Americas education system perpetuates the gap between rich and poor?
America is rich.? Why is American education so poor
Conservatives will almost unequivocally blame the government-run school districts and their thick layers of bureaucracy, and there is something to be said for that: there is a great deal of bureaucracy in public education, and many people holding very highly-paid jobs who do very little, if not tell other people how to do their jobs (such as teachers) when they themselves have never actually done those jobs and know next to nothing about the practical realities of those jobs.? Granted.? There is plenty of room for reform there, and plenty of those jobs could be eliminated, or at the very least occupied by individuals with real, recent, hands-on experience in…well, educating.? Next, conservatives will point their finger at teachers unions, claiming that union demands make it impossible to balance budgets, hire the best teachers and fire ineffective ones.? I have more than once written in favor of overhauling (or overthrowing entirely) the seniority system supported by teachers unions, because I do feel that very often that system allows incompetent individuals to remain in their positions, earning increasingly substantial salaries, long after it is clear that they are ineffective.? However, despite this disagreement with the unions stance on this particular policy, as well as a few others, I shudder to think of a de-unionized school district.? Every raise we have been given–even cost-of-living increases–have been hard-fought by the union, and just this past year the union spent months fighting to keep the district from passing the ballooning cost of health insurance premiums onto the backs of employees.? As it is, teachers salaries are so low and increase so slowly as to be prohibitive to many would-be teachers, particularly in areas with high costs of living such as South Florida.? Without the advocacy of unions, districts would likely find themselves with even fewer qualified candidates and even higher turnover rates.? While many of the unions positions should be examined and revamped, most teachers would agree that de-unionization would result in worse conditions for public school employees, which would ultimately wound even further education for our children.
In fact, the conservative “solution” to the problems in public education seems to be, more often than not, privatization (despite the fact that none of the nations with top-performing education systems rely on a model of privately owned or managed schools).? Their faith in the ability of the so-called “free market” to improve everything seems to know no bounds.? But it is an oft-seen brand of privatization that is not self-sufficient.? After all, the very point of capitalism is that the government is not supposed to interfere: once these private organizations rely on tax dollars for survival, and in the case of schools need the government funding to exist in the first place, we are no longer really talking about true capitalism at all–just about politicians favoring the private sector over the public sector, favoring profits over public service.? And indeed, any politician who espoused the privatization of education in the truest sense of the word would never gain any significant support among voters, because that would be reverting to a (fortunately) long-outdated, feudalistic system where only the monied classes would be able to educate their children, while the children of those without sufficient incomes to pay for their education would…do what? Go to work in factories? Obviously in the twenty-first century there can be no question of returning to any such system, so conservative politicians push for the next-best thing they can reasonably find support for: private school vouchers and charter schools.
If politicians feel there is a crisis in American education–an idea that is in itself debatable, as the quality of public education in the US has remained relatively stable since the 1970s, though the improvement since then of education in other developed and industrialized countries showcases the mediocrity of our own system–one might hope they would look to countries with excellent education systems for ideas.? Finland was credited in 2004 by OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) with the best education system in the world, with its students edging out Hong Kongs by a thin margin in math.? Finlands education minister credited their enormous economic investment in education as the primary factor, along with parental support and involvement, having small, local schools where students stay from ages 7 to 16 before entering into an academic upper secondary school or a vocational upper secondary school, with very few students dropping out, and places in higher education for 65% of students (universities and most materials are free in Finland), and hiring and retaining highly qualified teachers at all levels of the system.? Surprisingly, Finnish students spend the least amount of time in school of all the European nations.? Though Finland is an entirely different country with a very different culture from our own, perhaps we might learn some valuable lessons about education from them, or from other high-performing education systems throughout the world, which we could then adapt to our own economy, culture and established system.? As I previously reported, community schools throughout the US are experiencing great levels of success in many areas, from improving achievement to lowering dropout rates and increasing parental involvement.? If none of the top-performing education systems in the world are based on private schools receiving taxpayer funding, what on earth makes us believe that this is a viable solution for the problems plaguing education in America today
Charter schools are the #1 pet project in education for conservatives.? They are packaged and sold to the public as offering choice to parents, and promoting competition with public schools so that, in turn, public schools will be forced to improve in order to stay “in business.”? Tax dollars marked for public education are then diverted to private organizations holding a charter with the state.? Though most states require those organizations to be nonprofit, there are some, like Imagine Schools, who turn a significant profit through shady real estate deals through the real estate arm of their business.? Furthermore–and perhaps more importantly–so far there is no conclusive evidence to support that charter schools are any more successful at improving student achievement and/or closing the achievement gap than traditional public schools.? And in the state of Florida, according to the CREDO report linked here and above, charter schools actually fared worse overall than traditional public schools, as is the case in other states where there are multiple charter-authorizing agencies, effectively making it easier for private managers to get charters to run publicly-funded schools.? Some charter schools have enjoyed high marks on state report cards; others have repeatedly received Fs.? A major national report released in July shows charter students nationwide trailing their counterparts in traditional public schools, and the trend is even more marked in Florida, which ranked among the six states with the least effective charter schools.? While there are some notable exceptions–just as there are notable exceptions among traditional public schools–the success of charter schools tends to mirror that of public schools…along socioeconomic lines.? Charter schools that primarily serve more advantaged social classes are more successful than those primarily serving low-income populations…just as in traditional public schools.
Conservative politicians claim that this “competition” from charter schools will serve to improve (not undermine) traditional public schools.? However, evidence does not support this claim.? For one thing, charter schools, though they receive the same public funds as traditional public schools, are not bound by the same rules–therefore, whatever “competition” there may be, is not fair competition.? For example, though charter school students do have to pass the same standardized tests as students in traditional public schools (in Florida, the FCAT), and they do have to follow the same admissions standards (i.e., they are not allowed to “pick and choose” their students), they do not have to play by the same rules when it comes to expelling students.? I was told by a friend who teaches in a nonprofit charter school in Miami that his school is quick to expel students; since it is considered a “school of choice,” they have the right to “get rid of” students who are causing problems, even when those problems would not be sufficient to get a child expelled from a regular public school.? This ease of expulsion can be used to improve school discipline and safety–an advantage public schools do not have, as they are bound to accept and educate all students until there is a proven safety risk that usually requires some sort of drastic action having already happened, such as a student bringing a gun to school or making a serious bomb threat.? There is also potential for abuse there.
In some ways, the “competition” charter school proponents laud actually favors public schools–especially when it comes to hiring and retaining qualified teachers.? Since charter schools are not bound by union contracts, they are free to set their own salaries and offer their own benefits.? In times where there are plentiful openings in schools, they will generally be forced to keep their salaries comparable to those in unionized public schools if they wish to attract qualified teachers; in times such as now, where school districts are laying off rather than hiring, they may find themselves at an advantage, able to hire new teachers or laid-off teachers with lower salaries than they would get in public schools.? However, if they do not maintain salaries similar to or better than negotiated union salaries, they will find themselves losing many teachers once the economy revives and positions start opening back up within public school districts.? My friend teaching in a charter school says that, while he likes certain things about his school, he would return to a public school if he had the opportunity.? He doubtlessly will have that opportunity at some point in the coming years.? Most teachers–even good ones who are confident in their abilities–will prefer to work in schools where their salaries and benefits are negotiated by the union, and where they enjoy greater job security, unless the salaries and benefits being offered by the charter schools are significantly better than those offered by public schools.? While this is sometimes the case, it usually is not–especially when the charter schools are spending up to 40% of their annual budget on rent, lining the pockets of the for-profit wing of the charter management company.Countries with very successful education systems do not lose many students to private or religious schools, or home-schooling.? And while it may appear to be an effect of the high quality of public education, one might do well to consider how it could also be a cause. ? It is no great secret that socioeconomic status and the education level of the parents (which are almost always directly linked) are a great predictor of childrens academic achievement.? These children benefit from concerned, well-educated parents, for whom education is a priority, who have access to the resources needed to encourage children to succeed from a young age, and who tend to be more involved in their childrens schools (a luxury that households with a single parent often working more than one job or a great deal of overtime, or even two-parent households where both parents work full-time or more, can often not afford, even if they do put great priority on education for their children, as they often do).? In the US, parents living in urban areas are far more likely to send their children to a private or religious school, or to homeschool them, to keep them out of “bad” public schools.? Do they realize that this is a large part of what makes those schools “bad”? When students who have the huge advantage of academic support at home, concerned, well-educated parents who prioritize education are concentrated in private schools, leaving the urban schools filled with almost 100% low-income students who did not, and do not, enjoy the benefits of having wealthier, better-educated parents, it is no wonder the schools suffer.? Research shows that middle-class to upper-class students generally achieve the same academic outcomes regardless of where they go to school (because so much of education starts in and continues in the home), but that low-income students benefit dramatically from having higher-income students in their schools.? For me, this is confirmed by empirical evidence.? Of my friends who attended private or religious schools for all or part of their K-12 years, none ultimately attended a better college than me (most of them ended up in state universities), and most of them are teaching alongside me in a public school today, earning the same salary as I am.? I think it is safe to say that they benefited less from attending a private school than their home public schools were harmed by them (and those like them) going to private schools.? (Not to mention their parents could have saved a great deal of money that could have been used for college, living expenses, a new car, charity…)
And more often than not, when middle-class parents cannot afford (or do not want to afford) pricey private schools for their children, they opt to live in the suburbs rather than in the city, assuming that in choosing a suburban school they are somehow improving their childrens chances of success.? Whether they consciously admit their prejudices or not, they somehow envision their children inevitably turning into ignorant, soulless thugs if they send them to an urban school.
The end result of these attitudes among middle-class and upper-middle-class parents is exactly what we have today: a mediocre, but stable, public school system in suburban and middle-class areas, almost all white, and failing inner-city schools, almost all minority and low-income.? There are many schools in urban areas throughout the nation that are close to 100% black.? These children are told (as are the nearly 100% white student populations in more affluent schools) that the civil rights movement ended segregation and won minorities equal rights and opportunities.? But how are they to believe that there is anything resembling equality, when it is glaringly obvious that white parents living in the wealthier parts of the city do not want to send their children to schools with large minority populations, to the point that they will spend tens of thousands of dollars to send their children to private schools (often with mediocre academics) or move out of the city to avoid it?
The system, as it works presently, merely perpetuates the racial and socioeconomic status quo of American society.? White, middle- and upper-middle-class parents segregate their children from minority, low-income children.? The low-income children in the urban schools, with few advocates, feel societys indifference toward them and suffer from societys low expectations of them.? Meanwhile, the children in suburban public schools and in private and religious schools, are raised with a sense of superiority and entitlement, even when it is not explicitly conferred upon them by their families, and meanwhile benefit from their families, teachers and societys higher expectations of them.? It is a self-fulfilling prophecy…or a vicious circle.?
The fundamental issue underlying the problems in American education and the achievement gap is not a “lack of competition.”? It is not the fact that the government runs education and that, therefore, it must not work.? (The military, the police and the department of corrections–favorites of the conservatives–are all government-run operations.? The idea that “the government cant do anything right” is preposterous.? As citizens, we must remember that we are the government.? We elect our government officials.? If we feel they are not doing their jobs right or working in the public interest, it is our responsibility to vote them out, and vote in better options, or create better options if none exist.? We are extremely limited by the two-party system.? Popular interest and activism could lead to a greater variety of choices in elections, and effectively, better representation of the people and their interests.)? The fundamental issue underlying the problems in American education is that the gap between the rich and the poor is huge, and continues to grow.? Until our attitude changes, and middle-class white parents are willing to send their children to school alongside low-income and minority children, and we are willing to stop segregating ourselves by neighborhood and school zone, these problems will persist, no matter how many good teachers and good materials are put into urban public schools.
Funneling taxpayer-funded profits into the hands of private charter management companies will not fill the gap between the rich and the poor.? Charter schools with high concentrations of low-income and minority students fail at the same rates, and sometimes at higher rates, as in traditional public schools.? Offering private school vouchers for low-income students may benefit those recipients, but they simultaneously divert tax dollars away from the schools that need them the most, and leave huge populations of vulnerable low-income and minority students in failing, crumbling schools.? If we were to provide full vouchers to all the students at those failing schools, the influx of poor, minority students at those private and religious schools would undoubtedly alarm and instigate the wealthy white parents who were paying such a hefty price to ensure their children would not have to go to school with “those kids.”? Furthermore, the private schools could not handle such a large influx–one of their primary (indeed, only) advantages over public schools is their small size and small class sizes.? This is all without even mentioning the obvious diversion of tax dollars to institutions that are not bound by the same regulations, standards and oversight as public schools, and the constitutional violation of giving tax dollars to religious institutions in the case of vouchers for religious schools.? Thus, charter schools and private school vouchers are not a large-scale solution to the problems ailing public schools, and as long as the social problems continue to exist and schools remain effectively segregated, there will be a limit to the amount of improvement inner-city schools will make.
A concerted effort, such as community schools, can do wonders.? Increasing the number of magnet schools within school districts, and allowing for more mobility within school districts, in conjunction with combining city and county school districts so that moving to the suburbs is not an option for imposing de facto segregation, has proven effective where it has been tried.?
Another idea that is not talked about often is toughening up on private schools and homeschooling.? There is a prevalent notion that parents should have the right to choose what and how their children learn, meaning that many parents, particularly those who are very religious, choose to send their children to religious schools or even to homeschool them.? Very often, their motivation is not a sincere belief that the quality of the education will be superior, but to shield the children from “secular” ideas, and even science: they want their children to learn creationism (and creationism only), that the world is only a few thousand years old, that dinosaurs and human beings coexisted, and they want to protect their children from the “dangerous” theories of evolution and climate change, among others.? These are theories in the scientific sense of the word, meaning supported by enormous amounts of facts, research and evidence, but these parents want their children to learn that these are hoaxes, and that the Bible is the only reliable source of information.? Any self-respecting public school district would fire a science teacher who taught creationism and Biblical literalism as “science,” because we understand what science is and what it is not, and science is not religion.? Science relies on evidence, research and experimentation to prove its theories; religion, by its very definition, defies proof and demands faith.? If we hold science to be important–which in todays world, we have little choice if we want to maintain our status as a superpower–we want to make sure all children are learning science.? So why are children from religious families exempt? They are too young to draw their own conclusions about the legitimacy of religious concepts; if they are not being properly exposed to scientific knowledge and theories, they are at a huge disadvantage, and consequently, by allowing this to happen every day, we are failing our children.
Just about anyone can open a school and teach whatever they like, and children attending that school are not considered truant.? Likewise, parents can opt to homeschool and teach their children anything they like (or not teach them at all), and there is almost no oversight; the children are considered to be “learning.”? Private schools should be held to the same standards as public schools, including religious schools, and including science standards.? (I personally believe that there should be no religious schools for K-12 in the US, as it amounts to indoctrination since children, particularly those who have not been exposed to other viewpoints, are vulnerable and do not have the information or the thinking skills to make their own decisions about what to believe or not believe when it comes to religion.? However, I understand that in a country as virulently religious as the US this would be too radical an idea to ever be embraced by public officials or anyone truly hoping for public office.)? If they do not meet these standards, they should be officially discredited, and consequently their students should be considered truant (not getting a proper education) and their “diplomas” should not qualify their students for acceptance to state or private accredited universities and colleges.? There is no reason why we should hold private or religious schools to lower or different standards from public schools, and if we agree that all children are entitled to and, in fact, must have an education, then it is up to us to ensure that all children are being properly educated–even if their parents do not want it.? There is plenty of time for indoctrination at home outside of school hours; children deserve to at least be exposed to facts, knowledge and alternative viewpoints at school, so that eventually they can make their own decisions and have the capacity to think for themselves and compete.? Likewise, homeschooling should only be permitted when the children are being taught by certified teachers competent in the subject areas being taught, and when they meet the same standards as public school students as indicated by the same standardized tests public school students submit to.
By holding private and religious schools, and homeschoolers, to the same standards as public schools, part of the incentive for many parents to place their students in those schools (or teach them at home) would dissolve.? Combined with strong magnet programs and increased mobility within joined city-county school districts, establishment of more community schools, and improved structure for hiring and retaining qualified teachers (including salary incentives) and for firing ineffective teachers, we might have a chance at saving education in America, and even at starting to chip away at the disparities between socioeconomic and racial groups.? But it requires a major shift in the attitudes of the American middle class.? A paradoxically taxpayer-funded “capitalist” privatization of schools, or increased siphoning of taxpayer dollars away from public schools toward vouchers for private and religious schools, will not save our children.
But with the right change in attitude, we can.
Americas education system perpetuates the gap between rich and poor?