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Opinions are fun. My friends tell me I am someone with lots of opinions and that's fine since I don't get mad at others when they disagree with me. In this same spirit I am interested in hearing yours views as long as you are able to share your views without boiling over. I look forward to hearing from you. I tend to write in the form of short essays most of the time, but contributions do not need to be in this same format or size. Some of the content here will date itself pretty quickly, other content may be virtually timeless, this is for the reader to judge.

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The Challenge of Public Education                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Oct/26/2009 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: Education, Perspectives,

I have wanted to build an essay on this subject for quite a while, but I have struggled with what direction my theme would take. It has finally dawned on me that this is in itself metaphoric of the issues facing public education. There are so many different internal and external pressures being applied to education that there is no longer any possibility of a simple understanding or a simple solution.

Because I enjoy history I am going to begin on a historical footing. Much of the foundation for public education in American being available to the general population is based on writings and philosophies put forth by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson cited a direct correlation between literacy, citizenship and successful self-government. With literacy came self-government and independence. Effectively he is stating that there is a direct correlation between literacy and the ability to effectively question the actions and words of your elected leadership. Concurrently, with literacy comes the ability to make informed and intelligent choices to perpetuate democracy and self-governance. The converse is therefore that without mass education a few can rise to power manipulating the will of an under educated population. The examples of this are too many to name even in our modern era. Regardless of your social origins, Jefferson believed education to be the equalizer for all children. In the "*Rockfish Gap Report” of 1818 he stated that the Goals and objectives of elementary education should be - To give every citizen information he needs for the transaction of his own business - To enable him to calculate for himself, express and preserve his own ideas, contracts and accounts in writing. - To improve by reading, his morals and faculties. - To understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either. - To know his rights; to exercise with order and justice those he retains... (*note that the purpose Rockfish Gap Report was to justify the expense of creating the University of Virginia, never-the-less the words speak to a great truth).

I like to quote the aforementioned because it is a reminder of what the value is to having an education. More importantly, it reminds me why the United Stated began a public education system (available to all) many decades before most other countries.

On a more pragmatic note, one of the modern results of education is to create an intelligent and innovative labor pool to help keep the American economy vital. The days of large manufacturing requiring only general labor in this country have been replaced by automation and less expensive foreign labor. To be the innovators requires an education.

So what are the current challenges to public education? I am sure that no matter how extensive my list, you will think of something I missed and that is the nature of a vast and complicated problem. I am not presenting these issues in any kind of priority order, doing so would imply that fixing them in a specific order would yield a proportional change and I am not qualified to say that. I am also sure that some of what I say will offend some and that can’t be helped.

My first though is on our desire for metrics. We have this overwhelming need to figure how good or how bad we are doing. To meet these measurements we impose tests. I believe in testing. Testing helps figure out how successful your efforts have been. Testing can be used to measure what the student has learned; they can also be used to access the effectiveness of the teacher. At some point our zeal for testing has applied enough pressure to transition us unfortunately in many cases from teaching a subject to teaching to a test. Teachers are forced to cram their students' heads full of random data with little or no opportunity to illustrate the point of what they're learning. Students are seldom taught how the knowledge interrelates; they don't know what it all means. Learning stray facts can help a student pass a standardized test, but seldom add up to long term retention or complex situational understanding. While well intentioned, “No Child Left Behind” has probably attenuated this more than anyone would have anticipated. No Child Left Behind is test driven to create the metrics for allocation of its various designation and related resources. The knee jerk reaction to these tests is more test taking, more test prep, and less classroom time allocated to an integrated understanding which guides independent thought. There is only a limited amount of time in the classroom and more of it needs to be allocated to thinking and less to standardized tests. This evil cycle forces an emphasis on accumulating facts over understanding.

My next concern is teacher tenure. I bet dropping that bomb has stirred up every union teacher in the country. Don’t get me wrong, the historical purpose for tenure was to ensure senior faculty were not easily dismissed and replaced with younger and less expensive teachers is important. Most teacher union contracts with school districts already have seniority clauses built into them, but even this frustrates me. I have been in industry for many decades. I continually need to upgrade my skills to be competitive with my younger counterparts. Seniority guarantees me experience and a receding hair line. Teachers unions are one of the few professional groups in the country that offer a seniority guarantee over competitive viability, quality and skill. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of senior teaching faculties whose accumulated experience and upgraded skills bring more to the classroom than anyone recently out of college, but the choice has been taken away from the process. Senior faculty can and do experience burn out and bring this deprecated motivation to the classroom. Yet, most contracts guarantee them a position over younger and sometimes more motivated teachers. In a similar vein is the conflicting burden we place on school principals. In private industry, the president of a company or manager of a division has substantial say over their staff since the success or failure of their team directly reflects on them. In education, principals are directly associated with the success of their school despite having very little to say on who is in their faculty.

Before I venture too far into other issues, let’s talk for a moment about evaluating teachers. I have to confess that I am totally stymied about the path to take here. I don’t like to complain without also proposing a solution but it is my essay so I get to break one of my rules. As mentioned, evaluation of professional staff is something endured in virtually every sector of the economy. Teachers should not be an exception; I am just at a loss for how you do it. I know that “No Child Left Behind” emphasizes testing for everything. Here we are back at that same scary baseline. If teachers are measured by the performance of their class and classes are measured by testing performance, which means teachers are measured by the standardized testing performance of their students. See the break down here….we are virtually forcing teachers to teach to the test. This desire to pursue testing as a metric for virtually everything comes with a lot of danger. Potentially you end out only chasing your tail and therefore never actually going anywhere.

Now that I have slammed teacher tenure, let’s look at teacher salaries. In most parts of the country, an entry level teacher salary is less than 10% above the local poverty level. This is a job for which we are requiring a bachelor’s degree as a minimum standard. New college graduates will obviously have the degree, but will likely also have the complementary student loans. I see a serious conflict here. We attach a great deal of importance to being an educator of our children, yet we set the salary standards low. We want the best and brightest innovating in the classroom, but we set the salary standards low. Young people going through college have choices to make and the best and brightest have the most options available to them. Altruism is great, but if an entry level engineering position pays 20-30K more than teaching, I think the choice is obvious for most. I don’t wish to imply that we have a marginal teaching staff across the country, but if you want the best…you need to be willing to pay for the best.

Curriculum is one of my personal frustrations. Many of the text books provided to our children have been dummied down in the name of political correctness. Think about what political correctness is, it is the adjustment of ideas, policies, concepts, and behavior in order to minimize social offense to some group. While I don’t which to overtly offend anyone, science, literature and history are filled with things that offend someone either directly, through a modern reinterpretation, or as a result of some specialized view. This is my essay so I get to tell a few stories. During my senior year of high school Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was pulled from school library shelves because a group lobbied the local school board arguing that there was “implied homosexuality between Huck and Jim”. This prompted me to re-read the story and I suppose if you want to see it, it might be there….but it is a far stretch. If you were to look at all of Mark Twain’s body of work (including the wealth of limericks he wrote) this proposition seems almost preposterous. How far do we go to appease a distinct group? During school I was required to read Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” along with a number of papers that analyzed various aspects of the story. On the good side I was introduced to Heinlein’s work and eventually read virtually everything he ever wrote. At the time I was required to write an essay on the Christian symbolism in the story which closely paralleled one of the related papers we had to read. So who encourages a curriculum like this in public education? About 2 years after high school I began corresponding with Robert Heinlein for a brief period and learned that he never intended any Christian symbolism in the story. Apparently, if you see it, it is because you want to see. Does anyone consult the author? As we regularly see in the news, science and history text are continually being revised to meet current standards for political correctness. History and science are filled with “facts” that will offend someone, but that does not mean they are not true. Education needs to be about all the facts regardless of how ugly they may now appear. I spoke of Thomas Jefferson earlier. Jefferson believed in education, but technically only in a “Lockean” sense. Jefferson owned slaves and felt that only land or property owners should be educated and allowed to vote. History is not always as pretty as we like to paint it. As a parent I know that when kids are young we teach them simple facts. As they grow we repeat the facts for retention, with age we can eventually add the underlying cause-n-effect that complements the facts. Without a complete picture, history and science become overly sterilized and neutral. Learning is about learning to acquire data, synthesizing of the data, and creation of a well formed and justifiable conclusion. These skills cannot be practiced without an honest and complete picture of the situation as we know it along with all the related information.

In our modern world no subject can honestly be looked at without touching on money. I pointed out earlier how critical an educated population is to a successful democracy, yet funding education has always been left to local governments with haphazard results. In California, as with many states the primary source of school funding is from property taxes. When revenues fall class sizes grow and viable resources are reduced. I know you can’t spend what you don’t have…but education of our children is one of our single biggest investments in our future. Many school districts across the country float bond measures every couple of years just to keep school doors open. One of the more frustrating things I have seen in California is the money juggling. Revenue sources such as a lottery get voted in to “supplement” education. 5-6 years later the lottery money is no longer considered a supplement and schools end out loosing a proportional amount of funds from other previously available state resources. The odds of a child with a learning issue being overlooked obviously go up significantly when a class size is increased from 20 to 30, 35, or even 40 due to financial pressures. Additionally, these larger classes also potentially double the amount of time beyond the classroom that a teacher must spend grading student work and preparing class materials.

What about the disruptive students? We already know that teachers must spend a disproportional amount of their time dealing with difficult students at the expense of the amount of teacher attention the remainder of the class can receive. With budget cuts the ratio of difficult students to teachers goes up even more. Despite being the most motivated and skilled teachers in the world, shrinking budgets, larger classes, and dated resources can’t do anything except marginalize classroom results. I am not advocating ejecting students arbitrarily because they require too much attention. What I want clearly understood is that either because of behavior issues, learning challenges, or some other issue certain students will consume a disproportional amount of the teacher’s limited time at the expense of the other students. When you increase class sizes you ex-acerbate still further the challenge of motivated mainstream students receiving a reasonable and due amount of attention from their instructor.

Then there is the issue of home and life structure. I know there are studies to back this up…regardless, the empirical data experience about this issue are overwhelming. I have never met a teacher who couldn’t tell stories of the difference in student performance between those with a stable and supportive home life, and those without. Students with a supportive family have people who help with supervising, doing and understanding their homework. These same supportive homes ensure the student is properly nourished; coming to school rested, and ensure that the student goes home to an environment that encourages education and supervision over unsupervised behavior. Involved parents mean that when and if and issue occurs the teacher has a partner to communicate with and help the student overcome their challenges. There are too many studies to count showing the highest incidences of student failure coming from inner city communities where the students live in single parent households and lives with a greater amount of gang or community pressure to participate in errant behavior. You can’t merely turn children over to the education system and expect them to be returned polite, educated, and motivated. Public school systems are not stamping presses and students are unique enough that they do not all fit into the same mold. Teachers cannot personalize the education to suit the needs of each and every student, the personal support and adjustments need to come from involved parents.

So what have I learned? It would appear as though the reasons why public education is important are simple and straight forward. On the other side, the challenges facing public education are many and complex. More importantly, many of these issues are so intertwined that no one item can be addressed without an impact on the others. I am doubtful that resolving any one issue by itself causes an immediate and/or measurable change in education. Testing is a necessary evil to access performance, but finding the balance to avoid “teaching to the test” may prove to be an elusive target. Tenure and union contracts protect faculty from abuse and ensure stability and security. Conversely, union contracts often ignore current market models for pursuing the new and innovative practitioners of their craft. While many education standards come from a national level, all funding is locally driven and therefore subject to the whimsy and cyclic pressures of local economies and revenue sources. The sterilization of educational text, curriculum, and other content in favor of political correctness avoids truth, ugly truth and a complete understanding. Disruptive and challenge oriented students continue to consume a disproportional amount of a teachers energies and attention at the expense of the rest of the class…kind of an “if you are normal you lose”. Social-economic pressures and dysfunctional families will continue to inject students into public education without a reasonable or for that matter, viable support system at home.

Our education system is similar to an old house, leaky roof, drafty windows, poor plumbing. Even if we fix everything, there will be something else that needs attention after a little while. Houses are in a continual state of decay and require ongoing maintenance and upgrades to remain viable and useful. Similar to that house, education is facing many challenges, none are easy to fix. Even if all were fixed, there would still be a new series of challenges requiring energy, innovation and money. We cannot continue to ignore our public education system without long term social and economic repercussions. The educational agenda needs to rise from the rhetoric of political speeches to real focus and action from local, state and national politicians and resources.

I guess the most amazing thing to note is the remarkable amount of success and accomplishment our public education system does achieve under these current and substantial burdens.

Comments (3)                                                                                                                                                    [Add Comment]


You hit it right on. We should teaching how to learn and not tests.
Good job.

Posted at: Oct/26/2009 : Posted by: Gay Farace-Mann


Hello Mel,
You have written a very comprehensive essay about public education and I have to agree with all the main points and agree these are the important ones. I would like to comment on testing. I also agree that students need to be held accountable. I am a supporter of stuffssment; however, we are over testing and the quality of the tests is a piece of the problem. If the testing were to include more analytical and reasoning skills, the substance of teacher lessons would improve. Of course, this is a dificult challenge. We are using the best that is available. I disagree that test results stuffss the quality of the teacher - there are too many variables uncontrolled for this simple cause and effect statement. Rather I believe the test results can evaluate programs or curriculum that is used consistently , not instructional strategies of a specific teacher. This is the crux of the discussions about merit pay for teachers. everyone agrees that great teachers should be paid more, but how is that to be evaluated? A tough call. I think the best piece of your essay is the discussion on low salaries for teachers - you are right on target. It is foolish to expect professionals to do more with less. It doesn't work that way in any other profession.
Thanks for your insights.

Posted at: Oct/28/2009 : Posted by: Cyndi



Too much to comment on it all! Teaching to the test is ameliorated by using tests that require reasoning rather than multiple choice tests. Too often multiple choice is required because it can be easily and quickly graded (as frequently required by administrators), and is theoretically less subjective.

Merit pay doesn't work perfectly in private industry. Frequently good performers aren't recognized as much as they should be by their employer, but in non-unionized private industry there is always the opportunity to get paid what you're worth by moving to another company. Also teachers must go beyond a BA to get their credentials. Unfortunately teacher credentialing programs have evolved into mostly a mind-numbing waste of time. Maybe 10% of the certification is actually useful, and the rest is worse than a waste of time.

As for Huck Finn, these days it's more likely to be banned because it's deemed racist--as if documenting historically accurate race relations is itself racist!

Posted at: Oct/30/2009 : Posted by: Frank Hood

Geoffrey F. Albert
The most important thing about having goals is having one.
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