catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 8 :: 2011.04.22 — 2011.05.05


How to improve education in the United States

Most everybody in the United States has been to school at some point in their lives.  This seems to result in everyone being convinced that they know the solution to our education woes and no one else does.   Lately I am hearing more and more statements like “I’ll tell you what the problem is…,” or, “You wanna know how to fix the education system?  All we have to do is…,” or, “If we could get rid of….”  I am glad that people are interested in education, but, particularly as Christians, I think we need to be careful to address this problem thoughtfully. 

As somebody who thinks about education all day (I am an education professor at Trinity Christian College), I would offer the following ten suggestions for discussing the educational situation in the United States:


1. Don’t dump on the teachers, administrators, students, or parents. 

I confess, I am confused about this whole thing.  It would be political suicide to attack almost any profession the way politicians and pundits are attacking the teaching profession right now.  Imagine if a prominent politician talked about how plumbers or firefighters don’t really work very hard, get paid too much for what they do, and should bear the brunt of our attempts to cut the federal budget.  That politician would be forced to resign within a day or two. Public outcry would force such a response.  Yet at the moment, it seems quite fashionable to claim that teachers are overpaid, underworked slackers who don’t do a good job.

Let me be clear.  Although there are poor workers in every profession, the vast majority of classroom teachers work harder than any pundit will ever be able to understand.  Teaching is also one of the lowest paid professions if you add up the hours of grading and extracurricular activities. 

For some reason, when we talk about education, we want to start by assigning blame.  While I recognize that not all teachers, parents or administrators are perfect, the majority of all three groups are giving their lives to make a difference for the children.  Despite what Fox news has been saying lately, teaching is not an easy nine-to-three job with summers off.  I have only ever met one teacher who left school every day at 3:00 p.m. (and he was not a particularly good teacher.)  Most full time elementary and high school teachers I know are at school by 7:30 in the morning and stay most days until at least five.  Then they go home and grade papers until late into the night, every night.  They take calls from parents at home (and often until quite late in the evening).  Middle school and high school teachers often are involved in extracurricular sports and arts programs, which can mean that they don’t walk into their home until nine at night.   Combine the amount of work teachers do with the low rate of pay and we can conclude that teachers go into teaching either because they have been called to it and want to make a difference, or because they are too dumb to realize what a raw deal they are getting.  Based on my experience, I’d say the large majority of teachers fall into the first category.  Think about your own favorite teachers growing up and you will understand what I mean.

It would also be easy to blame the administrators for the focus on standardized testing, for the lack of support of our teachers, for the cutting of school buildings and programs and so on.  Just like there are some bad teachers, there are also some bad principals and superintendents.  Before we begin attacking them, though, we need to know what they are dealing with.  Administrators don’t set the budget, though they often need to enforce it, no matter how unrealistic it is.  Administrators don’t create laws like No Child Left Behind, though they are the ones who have to deal with its requirements.  Administrators also contend with decaying buildings, uncertain enrollments and short-lived attempts at reform.  So before we attack all administrators on the basis of some bad ones, we need to recognize that they have a hard job, too.

Some pundits seem to argue that it is the students’ faults, which seems to me a very difficult case to make. Aside from the difficulties of growing up and surviving adolescence, students have to try to learn in underfunded schools — schools that must, if they wish to survive, respond to a very unreasonable set of requirements connected to a standardized testing system that has been shown again and again to be of limited value.  Standardized tests measure too little of a student’s development, do so inaccurately and take far too long (often two weeks of test prep per semester).  To blame students for the struggles the education system is going through is like blaming the flowers for the spring rains.     

Likewise, while some parents should spend more time teaching and setting an example for their students, we have to be careful about making assumptions about lives we do not know.  In the current economic climate, many parents in lower income communities are forced to take multiple minimum-wage jobs.  Working as much as they do often means that, during the week, they only see their kids for an hour or so a day.  The alternative to working so much is that they cannot afford food and a place to stay.  If we want parents to be more involved in the education process, we will need to find ways to help find secure jobs that would allow them to see their kids more.

There is nothing wrong with looking for ways to make teachers more effective, administrators more able to help students and communities, and parents more able to take an active part in their children’s educations, but we should avoid dumping on them while seeking a solution.


2. Solutions take time.

Sometimes I think that all education initiatives should be required to run for at least ten years before being evaluated. Here is how reform in our current system works.  A superintendent (who, in the case of Chicago Public Schools, usually does not have a background in education) decides on a particular reform.  (Often, this reform is initiated by a curriculum company with a product to sell the district.)  The teachers in the school attend a one- or two-day in-service (training session) to learn the new approach.  The principals in the individual schools are responsible for enforcing it.  Typically at the end of a year, the program is evaluated, and, more often than not, abandoned in favor of a new program from a different curriculum company.  This effort results in wasteful spending as curricular program replaces curricular program.  And, because the teachers know that any given program is unlikely to last, they pay it lip service, but then stick with the teaching approaches they know will work.  This means they do not implement the approach with enthusiasm and it is doomed to fail. 

Instead, imagine a system in which the teachers and administrators come together, decide on reforms particular to their district and schools, then work at implementing them for ten years, secure in the knowledge that the reforms will not be here today, gone tomorrow.  This might also eliminate the short-term motivation for curriculum companies.


3.  Solutions need to be for all of God’s children. 

There are many parts of America’s educational system that are not failing.  In fact, many international comparisons of our educational system with others show very impressive gains.  The problem, though, is that those are averages.  The reality is that, while there are many well-funded, high-performing schools (often in affluent, largely white suburbs), there are also many  poorly-funded, low-performing schools (often in economic high-need, largely African-American or Latino neighborhoods in urban centers.)  As Christians, we need to make sure that the solutions we come up with would help all of God’s children.

On the one hand, school choice (also called vouchers) sems like just such a solution.  Average the amount it costs to educate a student for a year, then allow parents to take that voucher with them to whatever school they want.  This encourages competition in schools, schools become stronger and, best of all, if parents don’t like a particular school, they can switch.  So urban families could, if they wanted to, send their kids to a suburban school.  Sounds great, right?  The devil, however, is in the details.  Depending on how the program is implemented, it could have every different results for very different people.  For my family, it would be great.  My wife and I send our kids to a private Christian school in the same suburban community where we live.  Under a voucher system, our tuition bill would be greatly reduced and our kids would still get a great education.  It sounds ideal.

But what if I lived 20 minutes away on the South side of Chicago?  For a variety of reasons, it costs more to educate a student in an urban environment, so under a voucher system, those schools would receive less funding.   That’s okay, though, because I could just send my kids to a suburban school, right?  Well, if I live in that part of the city, it is statistically unlikely that I own a car.  I also probably work one or two jobs to make ends meet.  And because Chicago has both a city and a suburban busing system, getting my children from my apartment to the suburban school I want them to attend might involve an hour-long trip either way.  So that might not be a practical solution.

Could I just send my kids to a Christian school?  Maybe.  It would be interesting to see what Christian schools would do if they were flooded with voucher applicants who were not from their denomination or ethnic culture.  What if there was not room in the school for all the applicants?  How would the school decide?  I say all this not because I am opposed to voucher systems in principle; rather, I think whatever solutions are proposed need to be for all God’s children, not just the rich, or those who attend church, or those who belong to a particular ethnic group.


4.  Education costs money.  This is okay.

I remember touring the new control tower at O’Hare Airport almost 20 years ago.  When I first heard that air traffic controllers only worked for an hour before getting a half hour break, and that the tower was equipped with ping pong tables and nap rooms, I was incensed.  Then I stopped a minute and thought about it.  Do I want the air traffic controller landing my plane to be fresh and mentally alert, or would a sleepy and overworked controller do just as well?  I’ll take the former, thank you, even if it means I have to pay for control towers with ping pong tables, and extra staff to cover rest breaks.

Our first impulse is usually to doubt other people’s work ethics.  We want to decide whether and how much people deserve to be paid.  Lately there is a constant call for eliminating waste in the system.  I am okay with that, but there is a difference between cutting paperwork on the administrative level to save money and increasing class sizes from 20 to 40, or cutting funding for workbooks, or lowering teachers’ already low salaries.  Some efforts to eliminate waste only end up cutting into the effectiveness of teaching. 

In order to have an excellent education system, we will need to pay for it.  I send my kids to a private Christian school, but I pay my local taxes cheerfully (despite that fact that my children don’t take advantage of the public school system).  This is not because I am a virtuous person who should be admired for my civic responsibility, but rather because I recognize that, when kids go to school, they learn things that result not only in being more likely to find a job, but also in their ability to make the good decisions necessary to run a democracy. 

Education is a tiny slice of federal, state and local budgets.  If we are looking for somewhere to cut, it makes sense to start with those things that consume a much bigger slice (military spending comes to mind).  If we want a strong education system, we ought to be increasing funding for schools, not decreasing it.


5.  We do not need more standardized testing.

I am not opposed to assessment, evaluation or accountability, but since No Child Left Behind, we use state tests like the ISAT and the MEAP to evaluate not the individual child’s progress, but rather, the school’s progress.  Because the tests are so high-stakes, struggling schools, as a matter of course, take two whole weeks for test prep, which results in a significant loss of instructional time.  Schools also cut arts programs, history classes and athletics programs in the mistaken belief that since these courses of study are not assessed on the test, they are not important. In fact, a significant body of research has shown that all three of these programs increase critical and analytic thinking skills.  Finally, testing students every year seems to result in an overly myopic analysis of what is happening.  Often, schools rewrite curriculum, initiate or cut programs and make personnel decisions based on a single rise or dip in test scores from one year to the next — sometimes when the change in test scores is well within the margin of error.  In order to determine the effectiveness of a new program, one really needs to try it for a couple of years first, so we don’t need more standardized testing.  In fact, we need less of it.


6. Want to get rid of teachers’ unions?  Make them unnecessary.

Unions began as a response to unfair hiring and employment practices.  One could perhaps argue that back when teachers’ unions began, teachers were woefully underpaid and could be fired at the whim of the school board, often, for example, by teaching a concept or a book that the board disagreed with.  In those days, there was no appeal process.  But now we have such processes in place, and teachers are paid better, and their hours and insurance costs are reasonable, right?  So why are the unions still around?

The reason unions still hold power is that teachers still feel they have to fight to hold onto every concession they have gained over the last several decades.  City officials wish to cut staff, increase class size and cut programs.  Often, the unions are the only voice for stopping such moves. 

Want the unions to go away?  Then your course of action is clear: pay teachers what they are worth, show gratitude for their service with good health care, provide funding for professional development so that they can continue to grow in their understanding of their content area and their teaching techniques.  Thank them for their work (they’ll thank you for your work as well).  In short, treat them like the hard-working professionals they are.  Do this, and maybe administrations can begin to work with unions, not against them.


7. Solutions should involve parents.

Teachers are given the chance to work with children.  They should never forget that those children are on loan for seven hours a day from their parents, who, for the most part, love their kids and want what is best for them.  When schools and parents and communities start to work together, the school tends to improve, far more than if the administration buys an expensive new reading curriculum or hires a new administrator.  Working together, teachers and parents can reinforce each other, be more creative about solutions to problems and keep the interests of the children in the forefront.

In fact, we could perhaps broaden this final rule to say that, if we are serious about improving our education system, we need to listen to each other as teachers, administrators, parents, children, politicians.  And do not listen so that you can have a chance to pontificate (as I have been doing in this essay), but rather, listen in order to find ways to make things better for all God’s children.  If we can do that, our discussions will surely bear fruit.

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