It was early in from education critic to public schools advocate that a superintendent invited him to spend a day in her district.
She had Vollmer, then a business executive, do bus duty and work as an aide to a third-grade teacher in the morning. After a 20-minute lunch break, the superintendent took off the kid gloves.
“She put me in an eighth-grade classroom on a warm afternoon,” Vollmer recalls. “I’ve since referred to that as the nuclear option.”
Trying to engage, control and teach a class of adolescents gave him a new respect for what teachers face every day.
“Many of these kids are victims of a culture that has assaulted their physiology [from medications they take], fractured their attention span and given them and their parents a dangerously over-developed sense of entitlement,” Vollmer said.
Many of the people who are critical of public schools haven’t spent time in a classroom since graduating and have a serious case of what Vollmer calls “nostesia” -- a cross between "nostalgia" and "amnesia." They think they got a good education but that schools since have gone to the dogs.
On his website, Vollmer offers a Los Angeles Times quote from a Professor Theodore M. Greene of Princeton University: “I know of no college or university in the country that doesn’t have to offer most or all of its freshmen courses in remedial English, beginning mathematics, beginning science and beginning foreign languages. Consequently, we give two or three years of college [courses] and the rest is high school work.”
Before you start nodding your head, you should know that Greene made his statement in March 1946. Complaining about the caliber of students is one of our national pastimes, but as our population ages fewer Americans have any direct involvement with schools.
“The most troubling statistic in my head is less than 25 percent of the American taxpayers have children in school; in Pennsylvania it’s less than 20 percent,” Vollmer said. “Many of [those who don’t] are highly susceptible to people on the radio telling them really wrong stuff” about what’s going on in schools.
Vollmer said educators have to do a better job of making their case to the community about the challenges schools face.
I’ve seen how it can work. Several years ago I sat in an auditorium listening to school administrators talk about the requirements of the No Child Left Behind law. They passed out math problems that appeared on the eighth- and 11th- grade Pennsylvania System of School Assessment and asked those in the audience to take a crack at them. There were a lot of stumped faces – mine included – and a new respect for the math standards schools were being asked to meet.
Students “need to know everything you and I learned and then everything that’s happened since, and we have not added a minute to the school calendar in six decades,” Vollmer said.
When I complained that too few people making education policy have skin in the game, he agreed that many of the decision makers were too far removed from the day-to-day workings of schools.
But he added that everyone has a stake in good public schools because communities around such schools see property values rise and crime rates and teen pregnancy rates decline. When a teenager drops out or graduates unprepared for life and work, that teen becomes everyone’s problem.
“They will either take care of that kid for the rest of his life or they will live in fear of that kid for the rest of their lives,” Vollmer said. “Everybody’s got skin in the game.”