I have heard it argued quite often that public education should be left to the states. Well, I just do not buy into the argument that the federal government should not be in charge of education. Sure “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) is as worthless a piece of legislation that ever was, but its failure does not prove that the federal government shouldn’t have a say in education expectations.
Are there problems with our education system? Yes, but those problems result more from a lack of uniformity from state to state, low expectations, restricted teacher creativity and lack of respect shown for the profession, and insufficient funding than they do anything else. The federal government, save NCLB, actually takes a very hands off approach, especially in comparison to countries that are out performing us, and always has, to education; leaving it mostly to the discretion of individual states, which, in turn, leave much of the decision making to each district. We have taken this approach for over a century, and it is not helping us. It is time to ditch the antiquated thought process, throw out NCLB, and start seriously examining and reforming our education system. The system is not unrepairable and it has, in many regards, served as rather well; for this reason, and the fact that education is the single best means by which to break the cycle of poverty amongst the poor and by which America can remain competitive, we need to reform it. The New Yorker has a good article on this point (1).
Firstly, we need uniformity; I speak from personal experience here. As anyone who has ever moved from one state to another, or several others, or from school district to school district will to tell you, there is no uniformity in our education system, much to its detriment. The quality of education a person receives in one state, or even district, may be better or worse than in another (2). Also, what and when one learns something differs too. Giving states all of the freedom to decide what can and cannot be taught is doing far more damage to the nation’s ability to compete in the global economy. We are falling behind in Science, Math, Reading. Why? Because we allow state school boards, which rarely, if ever, have actual educators on them, to dictate curriculum based upon personal ideology rather than information and fact. This is having a very negative outcome for American education; for instance, America currently ranks 29th, out of 57 countries studied, in Science (3).
Secondly, the argument made by H.L. Menken, that public education is about mediocrity and complacency rather than spreading enlightenment, is true, but only depending upon the state or school district being observed (4). I, for one, received a stellar education in a number of the public schools I have attended; but received a questionable one in others. For example, in Texas, I was taught more about Texas state history than US history; and, according to one school, all of the founding fathers were Christians. I was also taught that evolution has yet to proven; therefore, intelligent design is just as likely true. However, Texas also taught long division a full year ahead of when I would have learned it in my previous state, which meant that I was behind the other students and was required to attend summer school in order to catch-up.
Before middle-school, we moved to another state, and in the school that I attended for middle-school we did some pretty advanced scientific experiments; one of which was to create an artificial environment for plant life to determine how air quality effects plant growth. In my high-school English class we read “Catcher in the Rye,” “1984,” and “Brave New World,” and had to write papers about the potential socio-political implications, if any, these books have on our lives today. We were asked not only what we thought the authors were trying to convey in their own times; but what, if anything, we could learn about our own time. For the most part, I loved public school. I wouldn’t be where I am today, I would not know what I do, without it. I was encouraged to be creative, for the most part; sure, I had some experiences in a few schools in which teachers tried to stifle my creativity, but they were the exception, not the rule. If I had to make list of the top ten most influential people in my life, I am certain that at least half of them would be teachers I had in public school (see point #1 below for more on this).
Thirdly, and this is the real nail in the coffin to the claim that federal government is bad for education, before federal involvement, America was falling behind. During the 19th and first half of the 20th century most schools in the US did not teach science, this was mostly ideologically driven by people who saw the “new sciences” (e.g. evolution, geology) as undermining God’s word, as well as by misguided people who believed students would not be able to grasp the complexities of science and math. And, despite some out-cry from the scientific community, the federal government did nothing about it. Then, something happened that scared America into rethinking its stance on science, Sputnik. Following the launching of Sputnik, the federal government recognized the importance of a scientific education and began funding science programs nationwide and introduced education regulatory agencies. This involvement by the federal government took America from being at the tail-end of progress to being the ultimate destination for scientific inquiry and ingenuity; it was not until the 1980s, as federal involvement in education began to fall out of favor, that America began to fall behind again (5).
Public school and federal involvement are not the problem. The problem is how we approach the system and our attitude toward it. The “keep government out of it” point of view is actually what is destroying the quality of our education. When you compare the quality of education students in the US receive, at all grade levels, to other nations, we are failing. And what do many of these other countries have in common?
1) A unified national education standard (6). By this I do not mean standardization in the mediocre sense, which is what we already have with NCLB, but a Core Curriculum as determined by educators and developmental psychologists, rather than by non-professionals and bureaucrats. We should have a national expectation and requirement for science, math, history, reading, English, etc. And these requirements should be determined by those actually trained in those fields. Furthermore, the teacher teaching math should actually have a degree in math. Too often in this country, school districts, usually for lack of funds, will hire an English teacher or a history teacher to teach math or science, or vice versa, because they’re desperate to have someone in the classroom; furthermore, we offer very little in the way of teacher training and support to ensure that they will perform well and stick with teaching (7).
2) They actually respect educators and value education (8). In this country we act as if teachers are more or less worthless; “those who can’t do, teach,” is a common phrase here in America. We’re more likely to revere the banker, the CEO, the athlete, the pop star, or the soldier over the people who dedicate their lives to teaching us to read, write, do math, and find New Jersey on a map. For this reason, it seems to me, we funnel more money every year into the DOD and subsidies for corporations than we do our education system (9). Whenever there’s a financial down-turn and cuts need to be made, what does each state and the federal government choose to cut first? Education (10). Plus, there is no oversight as to how the funding is spent. For example, in many cases superintendents earn as much as $200,000 a year (or more); and college presidents are earning as much as $400,000 (11). Meanwhile, public schools can’t afford new books or computers, and college tuition is rising in cost each year (12).
Yes, there is quite a bit wrong with our public school system. However, throwing in the towel and/or demanding even less involvement from the federal government will do us no good. What we need to is take a step back, look at the larger picture, and then re-approach it from various angles. We need bring in educators, scientists, historians, mathematicians, and developmental psychologists –you know, people who actually know a thing or two about teaching and who actually know something about the subjects being taught and how the human brain develops– and get them involved in creating an educational standard that is not only uniformed nationwide, but that focuses on the learning abilities of children and encourages scholarly study, critical thinking, and creativity.
Citations and articles of interest:
(4) “The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all: it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed a standard citizenry, to put down dissent and originality.” — H.L. Menckenhttp://thinkexist.com/quotation/the_aim_of_public_education_is_not_to_spread/181127.html
(9) There are some links and citations for this in a previous post:
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