Anyone who cares about the future of our nation has to be disheartened by the recent release of a report by The Council on Foreign Relations that identifies America’s failing K-12 public education system as a threat to our national security. Using the same information that has been available for years about how our schools are mis-educating so many of our youth into abject ignorance by allowing academic standards to degenerate to a frightening degree, the task force report, U.S. Education Reform and National Security, offers several potentially useful recommendations for turning around our schools.
I share the hope of every American that we will finally—after decade upon decade of blue-ribbon commissions and uncounted trillions of dollars—see change for the better in our nation’s K-12 system, but I must admit that I have grave doubts that any improvement is possible until we engage in a frank discussion concerning how our national schizophrenia about the purpose of public education makes it impossible to raise our academic standards to those that are typical of the best public schools around the globe.
As Exhibit A, I offer the discussions now in progress in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), our nation’s second largest. As detailed in a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, eight years ago the LAUSD raised academic standards—both in the number of credit hours required to receive a high school diploma and the rigor of the coursework required—to address systemic academic deficits that were allowing their high schools to routinely graduate students who were unprepared for either higher education or employment. Today, now that the first wave of students impacted by the higher academic standards are ready to enter high school, those same laudable efforts at improving the quality of their educations are in danger of being discarded.
Why, you may ask, is the LAUSD school board strongly considering reducing the number of credits needed for a high school diploma by 25%, lowering the grades required for a diploma, and dumping the push for students to study more rigorous subject matter? The answer is simple: They fear that the drop out rate will rise as a result of higher standards. Therefore, in order to keep students in school so they can “earn” a diploma, it looks like the LAUSD will lower the bar back to the point where everyone can simply hop over it—regardless of the consequences for the futures of those students.
This discussion is similar to a great many others that take place in America every day. We want cookies and ice cream that will not make us fat. We want to cut the budget deficit without reducing the many benefits our government provides. We want effortless wealth to arrive via the wisdom of a late night infomercial.
And we want public schools to educate everyone while failing no one.
Our peculiar national resistance to the twin realities of limits and consequences has hurt us in a great many ways, and leaders who are always promising us that we can have a world where all reasonable standards and boundaries—whether for public expenditures, personal responsibility, or private behavior—can be abandoned without harm are certainly a part of the problem. We need to stop electing instant gratification adolescents and find some adults to get us back on track.
It should not, therefore, be surprising that yet another of the many national discussions we need to have is what we expect our public schools to do.
The disconnection with reality in our current thinking about public education is this: We believe we can simultaneously lower academic standards to promote higher rates of graduation and raise academic standards to improve educational outcomes. This is—as anyone can see—impossible to do, and most public school systems dealing with this tension default to the sad norm of handing out high school diplomas to students who cannot write a coherent paragraph, read beyond the barest level of literacy, or do the simplest of mathematical computations.
As a result, our college systems across the nation are swamped with students who are paying to take high school—or middle school—over again, well-paying jobs that require advanced skills go begging for qualified candidates, and our nation’s military is struggling to find personnel who can understand and operate the 21st century technology we now use to maintain our security.
We need to rapidly resolve the question of whether we wish to continue to hand out meaningless diplomas to millions of young adults—for reasons both noble and financial—or raise standards at the risk of requiring hard work that will put a diploma beyond the reach of some students unless they are willing to put in the many hours of sustained study that was once the expectation for all. However, if a student should fail—and the LAUSD and other school districts are entirely correct that higher standards will mean that more students will fail—we need to be able to provide vocational programs and apprenticeships that will teach marketable skills to those young people who will—at least for now—not earn a high school diploma.
If we make this change, it will require a revolution in nearly a half century of educational policy and law that has codified the idea that failure must not be allowed, and I am well aware that a great many conscientious and compassionate teachers who struggle with the daily challenges of educating K-12 students will have great difficulty with this new idea. Helping all of our students to succeed is, after all, the ultimate goal of every dedicated educator (myself included) and this is what we have always—and should always—strive to achieve if we are to be worthy of our profession.
However, we must acknowledge that legislative mandates and classroom practices that forbid failure in our public schools have also made academic success impossible. Although the process will be fraught with emotion, likely lead to tremendous change in our dysfunctional K-12 educational model, and collide headlong with our most heartfelt egalitarian ideals, we must understand that the only way our nation can succeed in this highly competitive world is to push our children to achieve to the highest international standards of educational attainment.
The question we must now answer is simple and direct: Do we want to graduate all or educate many? Our response will likely determine the future of our nation.