Fixing America’s Schools: A Blueprint for Change

There are a lot of wrong ideas about American schools:

1.  American schools cannot provide a quality education for students.

The fact is that you can, right now, get a quality education in an American school.  Hundreds of thousands do it every year.  Those students go on to get jobs, go to college, become professionals in various fields, staff our military including the officer corps…if the schools didn’t prepare them to do this, then who did?  Of more importance is the question: why didn’t others manage to acquire a quality education?  Where did the failure lie, and how could this be eliminated in the future?

2.  Many students don’t get a quality education.  This is the fault of their teachers.

Teachers teach what they’re told to teach, when they’re told to teach it, and to the student audience they’re told to teach it to.  Often enough they’re also told how to teach it and given whatever tools their school district is prepared to pay for to accomplish this.  Most teachers I’ve known supplemented their school-supplied budget by buying supplies with their own money.  This is widely known, but often not considered when teachers are accused of not caring enough about their students. If there’s fault, it lies in the system, not in those who teach.

3.  Requiring advanced degrees for teachers will result in a better education for students.

New Mexico requires their teachers to obtain a Masters degree; Texas requires only a Baccalaureate degree.  Texas teachers are generally paid better than their New Mexico counterparts, despite the requirement set by New Mexico for higher education.  Texas students generally fare better than NM students on standardized tests, in most cases.  Teachers who are able to do so look for jobs that pay better or are in more desirable schools (think of how difficult it is to get teachers willing to teach in ghetto or barrio schools!).  Enough said about this.  Some teachers would benefit from an advanced degree, or at least additional education.  For others, it’s not really cost effective.

It is, nonetheless, true that American schools rank very low among developed nations in the quality of the education they provide, based on rankings of students by achievement on standardized tests.  There is a failure here, in that relatively few students achieve the education that the schools are expected to provide.

President Obama follows President G. W. Bush in attempting to address the deficiencies in American education.  I doubt that his solution will be any more effective than President Bush’s attempt (“No child left behind”).  I’ve listened to Obama’s speeches, as I listened to GWB’s during his administration.  Both presidents’ attempts have in common that their proposed solutions sound good to politicians but don’t address the real failing of the school system.

The problem isn’t the teachers; each year, a crop of new teachers comes out of the education departments in the universities and others enter the profession from other careers.  Older teachers retire, new ones replace them, and some younger ones stay a year or two or five and then leave the profession.  This latter group is sometimes made up of people who just can’t function effectively in the classroom, but sometimes it’s because they can get better jobs outside the profession.  Better pay, less stress, more respect, less frustration with the bureaucracy of education…these send them into other fields of work.  The ones who leave aren’t the worst of the lot, either.  The ones who stay in the classroom are the ones who really love the idea of teaching or the ones who can’t get those better jobs.

Some few teachers are so talented that they are able to function within the limits of the system and still achieve more than might ordinarily be expected.  Those who only work within the system, as they’ve been trained to do, don’t achieve as much.  A few unqualified or ethically unsuited teachers get almost all the attention, and so it’s easy to blame the education failures on poor teacher quality.  Based on my own experience in three schools, I would maintain that, as a group, teachers are much more ethical and qualified than virtually any other professional group.  Consider some other professions; police officers?  Politicians?  Priests?  Business leaders?  Bankers?  The fact is that NO profession is 100% perfect, nor will it ever be.   A few teachers are so talented and energetic that they rise above the system. The rest achieve only what the system permits.

You can’t even blame the problem on administrators.  They, too, move around from school to school, and generally they don’t make any significant difference when they leave or when they arrive at the new school.  Some few administrators are able to work outside the system and achieve more, but again, those who do the job we’ve trained them to do don’t achieve much.  If a few achieve more than others, they do so despite the limitations of the system.

You can reasonably assume that the system itself is flawed.  Administrators and teachers work within the system but have no authority to change it, they move around, they enter or leave, but no change takes place. The system itself must be changed.

American schools once worked.  Look at what was expected of a high school graduate around the turn of the twentieth century; it’s an eye opener.  They were expected to do much more in the fields of math, language, writing, geography; possibly less in science, and nothing in some of the fields that are considered important now (computers, etc).  The schools we have now are lineal descendants of the schools we had then.  It is fair to conclude that the system was effective in the late 19th-early 20th century, although fewer students remained in school for the full twelve years. There are now more students and new tools to help manage education, but the system has not kept up with changes in society.
It is much less effective in providing a quality education than it was in the early 20th Century.

Schools fail to teach discipline or personal responsibility.  They rarely teach ethics or morality.  These topics were once taught by family or social entities, or by religious institutions.  Parochial schools teach a religious version of morality and sometimes ethics, but this often fails to translate into non-religious life.  Even religion doesn’t often maintain the hold on people that religious leaders would prefer, and attendance at church and the idea that church is very important in everyday life are both much less common today than they once were.  Religious ethics and morality appear to be as much a failure as any other aspect of education.

Discipline is defined within the military services as willing obedience to orders.  Obviously this isn’t what schools should teach; but schools should instill a willingness to cooperate for the good of society, or willingness to work within a system to achieve common goals.  The students who learn this get an education. Those who don’t, fail or drop out.

There is little sense of personal responsibility among many students, particularly among those who are failing and who are most likely to drop out.  Failure is not considered to be the fault of the student, it’s the fault of the teacher or the administration or society.  It’s the fault of race, or poverty, or low self esteem.  How often does anyone in authority say “it’s the fault of the student?”  Failure…there is no consequence to falling short.  Laziness?  Perfectly acceptable.   Sit on the couch and watch the TV, but don’t do anything for yourself.  Get the right brand of shoes and you too can jump like Michael Jordan, without having to work for his skills.  With the portable gym and 5 minutes a day you too can look like Schwartzenegger.

I didn’t hear much from President Obama about discipline, willingness to cooperate with the educational process, or personal responsibility on the part of the student, and so I think that his approach is going to fail just as did the efforts of his predecessors.

Discipline: what happens to students who refuse to cooperate with the education system?  What about those who commit crimes, who take drugs, who paint graffiti over the walls, who engage in destruction simply because they want to and nobody can stop them?  What about the gang members: is it anything except a stopgap to forbid gang members from displaying their membership by wearing gang colors?  Do uniforms really get students out of gangs?

Students were expelled from school for antisocial behavior a century ago; nowadays, the buzz is “we can’t deprive a child of an education”.

Politicians equate time in school with educational improvement.   This is demonstrably false.  Quantity does not equate to quality.  A variety of laws supposedly compel students to attend school for 12 years, and students are expected to complete this by the time they turn 18 years of age.  If this were true then this essay wouldn’t be required.

Ethics: cheating is rampant.  The fact that cheating is an ethical failure is not even considered.  The only rule is “don’t get caught”.   Even if you do get caught, your parents will keep any consequence from happening to you.  Everybody does it.  And if everybody does it, it can’t be wrong, can it?  If you’re caught cheating on a test or plagiarizing a paper in college, you are expelled.  In high school, the same behavior might result in a failing grade, but often not even that.   There are already so many failures that teachers are forced to pass students who don’t earn a passing grade.  They haven’t done the required work…but they will be passed anyway.

Should we blame the schools for not insisting that students develop discipline or ethics or morality?  Should we blame the educational establishment that exists above the level of the school or school district?  Should the departments of education insist on or even test to assure that students are achieving this?

Is anyone really to blame?

You can blame the political entities.  You can blame the school boards and the departments of education at the state and federal levels.  You can hold them responsible for the mess that they have created.   Until you, the voters and taxpayers do this, until failing schools result in the removal of school board members, nothing will change.

The solution will have to begin with a reorganization of the political system.  This is the difficult part.

Theoretically the school boards control the schools in their district.  This is not precisely correct; there are numerous state and federal entities that channel money to the districts and establish rules on what is to be taught and how the school boards can operate.  The main function of school boards is to establish a budget, set tax rates, and hire a superintendent.  They may also get involved in purchasing contracts, hiring principals and other staff, setting payrolls, establishing programs…but these are peripheral activities.

The tax function passes the blame to the electorate; they generally vote in board members who will promise to keep tax rates low.  School boards don’t insist on a quality education.  They may pay lip service to this, but they WILL insist on the district living within the budget they set.  In Rio Rancho, New Mexico, and in California, perhaps in other places, teachers are being encouraged to turn off classroom lights and function using natural light; they’re also setting thermostats lower in the classrooms and turning down the thermostats on water heaters.  They’ve already cut the quality of the lunches they serve, to the point of classifying ketchup as a vegetable rather than a condiment.   Teachers may be laid off and schools may be closed; the school week may be cut to four days.  There is no pretense that these steps increase the education provided to students.  The overriding consideration is that the schools live within their budget.  If a restrictive budget hampers the educational process, too bad; but the budget remains the driving force behind school activities.

President Obama wants to hold teachers accountable for student achievement.  He does not, however, plan on giving teachers authority to go with this responsibility.   Responsibility without authority is guaranteed to produce failure.

The political entities, from President to Governor to Legislators to judges, retain all educational authority; we, the voters, need to insure that they also are the ones who are held responsible.  If there is a teacher who is doing an unacceptable job of teaching, you can be sure that someone has the authority to remove that teacher from the classroom.  If a student is no longer benefiting from attending public school, then someone has the authority to remove that student from school, but it won’t be the teacher or administrator; if the student is disrupting class to the point that other students are also not receiving the full benefit of the educational process, then someone has the authority to expel that student.  The person with the authority must be the one that we hold responsible.  Instead, the teacher, who has no such authority, is often the one blamed.  And political figures are the first to blame someone else for failures caused by their policies.

There are currently several approaches being tried in schools in order to raise academic achievement and the test scores which measure this.  One of these segregates the best students into advanced placement classes.  These students are virtually guaranteed to pass all their mandated achievement tests; that’s how they got into AP in the first place.  You might conclude from this that all AP teachers are superb teachers (their students pass mandated achievement tests, after all), and those who teach “regular” classes are mediocre at best, because fewer of their students pass those tests.  Those “regular” classes contain the disruptive students (control of disruption, usually referred to as “discipline”, is time not spent on teaching), the special education students (federal policy, possibly federal law, requires “inclusion), and whatever is left after the better students are removed; some of these special education students are low-IQ, some are physically handicapped, others have failed two grades in the past (in Texas, such students were routinely steered into special education categories, and “placed” into the next higher grade; failing two grades was considered evidence of special needs) and some have learning difficulties, such as dyslexia.   When these students are placed in regular education classes, they take more of the teacher’s time than regular students do, and they benefit less than would regular students who aren’t getting that time from the teacher.  Only the individual needs of the special education student are considered; no one outside the classroom considers the result of this and other social engineering policies on the regular education student.   This is an example of an unfunded mandate.  If the teacher had ten or 15 students (which would require that more teachers be hired), then he/she might well be able to devote the time to the special education student that he/she needs.  When classes are 35 or more students, there is no way the teacher can help any of his students very much.  Aides might help, and teachers who teach in self-contained classrooms for special-needs children have such aides.  Aides are generally not required to have a baccalaureate degree, and they are paid less than a fully-qualified teacher.  But as a general rule, regular education teachers get special education students but they don’t get an aide to help with teaching.

Funding: It isn’t possible to treat all school districts as equal.  Some have a tax base based on agriculture, others have an oil field in the district.  Some have major industries in the districts that can help support a large tax base.  This inequality in funding means that there will be inequality in the schools.  Some schools have computers, some have pictures of keyboards for the students to learn keyboard skills on.  Eventually, the only equitable solution is some sort of federal funding.  It is important not to fund down to the poorest schools, but to fund up;  raise the poorer districts to parity.  School districts and the school boards that control them also bring religion, ethnic and cultural bias, sexism, and a host of other local issues that reduce the effectiveness of their schools.  With federal funding comes federal control…and that’s what’s going to make the reorganization difficult.  Local boards don’t want to give up control.  Consider the recurring attempts to make school an extension of religion; prayer, teaching creationism instead of evolution, just as examples.   Not only science but often social studies have to pass the local-board examination.

Reorganizing the schools: that’s actually the easiest part of the equation, although it will  require a new approach.

Decide what the school is to accomplish.  Hire a principal who can supervise teachers who will make that happen.  Provide enough staff and supplies to do the job.  Fund the school according to what the job requires, rather than provide a set level of funds and tell the school that they must do the best they can with what is provided.

Some schools may require more staff, others may be able to function with less.  Some may require more security, others again may only need a campus security guard.   Some schools may need teacher’s aides to help, while others won’t need that.  Teachers should teach, period.  Currently they are required to perform security duties, attend various meetings, any number of distractions.  They watch the hallways between classes.  They perform bus duty to make sure that the gangs don’t have a free hand to bully or spray graffiti or destroy property.  Let teachers teach, and if they can’t, get rid of them.  Smaller classes with more teacher contact are critical in the early grades; larger classes may be effective in later grades, but again, one size does not fit all.  Low-income, inner-city districts are likely to need smaller class sizes.  Give the principal the authority to make such changes as he finds necessary, and then hold him responsible for what he accomplishes.  But first, give him/her the tools to do the job.  If it costs more, pay the costs.

Students: in the end, teachers can’t really teach; they can only assist students to learn.  The final solution is to motivate students to learn.  A number of approaches might work.  See the later essay on the NO FAILURES program.

As a suggestion, no one should be able to get a driver’s license unless he is at least 16 years of age and has passed his high school competency exam (students can usually take the exam for the first time in 10th grade).  If he can’t pass the test until he’s 17 or 18 or 21, then he waits to get that driver’s license.  Driving without a license sets the process back a year for each infraction.  Absences, failures…the work must be made up on weekends.   In a word, make it easier to pass than to fail.  Make failure have real consequences; make passing have real benefits.

Schools need to be for education.  When a student can’t benefit from a standard education, remove them from the school.  Don’t make school a place for institutionalizing those who can’t benefit from education.   Establish a set of standardized criteria for remaining in school.  When a student can’t meet those requirements, channel them into other types of education: vocational education or apprenticeships, for example  (this is currently done in Germany, among other places).  Don’t require the school to warehouse “students” who demonstrate that they are not progressing in a standard classroom setting.  Inclusion is mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act, I’m told.  There are children who can’t function in a classroom setting, and it’s time to recognize that.  We recognize that there are few athletes who can function like Michael Jordan…but we refuse to see that the same is true on the cognitive level.    Continuing the analogy: could the Bulls have won national championships if they were required to include the short and the physically weak or inept on their team?  And why should we expect schools to function when we require them to perform the same sort of thing in their field, academics?  I think we should do all we can for those who are handicapped by birth or circumstances; but we should not handicap all the others who are fortunate enough to be in “regular” classes.  Raise those who need help as high as we can; but don’t lower the others to make it appear that the playing field is level.

About sports: one or more students die every year, and many more sustain serious injuries, playing sports in middle and high schools.  Imagine the outcry if a student died in class, perhaps doing a science experiment!  Add to that the amount of school time lost to sports, to practices, to leaving early to get to a game; think of the time that players don’t spend doing homework, or copy from others because they’re too tired after practice to do the work themselves, or simply because they consider sports to be more important than academics.  Sports may still have a place in school, but not the place it currently holds; it needs to be toned down until it’s done for the benefit of the student, not the school, and not the vicarious thrills that parents and coaches obtain from the efforts of the kids.  It just isn’t worth what it’s currently costing.  Put sports achievement on parity with academic achievement.

Organized sports currently teach a lesson we don’t want taught, that it’s alright to cheat, just don’t get caught.  Anything goes if it helps generate a win.  Play by the rules and lose, and you’re a loser; cheat and win, and you’re a winner.  Winning isn’t the best thing, it’s the only thing, and sports teaches you about life…we’ve all heard that.  And we’ve also seen the results, in politics, in economics, in life.  When your HMO cuts you off, despite the promises they made to get you to sign up and pay your money, hey…they’re rich, so they’re a winner.  Wonder where they learned that?  When a lawyer lies to get his client off, well…he’s a winner too.  Guess who the losers are?

When our schools don’t educate students, guess who the losers are?

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One Response to “Fixing America’s Schools: A Blueprint for Change”

  1. andreacanada Says:

    I’m particularly interested in this subject because my daughter is a teacher, and most of what you have written above is also applicable here in Canada. The one good difference here is that teachers are very well paid, and it is regarded as an esteemed position.
    l do worry about the state of our schools in the future though. The policy changes, regarding the treatment of “misbehaving” children, or those with an IEP for behavioural disorders, are inhibiting the learning of those children forced to be in the same classroom. All children here are entitled to attend public school, no matter the disorder, and while that is truly a noble goal, in practice it harms the majority. Eg. my daughter’s school has a policy whereby if “Billy” becomes violent, the entire class is disrupted and the other children removed so that Billy can calm down in the safety of that classroom, leaving 29 or so children without a lesson that day.
    l know l’ve gone off on a tangent, lol, but l think this is one of THE biggest differences between school today and that of my day. 🙂

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