The current focus on public school improvement is flawed. Politicians, the public, and even some educators are caught up in a oversimplified mindset that lumps all public schools into one huge cesspool of incompetence. It is dangerous to generalize anything, and public schools are no different. It is not public schools in general we need to fix, but what is happening within each individual public school that needs our attention. Many public schools are doing an excellent job educating children, but unfortunately, they are being dragged down the rabbit hole with those that are doing a poor job.
To say all public schools are bad and in need of improvement is a generalization that is simply not true. According to education researcher John Hattie, the single biggest variance between a good school and a bad school is the quality of the teacher in the classroom. Dismantling public schools in favor of charter schools and creating an open-door policy for parents to send their child to the school of their choice will not resolve inconsistent quality issues in the classroom. Due to the human element, classroom quality issues are as likely to show up in charter schools as they are in public schools. It is not a public school or charter school that makes the difference in a child’s education. As Hattie points out, it is the quality of what transpires in the classroom that makes a difference. Simply being hired by a charter school will not make a person a better teacher. Enrolling a child in a charter school is not a guarantee of academic success or teacher competence in the classroom. With the future of public schools in jeopardy and a shrinking teacher pool, it stands to reason today’s public school teachers will be tomorrow’s charter and private school teachers, so unless we resolve the quality issue we are doing little more than transferring the problem from one school to another. Proponents of charters will argue charter schools will only hire the best teachers and cull the weaker ones. They may try, but I am afraid they may find as the public schools have found, there are not a lot of master teachers walking around looking for a job. Pile that problem on top of current hiring practices in many charter schools such as hiring unlicensed and inexperienced teachers and you have a recipe for disaster waiting in the wings. Unless, charter schools can find the magic teacher formula that has eluded public schools, their savior status will quickly fade. Unfortunately, at that point, we will have to sleep in the bed we have made due to a misplaced focus.
Some will say I am putting the blame on teachers, and yes, I am, but there is enough blame to go around for everyone including school administrators, school boards, politicians, parents, the public, and the students. Everyone must share in the blame when students do not learn, but in rank order, teachers, students, parents, and school administrators are the most responsible. Sorry, educators, but that is the bottom line truth in a nutshell. Sorry, parents and politicians, but charter schools and private schools will not resolve the issue, especially since those schools have the same problem of finding quality teachers as the public schools. At least, public schools have minimum standards teachers must meet to teach while most charters and privates schools can and often do hire almost anyone off the street. Therefore, being called a charter school does not make a school better. Regardless of what politicians say, and many parents believe, parent choice is nothing more than a distraction that takes away from the real education focus needed to fix schools and ensure students learn. For any school to be successful – public, charter, or private – the focus must be on quality, attitudes, and commitment. Promoting dismantling public schools shows a lack of commitment in any of these areas, and that lack of commitment has escalated over the past 16 years mainly for one reason – fear.
Since 9/11/2001, America has been at the mercy of fear. Fear is the root of our current state of dysfunction in all areas of our lives including education. We are currently in a state of dysfunction that is more dangerous than maybe anything this country has ever faced; we fear terrorists, we fear immigrants, we fear the Republicans, we fear the Democrats, we fear conservatives, we fear liberals, we fear any belief outside our own, and we fear and mistrust the color of a man’s skin. This is not the first time in our history we have been in such a state of distress, but it is one of the few times in our history we have allowed fear to rule our lives and distract our focus. In the 1960s, we feared thermonuclear warfare with the Soviet Union, but instead of allowing that fear to distract us, we used it to sharpen our focus. Out of that fear, we put a man on the moon, built a national highway system second to none in the world, put greater focus on math and science in our public schools, and created the Internet as part of national defense. Fear created a constructive response rather than the unconstructive response we are seeing today. Since 2001, we have used fear as an excuse to fight two wars against terrorism with little to show for the loss of blood of the brave men and women who served our country, used fear to turn our political system and nation upside down, used fear to turn citizen against citizen, used fear to isolate ourselves from the world, and used fear to create a dysfunctional education dialogue that threatens to destroy an institution that helped make America great – our public school system. In the 1960s, we turned fear into productive action while today we have allowed fear to drag us into uncooperative thinking and inaction.
Over the last 16 years, fear has ruled our lives and governed how we respond to events and issues. Our answer to just about everything today is to lash out negatively, cast blame, and think in short term solutions. The current dysfunctional focus on public schools is an excellent example. In the 1960s, when we were caught up in an arms race with the Soviet Union, we did not scrap our education system or try to improve it with our heads in the sand. Of course, back then, there was an “us versus them” mentality in America and not the present “us versus us” mentality. Today, there is a political venom flowing through the veins of our country that no amount of antidote is likely to cure. We are trapped in pockets of group think where outside views are considered a threat and too often solutions are reactions to distractions rather than the real issues. Charter schools and vouchers are prime examples of such distractions. These vehicles of parent choice distract from issues such as teacher quality and child poverty. Such distractions can easily be seen in the education cuts proposed by President Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy Devos in their 2018 education budget. Instead of cutting vital education programs that support millions of public school children across the nation, they could have easily used a portion of the $21 trillion saved by dropping out of the Paris Climate Accord to fund their pet charter school and voucher projects, yet they chose to cut public education by over 9 billion dollars or roughly 14 percent. Why? Could it be they understand the best time to push a personal agenda is during times of fear?
Any budget is a statement of values, and the Trump/Devos education budget is no exception. Anyone who looks closely at the suggested budget cuts and to the areas the cuts are redirected can see the ultimate goal is to dismantle public education in favor of parent choice options. If passed, the Trump/Devos budget will cut the United States Department of Education funding by $9 billion and redirect $1.4 billion of that money to school choice. The cuts will eliminate at least 22 programs including $1.2 billion for after school programs which will have a negative impact on 1.6 million, primarily poor, children; $2.1 billion for teacher training which is a vital component for developing quality classroom teachers in both charter and public schools; $27 million for arts education; $72 million dollars for international and foreign language programs; and $12 million dollars for Special Olympics programs.
President Trump and Betsy Devos say the federal government does not need to be involved in these programs. According to them, the programs being cut can be more effectively handled and funded at the state and local level. Maybe, they can be handled more effectively at the state level, but how can a poor state such as Mississippi fund these programs when it cannot afford to adequately fund the state public school programs it has? Mississippi can’t, so where does that leave after school programs, arts education, foreign language programs, and the Special Olympics in the state? It means either the citizens of Mississippi will pay higher taxes to foot the bill, or those programs will be discontinued. Likely, the programs will be dropped or phased out.
Most people in Mississippi will feel some concern for losing after school programs, arts education, and especially the Special Olympics, but in a state where so many believe English is the only language needed in America, the loss of foreign language will barely be given a passing thought. That is a shame. I have a PhD, but by global standards I am illiterate. I regret to say I speak one language, English, and although that has been good enough for me, it most likely will not be good enough for my grandchildren and especially my great grandchildren.
I recently read over 80% of the world’s population has access to a cell phone or mobile device, and within a year – a couple at the most – that number will grow to 90%. According to David Rothkopf, author of The Great Questions of Tomorrow, we are possibly only a couple of years from every man, woman, and child in the world being connected for the first time in history through a man-made system. Companies like Amazon have already gone global, and others will soon follow. I am not talking about moving companies overseas; I am talking about Internet presence. Amazon can touch anyone in the world whenever they please. That is the future for all of us. Our kids better be able to communicate with the world when that happens. They will not only need the latest and the greatest technology tools, but they will also need a second language and preferably a third language if they hope to compete in the world market. Speaking only one language will no longer be good enough even for Mississippi, yet, we have a President and Secretary of Education who want to cut foreign language programs. Why? How does that make any sense at all unless we are in such fear of the world that we plan to remain isolated indefinitely.
A contributing factor to fear is the unknown, and since 2001, as a nation we have been grappling with fear of the unknown: fear of unseen and often unknown terrorists, fear for our livelihoods amid fluctuating markets, fear of leaders who so often put their personal agendas above the good of the people, fear of losing our guaranteed rights as citizens, fear of changing attitudes and values, and fear our public schools are no longer in capable hands. We have seen our leaders grasp at straws for solutions, and turn against each other in the process. We have witnessed politicians wage war on science somehow ignorant to the facts that throughout history governments who denounced science often lost. We have watched as our leaders and our people have grown closed minded to the diversity that made us the greatest country in the world. And, now rather than focus on the real issues, of teacher quality, academic support systems, and poverty, we are watching helplessly as our leaders slowly dismantle a once proud education system that produced Americans who revolutionized land and air transportation for the world, turned simple farmers into a skilled labor force for industry, and lay the knowledge foundation that led to the world’s first heart transplant, harnessing of nuclear energy, put the first man on the moon, and produced some of the world’s greatest literary giants. Unfortunately, our leadership is in the market for a new vehicle, and they will not be satisfied until that vehicle is sitting in the garage with or without wheels. It is sad, they do not understand there is no need to reinvent the wheel; all that is needed is to fix a spoke or two in the old wheel, so we can focus on what really matters – our children’s future.
©Jack Linton, June 18, 2017