even the baby boomers are too young to remember the days when super pitcher turned play-by-play announcer Dizzy Dean’s horrible but colorful grammatical gaffes on radio brought down the wrath of America’s moms. Their kids were running around saying things like “he done slud into third.”

As for the core curriculum, it was always my impression that we had one from the beginning of public education. It was called reading, writing and arithmetic, and it has been followed with refinements since William G. McGuffey taught half of our populace how to read in a primer that was used from 1836 to 1961. I personally was of the “Dick and Jane” generation.

The hysterics on the right and the left variously see the core either as a federal takeover of public education or a necessary reform to improve the overall quality of the school system, which much like politics is mainly local. Key supporters for the core, which establishes curriculum guidelines and standards for how well all students should perform in math and English/language arts K through 12, include the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation provides a lot of the funding.

Public education is much like the weather. As the humorist once said, everybody talks about it (the weather) but no one does anything (well, in the case of education not much anyway). George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative has been flawed by resistance and faulty implantation. Teachers unions don’t like it because it puts too much stress on the members. The core curriculum is favored by the American Federation of Teachers, but the concern is the way it is written and presented and ultimately implemented by the Obama administration.

The Post recently quoted Randi Weingarten, the AFT president, as predicting that the implementation of the core would be far worse than the bollixed-up implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

In the end it all comes down to how good the instructor is and what kind of support he or she receives from the parents, if there are any or perhaps as Secretary Duncan might say “is any.” One of the reasons the nation’s private schools do so well is that they don’t have to play to the common denominator or turn every proposed solution into a nightmare of complexity.

Here in Washington, D.C., most of those who make our laws and influence our long-range education decisions, including the president, don’t send their youngsters to public schools if they bring their families here. So how do they know?

Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Readers may send him email at
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