Weak Public Schools Are Harming Our Nation’s Future

One of the first lessons we learn in any school goes as follows:    1 + 1 = 2.  Recent news stories from both the educational and economic fronts when seen in isolation are depressing enough; viewed in relation to one another, they should be a clear warning that we are in a crisis that needs a rapid and sweeping resolution.

The 10th anniversary of the passage of No Child Left Behind, legislation that set aggressive goals for achievement coupled with new mandates for standardized tests to measure educational outcomes, has prompted a flood of studies and commentaries regarding its impact on improving K-12 education in the United States.

Those inside public schools, for the most part, disdain the law, believing it punishes educators for problems that are outside the power of schools to remedy.  Constant complaints by teachers about being forced to “teach to the test” go hand in hand with data showing students continually failing the tests, and it is startling how often the absolute percentages of students meeting benchmarks for achievement are actually falling rather than improving.  It might, therefore, be worth remembering that “teaching to the test”, a term which is typically shorthand for one of many test preparation curriculums that focus on imparting gimmicky test-taking shortcuts and strategies that have little to do with actually raising core skill levels, are not the answer to what ails our schools—obviously.

In any case, so many of those who argue against the idea of gathering data to measure K-12 school success claim the tests measure nothing meaningful at all, and international comparisons that show American public school students sliding further and further behind their peers are not to be believed because of some fundamental flaw in every test, every study, and every American college and university that continues to place ever-increasing numbers of our young adults into remedial freshman courses because they are not adequately prepared for higher education.

Moreover, it is further argued, everyone would be better off if the tests designed to measure learning outcomes by demographic, school, district, and state were discarded because teachers and students feel badly if their particular school is labeled a failure.  I’m sure that these critics of standardized testing are correct in this regard.  However, although it is certainly true that morale might suffer a bit if schools are told they are not fulfilling their core mission of educating students, I would like to meet the person who believes it is equally reasonable to switch off the monitors of sick hospital patients because the beeping and clanging alarms are depressing the doctors and nurses and rattling the confidence of the patients who are counting on them for a cure.

Now, combine this persistent desire to do virtually everything to avoid doing the obvious to improve our public schools—recruit the most qualified teachers, hold students to high academic standards, and discard the outmoded neighborhood school model and permit parents to take their tax dollars and spend them at any school (whether public or private) that they believe would best serve their child’s needs—with the slew of recent studies showing that economic mobility in the United States now lags significantly behind that found in Canada and Western Europe.

1 + 1 = 2.

Although there are certainly other factors that explain why so many of our citizens are locked in poverty or near-poverty and cannot advance upwards, quality public education has historically been the most important driver of upward mobility in any nation.  When public schools become diploma mills that graduate nearly everyone yet, at the same time, fail to educate so many, it goes a long way to explaining why employers persistently complain they cannot find qualified employees for skilled jobs, our nation’s graduate and professional programs are increasing becoming finishing schools for students from outside the United States, and the economic center of the planet is shifting away from the United States.

High quality public schools that are focused on preparing students for the challenges of the 21st century are more important to our nation’s future than any other single public institution.  Although educational reform has succeeded in closing or consolidating our absolutely worst public schools, it has stalled when it comes to raising the level of schools that fall into that broad area between below average and horrendous.  As a result, we continue to see so many of our schools firmly ensconced in that nether world of merely lousy while—year after year and improvement plan after improvement plan— promising to do better with the full knowledge that no real consequence with befall them for being sub-par in a system that has no inclination to force them to make real changes.  It is easier for many to insist that everything is now just fine now that the very few bad schools are gone and shy away from further discussion of the difficult work that must be done to raise standards across the board.

If we do not face up to the necessity of making fundamental changes to our entrenched system of K-12 public education, we will likely continue to live in a high stratified nation populated by the persistently poor who are consigned to failure by lackluster schools and the already advantaged who are able to buy homes in those neighborhood where the public schools still operate at a high level—or can simply afford to abandon the public school system altogether for pricey private schools that dare not offer anything other than excellence to the children of parents who will not stand for anything else.

Just as the Post Office is a obvious example of a business model whose time has passed, our fragmented, insular, and self-serving system of K-12 public education system may not offer our best hope for improving academic performance to the point where other nations will send their best minds to study our methods instead of, as is currently the case, our nation sending experts to marvel at the schools in Finland and Hong Kong.

Until we stop rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic while watching the world pass us by, we will continue lock ourselves into both overall economic malaise and a social system lacking the fluidity that has been the very definition of the American Dream—that anyone can, by sheer dint of effort, raise themselves up in the world.  This may, for some, still be the case, but it is increasingly less so for our public school students who too often graduate from high school without the high level skills needed to serve as the foundation of future success.

Also published in The News-Gazette (news-gazette.com) January 22, 2012

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