Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Education in America part 2

Since our own Aviator suggested it, and since technically his post is part 1 of this topic, so this piece shall be part 2. First, you should go back to read Aviator's "Priorities" post and read through Chief's enumerated list and the other comments. There is not much more that I can add to them. However, there does exist quite a lot of the "lumpen" outside the school buildings. There is quite a bit of it outside hawking their own stupidity, agenda, personal likes and dislikes, and just outright ignorance about how a public school district operates.

Just as an example of what I just wrote, check out this clip from TDS last Monday, June 7. The Chinese government has been offering money to school districts in the US to teach Chinese. According to some, this is indoctrination of our young to become communists.

( One disadvantage in working around inside the Comedy Central site is it's clunkiness. One cannot just get to a specific clip; look for Aasif Mandvi's bit. )

So much of the discussion about education in this country is tied up in politics, religion, et alia that it is difficult to formulate a standard, sane and rational system of educating our people. Tell me why the schools around the Gulf Coast have always been so abysmal, or tell me why the Texas State School Board committed their recent atrocity with regard to curriculum, or tell me why the funding of public education vacillates from one extreme to the other, and then I'll be able to tell you that you have all the answers.

Because I do not. A large part of the answer is due to the fact that education in this country is localized. Much of the friction comes from federal mandates to the states that enjoin them to have certain standards of education, but without adequate support in funding. A good example is special ed., which is expensive and which for the most part is funded by the states. I do believe that SPED is a good thing to do, but politics at the federal level being what they are, the states often get the short end of the shaft. The states then pass as much of the shaft as they can down to the local level, which, depending upon the wealth of each local level, determines the level of funding of individual public school districts and also to a great extent what will be and what will not be taught in each curriculum. I would hope that the denizens and casual readers of this site know this much.

My home state Kansas has been notorious for funding difficulties for a long time, not to mention our recent foray into the controversy over the teaching of evolution and creationism. Aviator's "Priorities" post is at once a brilliant example of the basic reason for the establishment of a state, but also a glaring shame for this country. John Edwards, for all his personal faults and betrayal, had it right about 2 separate Americas. It is an egregious disgrace that there is such a wide gulf between the public schools of the poor and those of the wealthy; it is an obscenity to spend so much of our resource upon weapons and pointless foreign wars and leave public schools scraping by.

Much of the financing for public schools comes from property taxes, which goes a far way to explain the differences between school districts. The state courts have tried to remedy this, but sometimes that backfires. Glance through this story for a narrative of how education in this country can go haywire:

With boards and administrations always in upheaval, little attention was paid to a sustained plan for teaching and learning. Because of poor academic performance and other issues, the state of Missouri revoked the district's accreditation in 1999. It has never regained full accreditation.

Families of all races sought other options. They moved to the suburbs, or turned to charter schools, or sought refuge in private and parochial schools.

Despite repeated warnings that the district was tearing through its financial reserves, the board and administration continued to run half-empty schools, just because one faction or another demanded it.

That's how the Kansas City School District arrived at its current lowly state. It wasn't for lack of money -- $2 billion should be plenty. It wasn't for civic ill will; numerous good people have tried to help the students over the years.

But people with good intentions retreat quickly when confronted with race-based animosity, which has been an undercurrent in school district affairs for decades. That leaves opportunists and meddlers to have their way.

"Opportunists and meddlers". Yes indeed, and anyone feels up to that, another post at MilPub!

I've been a public school teacher ever since I started in Philadelphia in 1974. I've seen so many different forces banging away at the structure of public education, each trying to force its will upon our young. Some were good, IMO, some were retreads of earlier theories, some were crap. But what outstrips everything in stupidity and foolishness is that idea that we must balance state and national budgets by cutting our public education funding. I am a victim of that, my career in education is most likely at an end. RIF'ed. We're not moving and we'll take whatever comes our way. ( One possible exception, a way to escape to a more civilized, sunny and carefree area where the development of the mind is valued above all else! ) My efforts over the years have always been to give my students something of value for their use and enlightenment, something both useful and encouraging.

Is there anything more I could have done?



  1. Not much, basil. I tried to move into teaching in the middle of the worst contraction in teacher employment in Oregon history. To relocate to LA or Phoenix - when my wife makes 3x what I would make as a PS teacher - was silly and impractical. And my first year teaching was everything that the "tales from the classroom" horror stories tell you about: 28 of 30 kids who were just doing time and could have cared less, parents who never showed up for conferences, discipline referrals that ended with the kid bounced back to my class in 15 minutes, IEPs, indifference administrators, colleagues who had no time or interest in the new meat...

    I looked around and realized that I was making 30K as a science teacher with a Master's in Geology and 15 years professional experience reminding rude freshmen to read their textbooks.

    And I could go back into geotech and make 50K with people I respected and who deal with me as a colleague and equal...

    You mean there's a choice there..?

    ISTM that it's actually pretty damn amazing that we do as well as we do. Think about it - for centuries only a tiny fraction of the world's population learned to read and write! And now we manage to get something like 50-70% of the entire nation through a fundamental course of study that includes not just literacy and numeracy but the basics of history, art, science, government and more.

    Could we do better? Sure. SHOULD we do better?...probably, tho the cost gets astronomical pretty quickly. But as you point out, there are so many social problems to overcome.

  2. Basil-

    Part of the difficulty, IMO, is that in an effort to have 100% of the population receive a HS diploma (diploma, not necessarily education), we are suffering severely from the law of diminishing returns. Not every person is willing or capable of achieving the standards, yet we do not want to address that uncomfortable fact. Consequently, ever increasing resources have been directed to the, let's say, 15% who are truly unable or unwilling to perform to the standard. In some cases over the years, the standards were lowered to allow more to cross the bar, so that the increased spending would not be seen as wasteful. As a result, we have a generation or two that received the resulting lower quality education that these lower standards ensured. So, more money spent to achieve a lower level of education.

    And, in some districts, money became the root of educational collapse. Not the lack of it, but all too much of it. 30 years ago, there was an interesting case of a major urban school district that was successful in receiving millions and millions of federal grant money for a vast number of special programs for poor students, yet was found upon longitudinal studies to have actually experienced a lower level of student achievement. One respected educator proposed that since this money had been used to fund a never ending series of "experimental" or "innovative" grade school programs, the kids suffered a totally disjointed education. For example, first grade was no longer designed to prepare students for second grade, as the first grade teacher had no idea of what would be going on the second grade when next year's specially funded program came around. The kids measured up will on the isolated testing for the special program/grade level de jour, but in the end, exited 6th grade under performing. They had been subjected to six successive and isolated grades conducted out of context with an integrated elementary education. The local tax payers did not bear the immediate cost of these federally funded programs, thereby elevating their superintendent to "hero" status. Long term, however, his halo tarnished significantly, even more so when the federal funds dried up and the cost burden shifted to the local tax base.

    Like it or not, education boils down to the meeting of standards by the student. Yes, process is an important part of the picture, but for a diploma to have any value, it must be a valid indicator of the holder having met defined and legitimate standards. Giving the test required for HS graduation in the 10th grade is supported by saying it allows time for remediation, if necessary. To me, that means that a HS diploma has been effectively reduced to mid 10th grade standard. You can re-mediate to the mid 10th grade test level all you want, but it still does not account for the remaining 2.5 years that are not evaluated.

    I wonder how many medical schools have remediation programs? Would you accept surgery from a doctor who took 6 years to graduate from a 4 year program and repeated Surgery 101 three times before he passed it?

  3. Early childhood education is the most important.

    Get them when they are young and keen.
    Have early snack and free lunch programs (cause kids have a hard time learning when they are hungry).

    Get class sizes to below 20 or better.

    If you give them the basics by the end of grade 3, they will do ok. Otherwise, you just end up having a rolling failure all the way through school)

  4. Chief,

    Maybe your experience explains why schools are perennially short of qualified science and math teachers.


    Great comment all around. Makes total sense.

  5. I think something Ken Robinson said about all the world reforming their education systems, in order to deal effectively with the future reality, and how none of us could really get our heads around the current reality, let alone the . . .

    Then a student showed me this . . .

    It brought up some very interesting questions . . . perhaps a start.