There is no doubt about it: Our public schools are going to see some exceedingly painful additional cuts to personnel and programs in the next year or two. Continued economic turmoil, exploding State and Federal deficits, and the prospect of further declines in local tax revenues will squeeze our schools and the students they serve. Programs will vanish; personnel, many of whom have devoted years of service to our schools, will lose their jobs. It is difficult to find a silver lining in such a dark cloud, but perhaps there is something to be said for the brutal cash crunch to come—it should finally compel a complete reassessment of the manner in which our schools operate so that they finally stop expending taxpayer money on gadgets and gimmicks that contribute little or nothing to the basic business of educating our young.
Let’s face it, for all the hoopla over revamping our schools into engines of 21st century excellence (or some other such brochure boilerplate), not all that much has actually changed. If you had placed a young person in a deep freeze fifty years ago and now set that freshly thawed student loose in our public schools, the school day would be fairly easy to follow based on their previous experience—once, of course, they recovered from the shock of learning that Elvis is no longer The King. Fashions, vast improvements in electronic devices, and musical tastes aside, the basic class day structure, course organization, and hierarchy of instruction would seem more than a little familiar. Just learn some new acronyms and jargon, and you’re right in step with 21st century public education.
However, the lack of basic change in our public schools is not necessarily a terrible or surprising discovery. All the continued promises to revolutionize the classroom through innovative instructional methods and dazzling technology notwithstanding, education fundamentally remains a matter of the day-to-day work of dedicated teachers motivating young people to take an interest in unfamiliar material in order to provide them with knowledge and skills that will allow them to successfully seek future education, training, and employment. For schools to fulfill their most basic mission, students need to walk out of high school with the ability to read and write with ease, as well as understand the fundamentals of math, science, history, government, and current events. The course content has, of course, changed to reflect new material, but the only truly new issue is that the global economy has raised the stakes for everyone and made ignorance an even more painful burden for our children to bear.
Therefore, if it is fairly easy to understand the mission, why is it that our public schools seem too often incapable of sending our young adults into the world as literate and thoughtful individuals with the education they need to succeed in future endeavors? What seems to be the problem that lands so many college freshmen in remedial non-credit courses or dissuades students from any higher education at all?
May I suggest the problem, not surprisingly, starts early and only gets progressively worse with each passing school year: We allow students to underachieve through a multitude of well-meaning mechanisms, place them in slow-moving “skill building” courses that will never allow them to obtain the knowledge necessary to return to their grade level, and are, as a nation of concerned citizens and taxpayers, astonished so many students lose interest in school.
Young people are typically quite aware when they have fallen behind their peers in the classroom. This awareness translates into frustration that masquerades as bravado, desperate neediness that slowly changes to equally desperate bitterness, and an overwhelming fear of failure that mutates into emotional withdrawal. Particularly for a student who lacks a capable and motivated adult intermediary—hopefully, but too rarely, a parent—to act as an advocate with teachers and administrators, it is all too easy to slide into a netherworld of busywork classes that don’t teach and troubled behavior that only further convinces educators to keep that student tucked away and carefully monitored before pencil-whipping him or her on to the next grade level to begin the cycle anew.
One of the basic truisms of education is this: The more you know, the easier it is to learn even more. Sadly, the reverse is equally true: The less you know, the easier it is to learn even less. If we want our schools to improve in these difficult budgetary times, why don’t we insist that high standards are the norm rather the exception, eliminate the jobs of those whose positions boil down to herd management rather than active daily education, and hire more classroom teachers rather than pay more internal and external consultants? Educating our children is, at root, a fairly straightforward task; shall we, therefore, take this opportunity to turn our schools into enterprises that no longer resemble the Federal tax code in their impenetrable complexity, insist on results today rather than tomorrow, and remember that learning is adventure that can—and should—be irresistibly enticing to young minds if we push them to excel each year they are in school?