The Problems in Education Today
With schools reopening for the Fall, it is time to look at the problems in education today. The topic of education has become such a controversial issue over the last couple of decades that it is difficult for many to have any kind of rational conversation about the problems and possible solutions to those problems. This impasse has only served to worsen those problems overall.
Generally speaking, we all want the same thing – better schools, better teachers, higher student achievement and more opportunities for them to succeed. The conflict comes in the different approaches for accomplishing these goals.
On the Liberal side of the political spectrum, they argue for more funding for school resources and teacher salaries, greater inclusion in mainstream classrooms for English learners and students with special needs. This then necessitates more effective differentiated learning techniques, accommodations, and modifications so that these students can be successful in the mainstream classroom.
Taken at face value, all of these are given with good intentions and with the desire to solve our problems: improving our schools by providing more resources; luring better teachers into education, rather than losing them to the higher salaries of business, industry, engineering, etc.; improving student achievement and opportunities.
It could work too, except that we don’t really have faith and trust our educators, so we have to pass laws and regulations requiring administrators and teachers to document how they are providing modifications and accommodations and what specifically they are doing for each EL and special needs student. More administrators are needed to track the mounds of paperwork and oversee the teachers, pulling much of the extra money from teachers’ salaries to increase administration. And more time is taken from the task of actually teaching to meet the demands of the growing paperwork.
Another problem too is that while it sounds great to differentiate learning to meet the needs of all of our learners, in practice, it can be quite a challenge. This can lead overwhelmed teachers into focusing more on the needs of the lower students while ignoring the needs of the rest of the learners, resulting in a gradual decrease in expectations and quality teaching. Again, as more funds are used to provide larger administrations and more resources for EL and special needs students, less funds actually make it into the mainstream classrooms. So more highly qualified potential teachers choose other higher paying fields, and perhaps understandably so.
On the Conservative side of the political spectrum, they argue that while we have continued to pour more money into education, student scores and school/teacher quality continues to decline. Compared to the rest of the world, the U.S. is no longer the leader in quality education at the elementary and secondary levels, and therefore we need to hold teachers and schools accountable.
They argue for better standardized tests to ensure that students are learning what we deem necessary for them to learn, and whether they are of low or high ability, their knowledge and skills should continue to grow. They want to see proficiency and growth data tacked over the years a student in in school. Furthermore, they want to hold teachers accountable for students’ failure to attain said proficiency and growth. And while students were often given incentives to do well on these tests in the past (scholarships for high scores or lack of high school graduation for low scores), these incentives quickly disappeared in the face of limited resources and notions of equity. The result is that only the teachers are held accountable, while students have little incentive to do their best on these assessments.
There is only so much teachers can do to encourage their students to take these tests seriously, and since teachers are effectively being punished for what their students often do not chose to do, there is little incentive for good teachers to want to remain in education.
Another Conservative plan is to encourage choice in education by allowing publicly funded charter schools or vouchers that can be used to offset private tuition. The idea here is that parents will have the option to enroll their students in better schools, which will force the poorer quality schools to improve their quality in order to bring students back, or else allow them to fail and be replaced by better choices.
This plan might actually work, except that it threatens the power of long established public school districts and teacher unions, who scream about the loss of money for education and the syphoning away of the “brighter” students and/or students with more opportunities, and leaving only the “poorer” students and/or students who don’t have the option of traveling to remain in the public system, thereby bringing them down even more.
The argument against this though is that there are charter schools that cater to at-risk students, and charters that focus on a particular area, like STEM or college-prep curriculum, but that still have large numbers of English learners, special needs students, and lower socio-economic students entitled to Title 1 services. And there are public school districts who have magnet schools which pull the “best and brightest” from across the district to advanced college-prep campuses, just like some of the charters do.
This argument then only serves to create a conflict within education that distracts us from developing new innovations or methods that might actually help to improve the quality of education and to provide more equity for all students.
As both sides of the political spectrum continue to argue and double-down on their agendas, schools, teachers, parents, and students are caught in the middle. It is becoming ever more difficult to actually provide quality teaching, because we are having to spend ever increasing amounts of time filling out paperwork to justify our teaching. We are having to take increasing amounts of time from teaching to prepare students for high-stakes (for teachers) standardized tests. More resources and funding are being siphoned off to pay for more administrators, lawyers, and other such non-teaching staff. The result is that the ranks of excellent, though often discouraged, teachers is becoming ever more reduced, as teachers chose other professions or early retirement, and the quality of education continues to suffer.
It is time to put aside our political agendas, claims to power, moral high grounds, and perceived slights, so that we can start talking rationally with each other. This is the only way that we can solve these problems. There are good ideas and valid points on both sides and only by understanding one another’s concerns and being willing to make compromises can we find the solutions that will ultimately improve education across this country. And perhaps some of our expectations may need to change too, but that is a subject for another time.
Hopefully, I will be able to get the next newsletter out sooner! Until then, may we all focus on the things that are most important, let slide the things that really don’t matter, and keep reading!