Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Problems With the US Public Education System

With the teachers strike in Chicago in the headlines lately, the topic of public education in the United States has come up more frequently.  I think everyone who understands math (although that rules out a lot of US public school graduates) agrees that the US public school system is substandard.  We score at the bottom of the list of first world countries when it comes to student performance while maintaining funding at the top of the list.  We spend a lot of our public education system and get very little in return.

Remember 20 years ago when people were shocked that a student could graduate primary school, or even high school, and not be literate?  Now that's not unexpected when they go to public school.  It's common enough that nobody is surprised by that anymore.  We collectively shrug our shoulders and hope somebody fixes the problem, maybe even feign a little outrage.  Or we defend the institutions that continue to poorly educate students because they certainly couldn't be part of the problem.

We have a serious problem in this country with education.  It's going to be our downfall, and we're already on that path.  Were you uncomfortable during parts of the movie Idiocracy because they already ring true today?  I certainly know I was.  Until we focus as a society on education we're going to continue to have declining standards in everything and higher crime rates.  There is a direct inverse correlation between good education and crime, yet we continue pouring more money into prisons and not schools.

Not that more money will help.  It's the approach that's failing, not the funding.  We've been taking the same approach for decades, and as it is failing we think that more of it will help.  It won't.  (see also, Fed policy "stimulating" the economy)  We need to try something new.

Parents must want a good education for their children.  That is the crux of the issue.  Until parents want a good education for their children and make it a priority there isn't going to be any substantive change.  Until students care more about test scores than dressing trendy (whatever trend that may be), there isn't going to be any positive change.  It has to start with a desire from the parents and students.  They have to want it or nothing we do from an administrative level is going to make much of a difference.

I think that is the great advantage that private schools and public charter schools have- the parents of the students care enough about education to choose something other than the default.  They at least took a modicum of involvement in the education of their children.  This likely has a lot to do with the vastly improved education children get at private and charter schools.  Parental involvement is key.

Also key is the threat of getting kicked out, an option that both private schools and charter schools have.  In most public schools you can't even get kicked out for transgressions that would be felonies as an adult.  Because there is no downside to antisocial behavior more students are free to engage in it.  If a teacher has no authority to maintain order in their classroom, it cannot be a place of learning.  And unlike parents not being involved and interested in education, this is a problem we can fix.  We need to restore discipline to public schools.  I'm not an expert in education, so I don't know the best way to do this.  But we need to be able to offer a punishment for breaking the rules that is stern enough that students care.  We need to try different approaches until we find the ones that work best.

Another problem we can fix is standing up to the teachers unions and negotiating contracts that benefit the students.  The teachers unions are the largest force that maintains the status quo, handcuffs schools from trying new ideas and prevents the removal of sub-standard teachers.  By their design unions take away personal accountability, that is their primary purpose.  We need to hold teachers accountable as we do other professionals and the union mentality is the antithesis of excellence.  Unions are a great idea to employ the masses in less intellectual jobs, but that's not what we need in our education system.  We need excellent teachers.

I support anyone's right to join a union.  I've been in 4 of them myself (AFL-CIO, Teamsters, IBEW and CWA).  Not by choice mind you, but because it was a requirement of jobs I've taken.   Quite honestly, none of the unions I've been a member of did anything positive in regards to my work, and more than a few times played an obstructionist role.  Union involvement in construction increases costs and timelines to accomplish work from my experience.  Audits of government projects back this up empirically. 

But as mentioned I support a workers right to unionize.  If teachers want to form a union I support that right.  I also support a managers right to fire a worker who isn't making the grade.  (sorry, I couldn't resist using that colloquialism) I support a school district's right to fire their entire unionized work force and replace it with a non-unionized one if that results in higher education standards.  If a teacher joins a union, that union should be providing a benefit to the student, not just the teacher.  If it isn't, then teachers certainly lose that moral high ground they are fond of flaunting in arguments about education.

One of the things unions have brought to the public education system is a ridiculous and unsustainable pension system, similar to that seen in the public sector 20 years ago.  A system where one can work 20 or 25 years and retire with full benefits that are collected for a time longer than was worked.  This greatly increases the cost of education since many districts have to cover the salaries of 2 or even 3 teachers for each one that actually works in the classroom.  This is a triumph for the teachers and a fucking of the students.  It's making the cost of education prohibitively high to support a generation of teachers who got to retire and collect pay from the school districts in the prime of their lives.  If you look at the budget in Chicago you'll see one of the reasons the district is opposing pay raises is pension costs.  Teachers pensions represent 71% of the budget in that district.  That's almost 3/4 of the budget!  Again, a triumph for the unions who suckered the administration into supporting that policy, but it has a direct negative impact on the district's resources available to educate students.

The last point I'm going to make in this post is about standards and accountability.  Frankly, due to the problem with a portion of the population not caring about education enough to make it a priority in their life we can't graduate everyone with a level of education we'd desire.  If we have the best education system, the best teachers, and all the funding in the world these kids won't graduate with honors.  But right now we're holding everyone down to the same poor levels in an attempt to not alienate the unmotivated or less intelligent students..  Quite honestly, that's the only effective way governments can enforce equality- by reducing the people doing well to the level of those who aren't.  We need to change this mindset.

We need to start leaving some students behind others, despite the famous law that states to the contrary.  We have to stop trying to educate kids whose parents don't care to the same level of kids who are interested in an education.  Yes, it's not equal.  But it's better than what we have today where everyone gets shit if they live in a poorly performing district.  We can't fix everything at once, so leave the kids who are going to fail at the current sucky level and focus on ways to address the top 20 or 30 percent of students.  Those are the kids who are going to go on and make a difference anyway.  The better educated they are the better society will be as a whole.  It's ridiculous to hold them back at the same level with the kids who are going to end up watching reality television after their entry level job where they get irate if they have to miss a smoke break. 

Bring back reading groups and gifted programs.  Take the smart and motivated kids out of the regular public schools and put them in charter schools.  Spend more money on them.  Have teachers compete to be able to teach in the good schools.  Have students aspire to get placed in them.  The unmotivated students will be no worse off than they are now, but the motivated kids, the ones that really matter, will get a chance at a better education than they have today.  Try something new, this mainstreaming that's been trendy since the 80's isn't working.

Yes, that comes off as callous and elitist, I'm sure.  But it's a tragedy that all the students in crappy districts have to suffer.  If we adopt a tiered system, then the good students will have a chance at least.  A chance to escape poverty and ignorance.  A chance to make a better life for themselves.  Some hope.  And oddly enough, it will be more like the public education models used by countries that actually provide decent opportunities for students.

There are two big obstacles from being able to achieve this.  Parents are the first one.  Parents who don't care about education but expect their children have somewhere to go every day.  Parents who don't care about education but don't want their children to feel like they aren't smart.  They are one of the biggest reasons discipline has been scaled back in schools today, parents complaining to administrators who then cave in.

The second obstacle is anyone who supports the status quo.  As a whole the public school system is broken, but it seems everyone involved in it or employed by it is a staunch supporter.  The teachers, the administrators, the unions and the politicians they buy are resistant to change.  They demonize private schools and charter schools rather than focus on their own problems.  Everyone in the system passes the buck but resists actual change.  Teachers blame the administration.  The administration blames the teachers and the unions.  All three groups cry out for more money.

But more money isn't the fix.  We've tried more money, and it doesn't positively affect the outcome.  In my area, the worst performing schools are some of the best funded due to the state giving extra funding to poor districts.  Throwing more money at a failed system isn't going to change anything.  We're a country on the path to bankruptcy.  Our debt grows faster than our GDP each year, and even the most austere budgets proposed by the two parties in charge have this getting worse for the next 20 years.  We need to be judicious about how we spend money if we want a realistic solution.  Education is exceedingly important, so we need to get smart people who believe in education to reform the system.  It's the only way we'll stop getting worse. 

If you have ideas you think we can implement to improve public education I'd enjoy hearing them!

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps unionized teachers are part of the problem, but as my wife is a teacher, I can tell you that she isn't a part of it. It is the administrators. It's the people who make the tests, it's the people who dictate the standards,it's the fact that those people are politicians instead of educators. She has to teach the things they tell her to. It's not optional if you want to keep your job, and with the way the economy is now, teachers in my area are losing jobs, so they certainly can and will get rid of you if possible.

    Teachers really don't get paid enough. If you want to take away the retirement, fine, but you'd have to pay the difference to the teachers; it's the one thing that keeps a lot of them going to back to work. Also, funding the poor and poorly performing schools is stupid, but if you don't, who would teach there? It's a catch 22.

    Also, yes, parents are a huge part of the problem. Going to school should be a privilege not a "right"if you will. Or at least like you say, going to a good school should be for the good students. Of course, what we need to acknowledge most is that a lot of these kids aren't going to college. We need to start training them for the real world by using trade schools etc. before they leave HS instead of making them take four years of English. It's clearly not helping now with the way our language is being aborted, so you might as well embrace that part of it.

    The solution is simple. Get a group of teachers and educators to set the standards for what kids should be learning, not politicians who just see numbers. Why wasn't this a problem 15 years ago when I graduated HS? Why can't we just roll back to what was going on then, and modify it with what we know works better today?