Education Blues

Listening to people discuss the state of public education in America today often reminds me of that old story of three blind men describing an elephant. One is holding an ear, another is holding a leg, and the last is holding the tail. Therefore, each has an entirely different idea of the elephant based on his limited “reality”.

Such is the case with so many of our assessments of public education today, and the realities described by all concerned many times boil down to naked economic and political self-interests that skew “reality” in one direction or another—and all are blind in their own wonderful ways.

Teachers and administrators working within traditional public schools see K-12 systems that are struggling against a tidal wave of societal dysfunction and doing a great job against all odds. This constituency both hates and discounts the dismal data provided by standardized testing, and they see test advocates as dupes and conspirators in a right-wing plot to defund public schools, destroy democracy, and turn our children onto compliant drones incapable of thinking of anything beyond the narrow interests of their cruel corporate and political masters Anything that even smells like an educational standard is immediately suspect because it might crush a child’s individuality and unique preciousness—and prompt unwelcome questions about academic outcomes. These individuals and their interest groups believe those who seek to highlight deficient educational results are simply partisan and wrong, and their pointed negativity also, by the way, might screw with a lot of paychecks—so cut it out!

Those outside of traditional public schools—particularly those pushing for charter schools and school vouchers—cannot believe that anyone would want to continue to pour money into public school systems that, if the numbers are to be believed, each year graduate vast numbers of young adults who can barely read, write, or perform the most basic arithmetic. They see public schools as entrenched and ossified failure factories that rob taxpayers today while producing generation after generation of illiterates who are fodder for tomorrow’s food stamp, public housing, and Medicaid programs—all of which will help to bankrupt our cities, states, and nation in the decades to come. To ignore problems with our public schools is, as far as they are concerned, a form of slow societal suicide. Give us your money, they shout, and we can definitely do a much better job educating your children than your local public schools.

As for the union bosses, think tank experts, education professors, and politicians lining up on one side or another, they are easy to both understand—and ignore. Their “expertise” is wholly a function of whatever will advance their careers. Whether they are sniffing for money, tenure, or votes, their motivations are obvious, deeply compromised, and unworthy of serious consideration—unless you are particularly partial to circular logic and pretentious posturing. If all of them were never heard from again, it would make not a bit of difference to intelligent discussions about improving the educations of our children.

Three blind men…

Those who advocate for spending more money on public schools are sometimes correct that targeted dollars can help our children, but they fail to account for a pervasive tendency to pencil whip students through the grades regardless whether actual learning has taken place, and their refusal to confront systemic academic shortcomings identified by standardized testing cripples their credibility.

Opponents of charter schools and vouchers are correct that sometimes these don’t work as well as expected, and they typically shirk any responsibility for educating children with special needs, but one simple fact cannot be denied: growing numbers of students who have escaped from traditional public schools are now succeeding in college at far higher rates than those left behind.

Politicians and education “experts” are sometimes correct that what is educationally preferable might not always be possible, but their default settings of blaming families and society for all that ails our public schools neatly avoids any discussion of the roles teachers, administrators, and staff all play and in gaming the numbers to both mask deficiencies and keep their funding flowing.

Given the countless economic and social advantages inherent in our nation, it is simply unbelievable that we stand firmly astride the lower-middle tier of nations in terms of our educational achievement, and it is a perverse tribute to the peculiar power of low expectations, active deception, and willful blindness that so many parents are still content to each day send their children public schools that will rob them of their futures while frittering away mommy and daddy’s tax dollars.

In the final analysis, the only policies that have any hope of helping each child reach their potential are those that give maximum power to parents and the least possible power to education bureaucrats, many of whom have built their careers on that most well-worn of governmental activities—spinning bad news into good. However, the feverish buffing and shining of academic outcome data that range from the mediocre to the disastrous is now unable to conceal that sad fact that we are saddled with a nation full of public schools that many times manage to combine the highest possible costs with the weakest possible results.

What should we do? The only way forward is simple yet revolutionary: partner with the schools and not the systems. I know that the systems currently control the schools and act as gatekeepers, but to the greatest extent possible parents and concerned citizens must find ways to bypass and—if at all possible—ignore those who preoccupy themselves with “adminis-trivia”, battle against any changes that might threaten their sinecures, and refuse to recognize the legitimate educational needs of students because to do so might allow for frightening honesty regarding the shortcomings of our public schools.

This is a tall order that is going to create stress for all concerned, but some discomfort might be exactly what is needed at the moment. Pursuing reforms within the parameters of what will keep the educational bureaucracies happy has produced decade upon decade of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. For all the sound and fury surrounding the many widely-touted reforms to our public schools, shockingly little as actually changed—which is just what one expects when a broken system is asked to fix itself.

The revolution will, as all must, come from below—communities, parents, and students who are tired of being ignored, shortchanged, and shunted aside so that the paychecks can keep flowing to those who are screwing over so many of our children. Stop waiting for politicians and bureaucrats to change the future; they have not yet and never will. Unless those in the trenches are willing to march, boycott, and agitate, the brick walls of bureaucratic obfuscation and impenetrable jargon will continue to serve as obstacles to improving our children’s education—and “school choice” programs are the key to real changes.

Providing parents with the power to control where their child goes to school—public, private, or parochial—is truly the only viable way to ensure that progress is actually made because a system where the money follows the student will compel changes that are never going to happen as long as we stick to funding formulas where the student follows the money. As much as many dislike and distrust President Trump and Secretary of Education DeVos, their push for expanded school vouchers might be our best—and perhaps last—hope for rescuing our children from public schools that promise much, provide little, and push back against any common sense notions of accountability. Watching the frenzied efforts in Washington to bury school choice, a single question should rise in the minds of anyone who cares about our children and our nation: What are they so afraid of?

Any educational reform that fails to maximize parental power over the shape and content of each child’s education has no hope of succeeding. I realize that parents can sometimes be pushy and are occasionally unreasonable, and it is certainly true that we cannot ever allow a loud clique of parents to hold sway over any school because we run the risk of privileging the few at the expense of the needs of the many. However, the changes that are needed in our public schools will not come from above because too many have vested economic and political interests in the dysfunctional status quo—and decade upon decade of failed reforms have amply demonstrated the futility of trying to “work within the system”. It’s just like gambling in Vegas; in the long run the “house” will always win.

Now is the time for our children to win, and this is long overdue….


College Remediation Rates Reveal Significant Problems with Illinois’ Education System

Two years ago, I published a commentary in my local newspaper entitled “Data Must Drive Education Decisions” that read in part as follows:

“I have a suggestion for those who believe standardized testing in our public schools is untenable, unreasonable, and unfair: look at the national and local data on the numbers of college freshmen who require remedial coursework when they enter college and see where students who graduate from your local district stack up.    
Given that some passionately feel that testing in our public schools is rife with problems, perhaps a more persuasive case can be made for examining what happens to our area high school graduates (and the sub-groups of those graduates) after they receive their diplomas. Our area colleges and universities gather student data that matches their high schools with information on who requires remedial courses upon admission….
This would be very instructive information to make available on a school district’s website because it will allow local residents to have a very clear snapshot of whether their high school is better or worse at preparing their students for college success, and it would allow us to really drill down into what our schools are—and are not—doing well.”

I made this suggestion because I was tired of “champions” of public education who fuss endlessly about using standardized test scores to measure the performance of America’s public schools. Apparently my suggestion that we should be concerned about how few of our nation’s high school graduates are college-ready based on measures as “flawed” as the ACT, SAT, or PARCC tests was simply failing to recognize what a truly wonderful job our public schools are doing. Given the heat that standardized testing sometimes generates, it seemed to me that college remediation data would allow us to move beyond the argument and controversy so we could look at real-world student outcomes we could correlate with academic achievement at the high school level.

I also presumed this would never happen because it would shine a politically problematic light on the education provided in our state’s public schools.

So imagine my amazement when I discovered that this year’s Illinois Report Card, which provides a searchable database of every school in our state, has new charts attached to the Academic Progress tab when you type in the name of the public high school in your community: “Post-Secondary Remediation.”

I encourage every parent and concerned citizen to spend some time on the website and learn about the characteristics and academic outcomes of your public schools. Now that this information is available, pay particular attention to the percentage of your school district’s graduates who require remedial coursework when they enroll in their local community college, which is the starting point for about half of our nation’s high school graduates.

Hopefully, you will be pleased—but many will not.

What Next For Illinois Schools?

The results of the first year of PARCC academic assessments in Illinois public schools that are aligned to the more rigorous Common Core Standards are now available – and the news is not good. The abysmally low proficiency percentages now posted for our state’s high school students – 19% in Math and 35% in English Language Arts – are quite disturbing. The bald fact is that very few of last year’s Illinois high school juniors were able to demonstrate they are actually college and career ready.

So here we are. Over the weeks and months ahead we will sift through the numbers and search for answers to why a broad swath of our soon-to-be high school graduates are soon to be enrolling in remedial reading, writing, and math courses when they start college – a fact that will both increase their student debt load and drastically lower their chances for college success.

I have an explanation to offer regarding the dismal outcomes now in front of us: too many of our state’s high school students are still being pencil-whipped through dumbed down curriculum and busywork assignments in order to raise the graduation percentages for local school districts. This is happening both because many state school officials are more interested in public relations than actual learning outcomes and local school administrators understand that nothing riles up local voters more than keeping Janie and Johnny off that graduation stage – even if they can barely read their high school diplomas. After all, what could be the possible harm in allowing them to receive their meaningless credentials?

This year’s Illinois PARCC Test results, which serve only to throw decades of concerns about both Illinois and U.S. public school outcomes into ever starker relief, also lead to a more provocative question: Are we dutifully paying our school taxes in order to support a broken system that is robbing our nation of any hope for a better economic future?

A very intriguing study recently carried out by the economists Eric A. Hanushek of Stanford and Ludger Woessmann and Jens Ruhose of the University of Munich suggests that educational improvements that would bring every U.S. student to the level of competency – or perhaps mastery – across all basic academic measures would add $32 to $76 trillion to our nation’s GDP over the next several decades. Imagine a country where the career aspirations of so many adults were not routinely hobbled by deficits in reading, writing, and math skills – the explosion of human potential that is now being wasted would be an economic miracle of the first order.

We, unfortunately, seem to continue to believe that substandard educational outcomes are inevitable – despite worldwide evidence to the contrary which amply demonstrates that students can routinely achieve much more than what we expect in American public schools. To placidly presume that American children and teenagers are less able than those living within the borders of virtually all of our major economic competitors surpasses all understanding.

After over thirty years of promised improvements, “edu-speak” blather, and hundreds upon hundreds of billions of public dollars spent, it is time to put the power to change our state’s public schools right where it should have been from the beginning: in the hands of parents and students.

I believe our best course of action is to actively explore ways to convert our state’s entire education system to school vouchers and thereby allow parents and students to choose any school – public, private, or religious – anywhere they want to attend. Student funding would, as is currently allowed to some degree in half the states in our nation, follow the student instead of being handed to local school districts, and the continued funding of that student in that particular school should be designed to be contingent on both their PARCC Test scores and school grades.

In other words, we would flip the responsibility for success more toward the student by making a very direct bargain the centerpiece of this reform: if you like the school you are attending and want to remain there as a student, you had better pay attention in class and do your homework.

Individual student funding levels and test score targets for retention at a school of choice still would need to be determined through our legislative process, but I believe this plan of action would be an important first step toward both empowering our students and putting the responsibility for their success squarely on their own shoulders. This would, moreover, provide school districts with a clear choice: improve instruction and measured student outcomes or watch your students go elsewhere for better teachers and curriculum.

The biggest question is, of course, whether bold action is possible in the face of the headwinds of partisan politics that protect the dysfunctional status quo at the expense of our students and our state’s future. This is, I am afraid, still a very open question, and I cannot help but wonder whether I will be re-running this very same commentary several decades down the road because we are still trapped in the same system – but still dreaming that the results will be different some day in the far, far distant future.

Common Core Shenanigans


As anyone who knows me or has read my commentaries already understands, I have placed a great deal of faith in the Common Core Standards – and the tests aligned to those standards.  I have hoped they will both prompt more rigorous academic standards and provide a meaningful measure of student achievement across our nation’s public schools.

I may have been wrong.

The problem is not the standards or the tests.  The problem is (prepared to be shocked) with the politicians (double shock!) who want to dupe trusting taxpayers.

The Washington Post, in an October 3rd article entitled “Confusing Ohio test results are latest effort to unravel Common Core promise”, noted that Ohio has found the perfect answer to the abysmal academics outcomes highlighted in last year’s first year of standardized tests aligned to the Common Core standards: pencil whip more students towards proficiency by redefining “success”.

Feel free to read the depressing details by following the link below.  You may, thereafter, want to take a shower.

Confusing Ohio test results are latest effort to unravel Common Core’s promise

Whether it is simply no longer counting the unemployed as being unemployed, promising government benefits that cannot possibly be provided, or ignoring the inconvenient details of our latest foreign misadventure, one really starts to understand why Americans have so little faith in our politicians.  Elected officials are, of course, required to keep certain information secret to ensure our national security or to avoid allowing any advantage to those who would deliberately harm our national interests.  This is an allowable level of duplicity.

However, those lies that are told for the sake of simple political expediency are not allowable – and certainly not forgivable – and we have all more than had our fill of this nonsense.

Would Three Years Of High School Work?

In case anyone has missed it, we are broke.  Our local, state, and federal governments are wrestling with red ink on a scale unprecedented in American history, and our economy is shedding jobs at breath-taking rate.  Even the most sanguine of economists are now expecting us to wallow in the doldrums for quite some time to come, and the money we are borrowing today to prop up our shaky financial world will be paid out of our future taxes for many, many years.

For some decades, educators have been debating how to make the senior year of high school “meaningful” for students, but the hard truth is that senior year is—at best—an awkward transition to life beyond the walls of our public school systems.  Once “senior-itis” sets in, it’s a hard sell to convince young adults to press to the finish line.  Enrichment courses and extra-curricular activities often serve to put a little gas in the tank, but far too many senior academic schedules are designed to provide maximum play time and minimum work.

Perhaps, when one considers both our lack of public funds and the often desultory nature of the senior year in high school, it is worth looking at one possible solution—switching to a three year model for high school.  If we keep students focused on academic work for three years, it is quite possible to complete the course work necessary to meet graduation requirements and prepare for education beyond, and the side benefit of adding a sense of urgency to the educational environment cannot be overstated.   Mandated testing can still take place after the third year of secondary education as it does today, and it will provide a clearer sense of our students’ achievement level because it will take place very close to the end of their education in our public schools, which will allow us to make more meaningful improvements to both curriculum and instruction.

I am, however, not suggesting we simply dump our seventeen year olds out in the world. Our nation will be presented with an opportunity to place our young adult students into internships, apprenticeships, community college courses, and employment.  Before anyone has the chance to say “we’re already doing that” during the senior year, it is worth acknowledging that high schools are, indeed, prodding students into the world beyond high school with work-study, dual credit, and ‘externship” opportunities of various kinds.

The question that arises, however, is why do we need to pay for another year of high school to add a layer of bureaucracy, facility costs, and salaries to oversee activities that can already be readily provided elsewhere?  The answer is typically that we need to supervise these students because they are often still minors and need the structure that school provides to ensure success.  Nonetheless, I believe it is possible to persuasively argue that seventeen year olds need to work on learning to monitor their own activities and ensure their own success—and learn to accept the consequences if they do not.

Of course, local districts cannot fully implement this change without some changes in both federal and state education statutes.  However, even though many students will still need the four full years to complete their studies, it might be worth starting to encourage students to consider a three year academic-intensive graduation track and offer the course infrastructure to support this decision.  If even only a quarter of secondary students availed themselves of this option, it would greatly reduce the pressure to build new schools and hire more staff—and begin to turn back the seemingly inexorable rise in the costs of public education.  Moreover, in the long run I suspect we will find that, given the opportunity to gain back a year of their lives, more high school students than not will be anxious to buckle down and do the school work necessary to speed their journey toward adulthood.

Although it is a choice that may be necessitated by harsh fiscal realities, we could very well find the three year model for our high schools is the right idea at the right time as we look for ways to help our public schools to focus more intently on providing a coherent and meaningful education for our soon-to-be adults.

Also published in The News-Gazette ( January 25, 2015