Education: Public Institutions, Human Interaction

Originally posted on Open Salon on December 29, 2010:

There is no soft way to put it: public education today is under fire, and the top concerns are funds and accountability.  Each year hundreds of billions of dollars are spent on educating our nation’s children, and test results show that many students are not receiving an education that most reasonable people would deem adequate.  Following from this, our public schools operate under an enormous burden of scrutiny that is at least in part justified.  As consequences are imposed on schools where students fail to test on an adequate level, it makes us feel good to know that something is being done to improve our schools.  After all, say many critics, schools—like businesses—should be held accountable based on measurable outcomes.  This sounds rational enough, and yet the process becomes problematic as educators and policymakers struggle to fit the square and abstract peg of a meaningful education into the round hole of concrete and quantifiable results.

Perhaps, then, it may help to step back and look at the larger picture.  Sadly, much of the blame for substandard education in our country is unfairly projected onto hard-working educators—teachers and administrators alike.  If students do not appear to be learning and are not scoring well on standardized assessments, it would appear that the professionals working in our schools are most directly responsible.  Public anger, exacerbated by our economic difficulties these past few years, has diminished our faith in our schools.  In truth, however, many of public education’s difficulties—and much of its salvation—originate outside its once-hallowed halls.

Contrary to what many people think, the minds of today’s young people are fertile ground for thought and synthesis.  Even the most unmotivated students possess a remarkable ability to learn.  We see this in their mastery of complex video game strategies, their analysis of television show and movie plots, and their nuanced appreciation for popular music.  Perhaps most impressive is the facility with which our youngest generation has integrated technology into their lives.  The increasingly common assertion that kids today do not care about learning is simplistic and mistaken.

Why, then, does the United States lag behind much of the industrialized world when it comes to education?  The answer is cultural.  Students make it a point to learn things that are important to them.  Education in the primary grades is assisted somewhat by a common tendency on the part of children to want to please parents and teachers.  What is important to younger children is largely determined by the adults in their lives.  During adolescence, however, students’ priorities change precipitously, as peers and our mass-media culture exert a more powerful influence.  The most motivated and successful students on the secondary level tend to have close family and community influences to counteract those of our popular culture, which is often skeptical of—and sometimes hostile toward—institutionalized, traditional education.

Not all secondary-level students, however, have that balancing influence at home or in their neighborhoods, and some who do simply do not respond to it.  We cannot blame many teenagers today for being more interested in iPods, X-Boxes, and Facebook than they are in education for education’s sake.  School competes with far flashier things for the attention of the majority of today’s teens.

So in the midst of all of the concerns, we may see various components of a meaningful remedy.  The challenge becomes bringing those components together in such a way as to solve the problems that currently plague our system of public education.

This blog’s most important contribution will come not necessarily in the form of answers to our burning questions about public education.  Instead, the priority should be on asking more meaningful questions and shaping a nuanced and enlightened discourse.  Below appear a few questions valid questions posed by critics of public education.  Upcoming entries on this blog will address these squarely.  Others may arise in the course of discussion.

  • Why do we spend more taxpayer dollars than ever before on education, when our children seem to be learning less?
  • Why do private schools appear to educate children more effectively for fewer dollars per pupil?
  • Why do schools cost so much to build, and why not upgrade school facilities instead of tearing them down and starting again?
  • Why not get rid of teacher tenure—and with it, bad teachers?
  • Why is there so much ADHD nowadays?  There were not as many learning disabilities 50 years ago.
  • What do teachers’ unions do besides protect bad teachers and squeeze taxpayer dollars out of cash-strapped school districts?
  • Why not pay teachers based on students’ performance on standardized tests?

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