The biggest problem in U.S. education isn't teachers. It isn't funding. It isn't public schools versus charter schools. It isn't unions or teacher pensions, the choice of instructional system or educational standards.
All important issues, but they are peripheral to the central problem — a culture where too many parents, and by extension their children, fail to recognize that success in education is the most direct route to success in life.
Sun Journal readers got a glimpse of the problem in today's front page story about truancy in Lewiston schools.
In one of the poorest school districts in the state, an average of 5 percent of students do not show up often enough to learn. They are not just absent, they are truant.
Lewiston School Superintendent Bill Webster tracked the school careers of 22 anonymous students across the seven years before they dropped out of school.
These 22 student missed an average of 14.3 days in fourth grade, an average of 25.8 days in seventh grade and 52.3 days by the time they reached 10th or 11th grade.
By their final year, those students were missing, on average, 30 percent of the time. Some students, of course, were below that figure. But several others missed more than 100 of the 175 school days in a year.
Some had missed 200, 300 or 400 school days over those seven years of schooling, meaning they were absent for a year or more.
As most know, education is an incremental process; what a child learns today prepares him or her to learn what will be presented tomorrow.
As Webster pointed out, when a child misses even a few days, catching up is difficult. Students are then frustrated and feel left behind, leading to more missed days.
"Failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy," Webster told the Sun Journal.
Which, perhaps more than any single factor, helps explain why poverty is so persistent in several Lewiston census tracts.
It has been frustrating over the past decade to see this community moving forward on so many fronts, yet to see so many downtown residents still locked in poverty.
Children without education become adults with little hope of finding a stable place in a technological workforce that rewards training and skill.
While the problem is obvious, the reasons are complex.
The growing rate of out-of-wedlock births and single-parent households is a social time-bomb that no politician wants to talk about.
Today, about half of babies are born to single women or unmarried couples. These unions are less likely to last than marriages, too often leaving women — who may not have finished school themselves — trying to raise children, too often in poverty.
If they work, they may not be home when the child needs to get up and go to school. If they are using drugs or partying all night, they may not even be awake in the morning.
Some will, of course, say this is just the result of poverty. But much of this poverty is simply the result of one person, usually a woman, trying to do the work of two.
Various culture groups have come to this country poor but determined that education was the way out of poverty for their children.
The first generation might have had menial jobs, but it wasn't unusual to find doctors, college professors or skilled craftsmen in the next.
In places such as China and Japan, peasant farmers are obsessive about their children receiving educations and speaking multiple languages.
But beyond the obvious problem of truancy, too many other students have parents who don't check their homework, attend meetings with teachers or demand better when schools do fail their children.
The evidence can be found in international rankings where U.S. students no longer perform at the highest levels.
Motivation is everything in education, and parents are in the best position to instill that.
To his credit, Webster is taking action to solve the truancy problem. He hopes to build a community expectation here that children attend school every day.
We agree with Webster that parents cited for truancy should receive a more substantial penalty than a $250 fine. Perhaps making the student ineligible for a driver's license would help.
Finally, Maine law should stipulate that all children eligible for school must be in one of two places during school hours — at home or in school.
Allowing kids to hang out on street corners or play in the skate park simply encourages other children to view truancy and irresponsibility as a valid option.
The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.