Public education in America: Headed for the cliff

Published 8:20 am Wednesday, April 7, 2010

■ First in a series

Note: This column refers to no particular public school system but rather indicates my view as to a few of the chief impediments to improvement that face public education all across our nation.

News stories have been appearing about states (including Virginia) that want to slow and even freeze progress being made to increase the standardized test score requirements of our schools to the (only) minimal levels of proficiency required by the federal No Child Left Behind legislation by 2014.

This is sparking a controversy with one side arguing that higher standards are unrealistic and place a hardship on school systems without providing meaningful help to the students. The other side of the controversy cites a need for still higher standards, observing that the current standards are producing youths who falter in the workplace and reduce our nation’s ability to compete in the global economy.

The truth of the matter is that both sides in this controversy are correct in their views, but the view in each case is limited to what is right under their own noses. This is but one example of much time and energy being wasted on education issues that exist only on the surface of serious, systemic trouble, that are easy to identify and measure, and that are easy to take a position on and argue about.

Thus, we continue our decades-long history of pointing the fire extinguisher at the flames instead of at the source of the flames. What is needed is a much more practical viewpoint that looks for and then zeros in on the root causes of the immediate impediments facing public education in the United States today.

This must be done at the community level because big government, textbook publishers, high-level panels and commissions, and most politicians are too far removed from the day-to-day realities of the classroom and often have agendas, sometimes hidden, that do not place a high value on public education despite lip service to the contrary.

And when No Child Left Behind becomes radically changed or even nullified by new legislation, many local school systems — those with an industrial-age organizational style — may experience a newfound autonomy that they are ill-equipped to handle effectively without much more engagement on the part of teachers as well as by several elements of the community outside the schools.

Thus, whatever the fate of NCLB, it is incumbent on any school system to begin a collaboration with its own teachers and the rest of the community to identify and address those impediments that are most retarding progress in the education process.

Those who deny the grievous nature of such impediments and claim that “things are fine overall” are committing a deceitful offense against the future welfare of our nation, in my view. They just want to get through one trying day to the next, and they would have us ignore the flood of well-documented, reputable reports from both public and private sources indicating the increasingly sad shape of public education in the United States, whether in comparison to the levels of student achievement attained in other nations or in the view of the employers in our own communities.

Controversies and scandals involving the deliberate manipulation of student scores and grades on standardized tests, on class assignments (for example, “no-zero grading”) and even on whole classes are appearing in news stories, which further indicate not only the great pressure on teachers to “make the numbers look better” but also indicate the underlying problems in public education that the general public is unaware of (or apathetic about) and that school system administrators do not want to admit to, much less have to deal with.

If we are to focus upon the root causes of our impediments in public education, it must be admitted first that to address some of them would require resources that simply may not be available at the time. Thus, it would normally be unrealistic to expect a new school building or more teachers to be hired during difficult economic times.

It is a shame, however, when those who deny the severity of troubles facing public education breathe a sigh of relief when politicians and the general public push education to the back burner on a wholesale basis due to financial considerations. This is a perennial process that guarantees the status quo — and our status quo equates to backsliding relative to the rest of the world.

The handwriting is on the wall, and yet we persist in our denial. We are sick and getting sicker.

Coming soon: More impediments