What is the problem with education (first in a series, maybe)

I have wanted for a while to write a few essays reflecting on the state of public education from a personal standpoint.  Needless to say, public school education has gotten a ton of coverage in the media, and has become something piece of political kitsch.  I started writing this in June, so part 2, if it ever comes, is likely a long way off.

I suppose the first question:  What is the problem with American public education?

There have been a number of suggestions.  I will highlight some of the big ones below:

* unions/collective bargaining rights

* lack of teacher input/control over curriculum

* too much control by teachers over curriculum

* too much control over curriculum from politicians/business

* not enough control from business and industry over education

* a curriculum that emphasizes memorization over thinking

* a curriculum that emphasizes thinking over wrote learning

* a curriculum that includes things like sex ed and teaching the faults of the American system, and >>insert leftist causes here<<

* a curriculum that includes way too little (we learned so much more back in my day)

* a curriculum that teaches to the test

* a curriculum that teaches way too much

* a lack of discipline in the schools

* poor teacher training

* tenure that protects bad teachers

* poor leadership

* too much parental control

* too little parental control

* there is not enough oversight/accountability

* there is too much oversight/accountability

* insufficient school funding

* too much money is being spent on schools

I have read/seen/heard all of these complaints, and I don’t doubt that most of the people who make them are genuinely convinced they are right.  Assuming that, for a moment, it should give you pause that one thing is most definitely for sure:

 As a collective society, we can’t even agree on what the problem is.

I would like to suggest that all of the above, and simultaneously up to none of the above are in fact problems in education.  Sounds paradoxical.  There is an important issue that people often times forget in regards to public education.

In the United States, public education is a local matter, with almost no federal oversight.

This is vastly different than other countries where education is a wholly federal matter, or is a local matter with considerable federal guidance.  This makes the United States fairly unique among the nations that it is often compared to.  However this brings me back to my paradoxical statement above.  Like all good paradoxes, my statement seems like it can’t be right, but it is.

Depending on the local school district, the schools may suffer from between none and many of the stated problems above.  The problems largely depend on numerous factors ranging from the age of the students, socioeconomic factors, school setting, the degree of community support, the previous educational background of students, etc.

This is an exceptionally critical point that seems to be discussed exactly nowhere.  I have almost never seen this point come up in any article, interview, speech, or report.  Why is this so critical?

Depending on the local school district’s problem(s), the solution may be one or many things.  There is no one blanket solution that will work for every school district.

This is critical because almost without exception, politicians on both sides of the aisle are trying to fix public education with a single blanket solution.  This really is not a problem of philosophical ideology.  It is a problem of leadership refusing to look at the reality of the problem and acknowledge it for what it is.

Solutions that can work well in one school district can have no effect, or can hurt, another.

Take this for example:

In the field of school discipline there is a model which involves emphasizing positive behavior.  The school goes out and gets trinkets to give to kids (or that can be raffled off, or purchased with “positive behavior bucks” … depends a little on the school).  In one school in our district, this was implemented, and by all reports, it was received well.  The trinkets were gift cards for restaurants, the Apple store, Best Buy, etc. They were able to show over a three year time frame that all manner of discipline problem (detentions, suspensions, etc) were down.

They then brought this over to my school.  It didn’t work.  Suspensions were actually up one year, and back down the next.  The kids never bought into it, despite a very positive roll out.  Why?  The kids in my community saw it as something close to bribery (I will pay you off to be nice).  In this neighborhood, this program was received as insulting, and grammar schoolish.

But politicians ranging from school boards to state politicians to our last two presidential (including the current) administrations were convinced that they could legislate change in the tens of thousands of diverse school districts with a couple of pieces of legislation.  It didn’t work, it isn’t working, and I have reason to believe unless there is a fundamental change in our approach to education, nothing they do will have a substantial positive effect on education.

Why don’t politicians want to acknowledge what is so clearly an inability to frame the problem?

The answers are two fold.  On the one hand, no one likes dealing with messy problems because they often require complex solutions.  Politicians don’t like complex solutions because some of them are incapable of thinking about complex problems.  Even those that can don’t want to have to explain complex solutions to voters … they like soundbites.  Soundbites are great when you explain something like NCLB (accountability, testing, all students, WHOO!).  Try explaining relativity in a soundbite.  Complex solutions hurt the politicians ability to communicate with their constituents.

The other issue with complex problems deals with the considerable influence of socioeconomics.  In the United States, socioeconomics is generally a bowdlerization for “race”.  No politician wants to deal with race.  Any good solution would require targeting considerable attention (and “unequal measures”) on schools that are predominantly poor, and populated by minorities.  No politician wants to do that because the political ramifications would be considerable.

Additionally, education problems can easily get entangled with non-education issues, further muddying the problem.  In Illinois, our politicians repeatedly voted to underfund pension plans, and now have a huge economic problem.  There is little doubt that the employees (teachers) are going to end up paying for this in large part.  Even though the state legislature has yet to decide what to do (and how much of a burden will go on the employees), the ramifications are starting to be felt:  the number of college students entering teacher prep programs has plummeted.  A source I have close to the Eastern Illinois University teacher prep program cited that as recently as 2010, EIU had to place something on the order of 750 student teachers for an internship.  In 2012-13, that number was under 300.  One north shore district which pays very well was unable to secure any candidates for its principal’s opening, despite a six figure salary that starts with the number “2”.  Normally in a bad economy, people flock to teaching.  Even though there is the promise of jobs opening (and with tenure now being all but eliminated, a lot of jobs potentially opening), there seems to be a lot less interest in entering teaching in Illinois … and this is before the legislature actually reaches a decision.  Afterwards, if all goes according to the current conventional wisdom, the number of prospective teachers may dry up fast.  This could get interesting, because in a market becoming more dominated by business thinking, teachers may find that their services are in high demand, that there are limited numbers of people to draw from, and that salaries could start to get competitive at a time when districts desperately need to toe the line on operating expenses.  I don’t really think that will happen, but it would be interesting if all of the attempts to limit money to teachers suddenly caused an explosion in salaries.

So what is the biggest problem in education?

I propose that the biggest problem in education is that no one in a position to help solve any problems either doesn’t understand the scope of the problem, or really doesn’t want to understand the scope of he problem.   This is a necessary first step to solving any problem, and it simply is not going on.


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