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Everyone is Failing and It's All Your Fault...

A version of this article appeared in the February 2012 AJC “Get Schooled” blog.  This, with minor changes, is an updated version.

Everyone is Failing and It’s All Your Fault…..    

     Drug abuse education, alcohol abuse education, parenting, character ed, special ed, gender equity, environmental ed, women’s studies, African – American education, school breakfast, school lunch, daily attendance, computer education, multi-cultural ed, ESL (ELL, ESOL), teen pregnancy, Jump Start, Even Start, Head Start, Prime Start, Bright from the Start, Kindergarten, Pre-K, alternative ed, stranger/danger, anti-smoking ed, mandated reporting, CPR training, defibrillator training, anaphylactic shock recognition training, inclusion, internet ed, distance learning, Tech Prep, School to Work, Gifted and Talented, at-risk programs, keyboarding, dropout prevention, gang education, homeless ed, service learning, gun safety, bus safety, bicycle safety, drivers ed, bullying ed, obesity monitoring, BMI (body mass index) monitoring, financial literacy, diabetes monitoring, media literacy, hearing and vision screening, on-line education, CRCT, EOCT, GHSWT, GHSGT phase out, SAT prep, ACT prep, dual enrollment options, post -secondary options, AP, honors, IB, STEM, STEAM, adult ed, career ed, after-school programs, psychological services, RTTT, CCGPS, CCRPI and oh yes - classes……………..shall I go on?   

Wonderful ideas all, and each deserving attention – and all have come to be the responsibilities of our schools and teachers.  On top of these (and other duties) we add furlough days, tight budgets, longer school days, larger classes, higher expectations, a political agenda that actively encourages blaming teachers for societal issues, the denigration of public education, market based solutions, teacher evaluations tied to student test scores despite all evidence to the contrary and a continued reliance upon standardized test scores as an accurate depiction of student learning and achievement with no substantive research to support such a position.  No wonder teachers are discouraged.  No wonder teacher morale is at an all- time low.  So in the face of all that and more, is there a silver lining somewhere in that big black thundercloud?
      Not really.  Add to that burden the daily diatribes blaming teachers for their failure to successfully raise and, almost as an in loco parentis afterthought, educate our country’s children and we begin to see the need for something to replace our outdated, shopworn, hideously corrupt, inefficient and failing system of public education.  Hold on just a second…………can that be right? 
     Is this a new phenomenon?  Has public education deteriorated over the past thirty years or so to its current level, where the Mariana Trench seems a high point by comparison? Not by any stretch of a politician’s fertile imagination. In 1996 E. D. Hirsch called for a return to a traditional approach to public education in “The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them”.  In 1983 “A Nation at Risk” told us of the apparent failure of our system of public education.  The Educational Testing Service discovered in 1976 that college freshmen could correctly answer only half of forty or so multiple choice questions.  In 1969 the Chancellor of NY schools, Harvey Scribner, said that for every student schools educated there was another that was “scarred as a result of his school experience”.  Admiral Rickover published “American Education, a National Failure” in 1963, and in 1959 LIFE magazine published “Crisis in Education” that noted the Russians beat us into space with Sputnik because “the standards of education are shockingly low”.   In 1955 “Why Johnny Can’t Read” became a best seller, and in 1942 the NY Times noted only 6% of college freshmen could name the 13 original colonies and 75% did not know who was President during the Civil War.  The US Navy in 1940 tested new pilots on their mastery of 4th grade math and found that 60% of the HS graduates failed.  In 1889 the top 3% of US high school students went to college, and 84% of all American colleges reported remedial courses in core subjects were required for incoming freshmen.  The list continues. 
     I must admit to being somewhat puzzled and often wondering why colleges continue to offer remedial courses for students that do not meet entrance requirement.  It does not seem to be a new phenomenon.  If remedial courses are indeed a financial drain upon colleges, perhaps a solution would be to enforce the entrance and admission requirements they already have.  Failure to do so leads one to believe that perhaps our colleges are less than candid about their reasons for continuing this practice for the last 125 years.

     You see the harrowing cry “public education is failing” is not new.  Sixty years ago, for the majority of the population in the US, it was true.  The reiteration of that cry in temporal terms does not, however, make it so.  “To fall short; to be unsuccessful” says Webster.  If 100% success is the only acceptable goal, mea culpa.  If progress toward that goal is to be a consideration, then perhaps this data from the US Census Bureau casts a new light upon that supposed “failure”. 

US Educational Attainment for Adults (25+)

                                    1940              1970             2010
% HS grads                 24.5               55.2               85
% College grads              4.6                 11                  27.9
% No HS                         59.5                27.7               6.3
(Data from US Census)

     While there most certainly are individual schools or systems with serious issues, to proclaim the entire system of public education as failing would seem to make as much sense as trading in your car because a tire went flat.  Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that a significant number of the league of professional politicians want us to believe public education is a massive failure because they have something to gain from doing so.  I find it more than a little interesting that many of the same group of Georgia legislators that attempt to add significantly to the burden of public school teachers through legislative micromanagement, unfunded mandates and financial underfunding were also among the most vociferous supporters of the Constitutional amendment that passed in November 2012.  It would be easier for me to believe their efforts were altruistically based and less motivated by selfish financial considerations were their children enrolled in public schools.

     Politicians have never let the truth stand in the way of getting what they want.  (“If you like your plan, you can keep your plan” ring a bell?)  The Legislature’s insistence on accountability for everyone except themselves would be laughable if the consequences were not so severe for students, teachers and schools working diligently every day to overcome the effects of poverty.  They have enacted, through a series of proscriptive laws and budgetary manipulations, a process that is designed to dismantle the system that offers hope for many in the name of using public money to pay for the education of the privileged few as if public schools and students were only there to allow someone the opportunity to make a gigantic profit.  Their abandonment of public education will only serve to keep those dependent upon public education as a traditional lifeline as uneducated as possible for as long as possible.  See how well “market based” strategies have worked for schools in Florida.

     Once again, teachers and public education are not the problem, they are the solution.  Sooner or later even legislators must see it’s not about race, it’s about poverty; it’s not about a test score, it’s about student achievement; it’s not about a standardized curriculum, it’s about good teaching; it’s not about the business model, it’s about personalization; it’s not about competition, it’s about cooperation.  Sadly, we voted these people into office.  Perhaps it’s time to rectify that mistake.

Jim Arnold

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