Let’s get one thing straight: there are plenty of things wrong with America’s school system. But they almost all stem from one major error.
We don’t guarantee every child an excellent education.
Instead, we strive to guarantee every child THE CHANCE at an excellent education. In other words, we’ll provide a bunch of different options that parents and children can choose from – public schools, charter schools, cyber schools, voucher schools, etc.
Some of these options will be great. Some will be terrible. It’s up to the consumer (i.e. parents and children) to decide which one to bet on.
In many places this results in children bouncing from school-to-school. One school is woefully deficient, they enroll in another one. One school closes suddenly, they start over again at another.
It’s terribly inefficient and does very little good for most children.
But that’s because it’s not designed with them in mind. It does not put the child first. It puts the education provider first.
It is a distinctly privatized system. As such, the most important element in this system is the corporation, business, administrator or entrepreneurial entity that provides an education.
We guarantee the businessperson a potential client. We guarantee the investor a market. We guarantee the hedge fund manager a path to increased equity. We guarantee the entrepreneur a chance to exploit the system for a profit.
What we do NOT guarantee is anything for the students. Caveat emptor – “Let the buyer beware.”
Imagine if, instead, we started from this proposition: every child in America will be provided with an excellent education.
Sound impossible? Maybe. But it’s certainly a better goal than the one we’re using.
And even if we somehow managed to do it – even if every school was excellent – that doesn’t mean every child would become a genius. You can only provide the basis for an excellent education; it is up to the individual learner – with help from parents, teachers, and other stakeholders – to take advantage of what is put before him or her.
That is not a crazy goal to have. Nor does it mean that education would necessarily become stagnated.
It doesn’t matter what kind of school students go to – it matters that each and every school that receives public funding must be excellent.
That doesn’t mean they each must be excellent in the same ways. One wouldn’t expect them to be carbon copies of each other. Students have different needs. One would expect each classroom and each teacher to be doing different things at different times.
However, there are some things that are universal. There are some principles that are just better than others. Here are four:
First, it is better for schools receiving public funding to have to spend that money openly. They shouldn’t be able to spend that money behind closed doors without any public scrutiny or accountability.
Second, it’s better that the majority of the decisions made about how the school is run are made in public by duly-elected school board members drawn from the community, itself. That is much more preferable to political appointees who are not accountable to the parents and community.
Third, it is better if a school cannot deny a student enrollment based on that student’s special needs, race, religion, creed, sexual orientation, academic record or other factors. If the school receives public funds, it should not be allowed to turn anyone away.
Finally, it is better if a school teaches material that is academically appropriate, generally accepted as mainstream core concepts of the subject and Constitutional. Schools funded with tax money should not teach religious concepts like Creationism. They should not teach history and science from a Biblical point of view. They should not teach racial, sexual and religious discrimination.
None of these four principles should really be controversial. But each of them is violated by our current education system.
Some voucher schools violate the latter proposition. The other three are often violated by charter, cyber and voucher schools.
The only type of school that does not routinely violate these propositions is traditional public schools. Yet that is also the type of school being consistently undermined by most of our current educational policies.
So if we start from the idea that every student should get an excellent education, we start with the proposition to support and renew our public schools.
In doing so, we would need a national commitment to bringing every public school up to snuff.
Many of them already are – Hint: they’re found in rich neighborhoods. The ones that struggle are almost always found in poorer neighborhoods, and that’s no accident. It’s the result of savage funding inequalities.
What we’d need to do is ensure schools serving impoverished students receive equitable funding compared with schools serving the middle class and wealthy kids. Impoverished students must by necessity receive as much funding as the privileged ones. In fact, given the deprivations and increased needs of impoverished students, they should actually receive more funding. Middle class and rich kids have academic advantages over poor kids before they even enter kindergarten. They have more books in the home, more educated parents, better nutrition, better neonatal care, and often more stable home environments. If we really committed ourselves to making sure even these kids got the best possible education, we’d need to start spending more money on them.
Next, we’d need to do something about school segregation. Our public school system is now almost as segregated – and in some places even more segregated – than it was before the landmark Brown vs. Board decision 50 years ago. The only way to guarantee everyone an excellent education is to make it increasingly difficult to hurt some students without hurting all. There is no separate but equal. When we keep students apart by race or class, we ensure inequality among them.
And perhaps most important is this: we must remove the profit principle from education. We cannot allow decisions to be made based on what is best for corporations. Academic decisions about how to teach, how to assess student learning and how to assess teaching should be made by professional classroom educators.
This means no more high stakes standardized testing. No more Common Core. No more depersonalized computer-based learning. No more value added measures used to evaluated teachers. No more union busting. No more Teach for America.
We need to start valuing teachers and teaching again. And we need to pay and treat them as one of the most valuable parts of our society.
These measures would not be easy to accomplish, but they would have an immense impact on our schools.
This would require a substantial outlay of additional funding. We could save money by discontinuing costly practices that don’t benefit children (i.e. testing, charter and voucher funding, etc.). But make no mistake, it would cost money. However, we’re one of the richest countries in the world. We spend a ridiculous amount already on the military. You’re telling me we can’t find the money to spend on our children? If we’re not willing to spend on our future, we don’t deserve to have one.
It requires only a change in focus, a reevaluation of our priorities and goals.
Education should not be market driven. It should be student driven.
We should no longer guarantee business a class of consumers.
Instead, every student in this country no matter if they are rich or poor, black or white, male or female, gay or straight, religious or not – every student should be guaranteed an excellent education.
It’s really that simple.