Over the past 60 years, there have been numerous attempts to improve educational achievement in America. From the Head Start program, Outcome-based Education and Experiential Learning to No Child Left Behind, Common Core, Race to the Top and other programs and teaching methods, U. S. students remain in the middle of the pack in international student achievement.

Unlike more homogeneous nations that perform well in international testing, the U.S. has always been more diverse culturally, racially and ethnically. How do you take unique individuals of differing abilities, enthusiasm, attitudes, varying parental support and cooperation, and then ask teachers to somehow develop children with these unequal inputs to a standard output in a fixed amount of time?

If that isn’t enough, add to that the fact that educational methods and curriculum choices mirror the current political divide in this country. In many school districts, time that might be allocated to “core” subjects — those tested nationally and internationally — such as reading, mathematics and science, is spent on what might be called ideological mandates: Multiculturalism, sex-education, environmentalism, animal rights and programs attempting to enhance self-esteem.

Curriculum struggles have become, as longtime education writer and editor Peter Schrag described them, “quasi-religious controversies over social and moral absolutes.” The right sees secular humanism and moral relativism in every curriculum while progressives consider many complaints to be racist, sexist and the protestations of “religious fanatics.”

These ideological struggles make substantive school reform difficult at best.

But is it schools that need reform? Over 50 years ago, it was found that “differences among schools in their facilities and staffing” have little relationship to achievement. The primary influence on academic success was the socio-economic background of students. Or, as a sociologist then put it, “It’s all family.”

The traditional family had historically been society’s fundamental unit for nurturing children, and its demise creates “a tangled web of social malfunctions: the education, socialization, and moral development of children fail; individuals find themselves with a loss of direction and stability; deviance becomes commonplace; and ethical and moral issues become contentious.”

Does this sound familiar?

Dare it be suggested the influence of progressive culture on marriage and family might be part of the reason U. S. academic achievement lags worldwide? Is it possible that elements of current curriculum threaten the traditional family? Is, as Kayla Groat of the University of Maryland suggests, “loss of direction and stability” and “deviance becom(ing) commonplace” a result of this ideology?

What might happen to the poverty rate, educational achievement and other contemporary social ills if the traditional family were held up as a cultural ideal? That runs contrary to current progressive notions of family, where alternative lifestyles are “celebrated” while the traditional family is berated by some as patriarchal, racist, sexist and homophobic.

Some may dispute the assertion that the basic foundation for general academic achievement is the traditional family. And it is not settled if the traditional family will survive the ongoing culture war. In any case, results would be gradual and long-term.

In the shorter term, competition should be introduced into the school system. Educational “power” should rest with parents, not the education establishment or ideologues (of any stripe). All — not just some — parents would receive unrestricted vouchers for the education of their children for which schools — public, private for-profit, nonprofit or religious — would compete.

Competition would soon identify the schools and curricula that best advance educational achievement. Those institutions would grow as parents see successful results.

Further, as parents choose schools consistent with their own needs and values, this competition may influence the outcome of the “culture war.”

Giese, a Dubuque native, owns Jim Giese

Commercial Roofing. His email address is jimgiese@me.com.

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