One of the truest things in politics is that facts are easily obscured by perceptions, especially in cases where children are involved. Such is the case with the state of education in this country. There are problems with both the primary and secondary education systems, but the issues get clouded by how the public views both.
I’m not claiming any great insights on this. But I understand parents’ concerns, since I am one. I understand teachers and professors concerns; I have close friends who chose those professions. I understand administrators concerns; a substantial part of my professional life revolves around addressing them. I understand taxpayer concerns; like you a hefty portion of my tax bill goes towards education. I understand student concerns. I’ve been one. I understand employer concerns – I am one.
There are, in my experience, two central reasons that improving education in this country has become nearly impossible. The most crucial is perception. Once you get past teacher’s unions, tenure, and all of those bugaboo topics, the underlying cause for the distrust between the public and the schools is perception. The second is the exponential increase in federal involvement in education over the past 32 years. And we’ll never get around to addressing the second until we address the first.
As mentioned above, I’ve developed personal and professional relationships with educators over the years. The vast majority – regardless of whether they’re involved in primary or secondary education, at public or private institutions – are dedicated. I do not mean they are primarily dedicated to their unions or schools (although many are). No, I mean that well over 95% of the education professionals I know are dedicated to the idea of helping young minds grow, learn and achieve. Most are probably underpaid, most are disrespected and yet they trudge off to their classrooms and lecture halls every day because they believe if they make a difference in one student’s life it was a good day.
As I mentioned, most are disrespected, unappreciated and underpaid. Many parents look at teachers as little more than high-salaried day care workers. Worse, as new stories of public corruption and felony criminal conduct in school administrations, local school boards and public universities take hold, many parents now look at their local educators with a distrusting eye. Every time a story gets published about how American school children lag behind other nations in math or science achievement, the public view bends further to the belief that our children are being taught by people who don’t care – or don’t know their jobs and don’t care.
Of course, teachers unions and school administrators are partly to blame behind the perception. Every time a criminal teacher winds up in a “rubber room” for a decade, it sheds a bad light on the entire profession. Rather than working with the public to identify and quickly remove the 5% that are bad apples, they allow them to fester. While it is understandable that a community that feels under siege is loathe to admit there could be problems within its ranks, the approach they’ve adopted has done little to end the perceived siege.
In the meantime, the common misperceptions continue. The public remains wary of their educators, the educators remain wary of the public. I often wonder why anyone who isn’t misogynistic would enter the profession willingly. As a result, reforms that could work – or at least worthy of a try – or jettisoned before they ever get a chance. Instead, we get the sort of acrimony seen in New York, DC and LA. And of course, New Jersey – where the governor has built national notoriety by bashing the NJEA.
What all of this acrimony and recrimination has concealed is the horrible effects that the federal government in general, and Congress and the Department of Education in particular, have had on the education of American schoolchildren over the past three decades.
In 1979, the Office of Education was a subset of the (now defunct) Department of Housing, Education and Welfare. It had 3,000 employees and an annual budget of $1.2 billion. When the Department of Education began operation in 1980, Congress appropriated $14.2 billion and staffing increased to 17,000. By 2011, DoE funding had increased to $113 billion, outstripping inflation by $74 billion. Most of that growth has come 2002, when the budget was $46 billion – a direct result of the past two administrations pet education programs. I’m talking, of course about No Child Left Behind and The Race to the Top.
Aside from additional layers of bureaucracy, what has all of that growth accomplished? Not much, actually. In 2002, the United States ranked 15th worldwide in reading, with an average score of 504 on the PISA assessment. We ranked 24th in mathematics (score: 483) and 21st in science literacy (score: 487). By 2010, those ranking had dropped to 17th, 31st and 23rd. Scores dropped in reading, to 500, held steady in math but did improve in science – to 502.
What the feds have succeeded in doing is making life harder for America’s educators. New regulations and requirements have taken resources from the classroom and redirected them to administration offices. Often, I work with administrators who spend more time ensuring federal requirements are met than actually looking after students. The other effect, whether intended or not, has been to stifle the individual creativity of educators. The great laboratories that were once America’s classrooms – where teachers were relatively unencumbered in their pursuit of instructing students – now more often resemble the efficiency of Bell Labs. Don’t get me wrong – Bell Labs came up with some great products, and today’s schools still produce some great scholars. But top-down oriented research proved a model that was unsustainable; the same is the inevitable result of top-down oriented education.
But we can’t focus on ridding our local schools of undue federal intervention until we get past the mistrust that now permeates our conversations regarding education. How we get there isn’t as hard as it may sound. It starts with parents actually taking time to talk to educators; it takes community members actually showing up at school board meetings to do more than complain about school taxes or school closures. It takes parents willing to take more than a token interest in their youngsters education. It takes educators not dismissing community concerns out of hand. Parents, educators and administrators shouldn’t allow schools to become political footballs. So long as we treat them as such, we’ll keep falling behind the rest of the world in achievement. That’s something that should scare every single person in the country.