A green chalkboard.

A green chalkboard. Credit: iStock

The story of a frustrated Philadelphia couple whose 10-year-old twin daughters were denied admission to the Masterman magnet school despite having outstanding academic records at their charter school illustrates the fears of thousands of parents who no longer think it’s possible to get a good education in traditional public schools.

They’re wrong. There are still good regular public schools, but too few. That’s a shame, because it means all the politicians in all their known habitats don’t mean it when they say they care about children. Money still speaks louder than words.

The American education system needs a massive overhaul that recognizes today’s realities. Rather than giving parents false hope that the answer is charters, which essentially replicate the same educational model - often with the same results in a more pleasant setting - we should put as much emphasis on regular public schools as fighting terrorism.

The bigger threat is a poorly educated population that doesn’t see that the rest of the world is getting smarter while it succumbs to the siren song of con artists telling them America’s greatness requires it to cling to the past. “Yes, sir, that old coal mine will be reopening any day now. You folks hang tight; the jobs are coming back. Your family is going to be just fine.”

Low expectations for children is one problem. Unrealistic expectations another.

My son-in-law is in the military stationed in Europe and my wife and I got to spend some precious time there in December doting on our grandchildren. We took a few road trips, and in Lucerne, Switzerland, got into a conversation with a young hotel desk clerk. We complimented her flawless English. She said she spoke four languages, including French, German, and another I have forgotten.

We asked her what her college major had been. She gave us this surprised look and said she wasn’t smart enough for college. Of course, she was. She said she never considered the different academic regimen and competition required for admission to a university. But neither did her education end after what we would call the high school level. In high school, with guidance, she determined the profession she both desired and had the aptitude to be successful, and then chose the continuing education route she needed to get a job. She seemed very happy.

In America, choosing the right career path hardly matters. Almost every child goes through the same cookie cutter that is supposed to lead to a college degree. The charters are no different. Instead of assessing what would be the best vocation for someone still in high school, we make children take standardized tests to see how well they might do in college. High school classes are designed to prepare them for tests.

America’s educational model must change. Schools must be different. Teaching must be different. That’s not going to happen with an education secretary who seems to believe abandoning traditional public schools is preferable to transforming them. So, what are parents to do? To quote Adam Clayton Powell, they need to “keep the faith.”

I have no criticism for any parent or guardian who thinks enough of their children to get them out of a bad school. More power to them. But to that majority of parents who are still praying their kids can finish a regular school with the skills needed to continue their education or go to work, I say don’t give up.

In prehistoric times, I attended segregated, poorly funded, ill-equipped, often crowded public schools in Alabama, and for 11 of the 12 years never considered the experience detrimental. Nor did my parents. That 12th year, however, my all-black high school in Birmingham was closed to meet the integration requirements of a federal court order and I was reassigned to a mostly white school that suddenly became 50-50. It didn’t take long to realize segregation had not only put me behind my white classmates academically, but also the sprinkling of black students who had integrated Ramsay High before I got there.

I did eventually catch up and, along with Gail Horne Ray, another black student, was named most likely to succeed in my senior class. I don’t mention that honor to brag. I use it as evidence that all-black Ullman High School, despite its deficiencies, taught me how to succeed. Just as important was the encouragement of my parents. Having a supportive parent or guardian can be more important than the school you attend.

In fact, most studies show little difference generally in the test scores of charter students compared with students in regular public schools. There are some individual schools and charter chains that have significantly better math and reading scores. But in the aggregate, charters haven’t distinguished themselves in standardized testing as being better.

Standardized tests shouldn’t be the only gauge of success. But there hasn’t been enough research to tell whether charter students do better after high school.

There are data showing what works in charters that regular schools might duplicate. An Albert Shanker Institute report concluded many successful charters used variations of: a longer school day and year, extensive tutoring, more reading instruction, ability grouping, frequent teacher feedback, teacher coaching, and a teacher pay system that isn’t based exclusively on experience and education. Hear that, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers!

Many charters also have strict discipline policies, with some requiring parents and students to sign contracts that threaten expulsion if academic and behavioral expectations aren’t met.

The Shanker report also points out that many charters cut costs by tolerating high turnover among teachers. “They tend to hire young teachers, who are less expensive, and many leave within a few years,” the report said.

Urban districts like Philadelphia’s contend with the same revolving-door syndrome. The answer is to improve classroom conditions and pay good teachers what they deserve to keep them from being enticed by another district. That takes money, money the politicians prefer to spend otherwise rather than investing in our children. It’s time for the public to school the politicians. Invest in America’s children.

Harold Jackson is editorial page manager for Philadelphia Media Network.