Why Do Our Public Schools Never Improve?

Quality public education is, as I have written many times before, the foundation of our society, and our ongoing failure to provide it to all students is a source of continued frustration and confusion for many.  Why can’t we ensure all of our schools provide a decent education for all of our children, particularly those for whom the K-12 years are their best—and perhaps last—springboard out of difficult life circumstances that have whittled their avenues for personal improvement to a precious few?

Maybe we need to re-think how we look at our public schools and reconcile ourselves to the fact that their educational missions are sometimes tangential to their roles as drivers of local economic activity and reassurance for parents who are nervously eying their children’s futures.

Economically speaking, public schools are a big deal on a national level.  Moreover, on a local level—particularly when it comes to small to medium sized communities—they are enormously important as sources of jobs, service and construction contracts, and the free daycare they provide for parents.  Public schools are, therefore, only able to effect changes to the extent that those changes are not in conflict with their local economic benefits.

Let’s face it, there is little coherent reason why a local school superintendent should be paid more than a state’s Governor, except insofar as it establishes a top boundary for salaries that pulls everyone else’s paycheck just that much higher.  Likewise, the need to create and protect local jobs helps to explain why perfectly serviceable school buildings are routinely abandoned to build new ones, little that can be outsourced to a less expensive vendors ever is, and office operations often look like a snapshot from 1990.

There is, added to this, another basic human need: a desire to believe in bright futures for our children.  It is unfortunate that one sure-fire way to keep every parent happy is to keep moving their children along toward graduation with as little focus on learning outcomes as possible.  This would not be a terrible problem if we were an agrarian society of subsistence farmers, but it is a catastrophe in a complex and interdependent world that places a premium on communication skills, technical expertise, and overall intellectual alacrity.  It is, in addition, not fair to have roughly 75% of our high school graduates—if ACT measures of college readiness and the explosion of remedial students in two and four year institutions can be accepted as reasonable indicators—not realize they are unprepared for higher education until they actually step onto the campus.  Racing to address core academic deficiencies far past the point when they should have been identified and corrected is extremely difficult.

In addition, as a recent article in The New York Times points out, although we may have still have the best elite universities in the world—as measured by standards that are only distally related to teaching and learning—recent studies seem to indicate that the overall quality of the educational outcomes in our nation’s higher education system lags behind our international peers.  This should not be surprising.  Just as a house tends to sag when the foundation rots, an increase in academically deficient freshman entering colleges and universities corrodes classroom standards and expectations and, as a consequence, results in diplomas being awarded to less proficient graduates.

We need to rebuild the foundation of our nation’s educational system, so we need to convince the stakeholders—students, parents, and educators—in our K-12 system to buy into the idea that raising academic standards is essential if we are to avoid slipping ever further behind globally.  Each group, however, is likely to resist necessary changes for reasons that perhaps speak to the reasons we can’t seem to make any other meaningful but necessary changes in our society.

Students will, as a rule, not be interested in more demanding assignments and grading.  Isn’t one’s youth supposed to be all about play and self-discovery?  Parents typically are not going to be all that excited about their children stressing about schoolwork and test scores.  Why are you making my children miserable instead of nurturing their self-esteem?  Educators find higher academic standards problematic because they tend to expose systemic shortcomings, bring unwanted attention to weak teachers and administrators, and rile up a lot of parents about the failings of their children.  Can’t we talk about dress codes or building a new school instead?

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