As I look at my own experience with the public education my daughter is receiving, I wonder: How did things go so wrong with public education?
My daughter started at a nice public school in Kansas. She went to school, loved it, and got great grades. She used to be so disappointed when the weekend came and she couldn't go to school. Well, after a couple of years, I had made the decision to join the military. Then, I got stationed in Oklahoma. I found out that the public schools in Oklahoma are much different than the ones in Kansas. My daughter's grades and desire to go to school immediately dropped. She went from straight A's to almost straight F's. Her passion for school went away, and she couldn't wait for the weekend. When asked about how she was in school that day, all the teacher would tell us is, "She boo-hooing again.". Her teacher couldn't even use proper English (much less give us any info we could use to help remedy the situation)!
Now, for all you Okies out there reading this, I don't want you to think this is a bash on Oklahoma. I am merely trying to illustrate a point. And that is, why is there such disparity across state lines? Why is there such disparity with different public schools inside a city? Why aren't we better at making school a place for kids to learn no matter where they go?
I don't have the answers to those questions, but they are questions we, as parents, should be asking our congressmen and our senators and our President. I have heard each President come through saying that they are going to "fix education", but I have yet to see one do it. What has happened since the 50s when our public education system was number one in the world?
People aren't stupid
Why is this so important? Why should the non-parents care? You see all the bad neighborhoods out there? The low-income "projects" where most of the crime in this country happens? Well, what is usually right in the middle of those places? A horrible public school. Most experts would say that public schools in those areas are a result of the poor neighborhood. I believe that it is the other way around. The poor neighborhood is a result of a horrible school. Think about it, a kid (let's call this one Jimmy), goes to an awful school in a decent neighborhood. Little Jimmy tries to learn, but he is not being taught very well. Jimmy begins to believe he is a failure (a rational response to multiple failures). As a result, he drops out of high school and ends up at a dead end job with a dead end life. Out of his class of 500, 350 are able to go on, but 150 don't make it (current failures rates in some areas of the country are even higher than that now). That is 150 people that stay in the community because they have no options to get out.
Those 150 have very few options, and soon, you get a lot of people in that neighborhood with no jobs. Crime rises (esp. theft and armed robbery). Businesses don't like high crime rates, so they leave. More people with few skills and less jobs. Over time, that build-up is detrimental to a neighborhood, and soon, you have what we are seeing today. You want crime to go away? You want to stop spending your tax dollars on people in society that don't produce anything? Fix education. Give the kids stuck in those neighborhoods the tools to move up in life and most will (some will still do the stupid thing).
I truly believe that most of our problems today stem from poor education. Those kids are now ill-equipped to make sure their kids are well educated. They go out and take out loans they can't afford because they can't figure out variable rate interest (current recession, anyone?). They vote in leaders that promise that the government will provide everything for them (they are afraid they can't take care of their kids). They shop at retailers that outsource everything because it is cheaper that way (blocking jobs and revenues that could be made in the US). Social conscience is difficult when you are barely keeping your head above water.
The worst part of all of this, is these people aren't stupid. They know and their kids know at an early age what the prospects are. At age 8, there are kids out there that already feel that there is no hope for them to get out of the situation they're in. They know they aren't getting the education they need to improve their situation. They lose all hope. They stop caring about what they should care about, and they move on to apathy, hopelessness, helplessness. They give up. They stop dreaming. We are killing the American dream at grade school. If we, as a people, can't stand up for the American dream, then what is this country? It's not the one I believe in.
I love the founding ideals of this country. I love the idea that it doesn't matter who you are or where you come from, you can make your life whatever you want it to be. I love the idea that opportunity is everywhere. That is the country I grew up in. That is not the one poor Jimmy is seeing. Why is it that my generation, growing up, had more optimism than the generation now? I believe it's public education.
What do we do?
I am not going to sit here and say I have all the answers. I don't know what pieces do work and don't work. I don't pretend to be the one that would be able to fix everything, but there are some simple things that I think we could do to improve the public education system:
1. Reform tenure in the K-12 level. Tenure came about in the late 1800s to protect teachers from parents suing when the teachers taught certain controversial material. It was put in place to encourage creativity and to allow idea exploration. It was not put in place so they could just stop teaching. At the K-12 level, there are many teachers using it as a cop-out so they don't get fired for not doing their job. That is completely unacceptable. We need to be able to fire teachers, how else do we hold them accountable? We need tenure reform to make sure that teachers are able to be held accountable
2. Stop attacking teachers. This seems like it is contradictory to the above point, but it isn't. There are many, many, many teachers out there doing a very difficult job and giving 150% to it. They spend money out of pocket for supplies, and work on homework, lesson plans, and professional development on their own time. They devote every ounce they have to their students and they get yelled at for it when the student is failing. That is completely unacceptable as well. There are too many factors that go into educating students for that to be a measure of a teacher's worth. More to follow on this.
3. Get parents involved. If you are a parent and think that you don't have to be a teacher to your child then you are going to end up with a failing student for a kid. Parents are instrumental to a kid's learning and without partnership from the parents, even the best teacher can't make a kid get an A. You want that future doctor? You better be willing to get all up into your kid's schooling.
4. HOLD THE KIDS ACCOUNTABLE! I put only a little stress (sarcasm) into this one. Kids are not stupid. They quickly learn what how the system works. They know that they aren't responsible for their education. They learn that if they just do nothing, the school will basically just pass them, because having a failure is too much work. They know that they can get through school with no effort whatsoever and they use that to their advantage. If we started failing kids and held them accountable for their actions, then when they didn't pass, we could lay blame where it belongs (whether it's the teacher, the parents, the administration, education policy, or yes - Ohmygodno! - the student).
This would obviously not fix everything, but at least it would be a start. To fix everything would take a team of super-geniuses that know education really well. You have Administrations, changing standards, students, parents, teachers, principals, morals, values, special needs, policy makers, money issues, supply issues, and a whole host of other things that go into making education work right. The top teachers, administrators, policy makers, and students should really sit down and come up with ideas to make things work the way they should. We should look at what successful schools are doing. We should look at demographics. We should look at redrawing school districts. We should look at teaching basics like balancing checkbooks and how to read loan agreements. We need discussions. We need voters and politicians who care. We need policy, funding, and a whole lot of hard work. And we need it now. Our country's greatest threat isn't terrorists, China, or even financials (although those are all important). Our greatest threat is not being educated enough to combat all of the problems we face in this great nation.
***EDIT*** I just found this and thought it was exciting enough to add. Glad to see something is being done.
***EDIT 2*** If this keeps up, I may have to make a new section for it, but I found a great blog post on this.