With another school year upon us, here are 10 issues facing public education in no particular order. They range from the structural to the cultural but they all share one thing in common: they are all solvable if people of good will put children first. ***
Time: With a six-hour school day and 180-day school year, kids might get 1000 hours of instruction per year if they’re lucky. Kids certainly need plenty of play time but could some screen time be devoted to learning? Would another 20 days of school per year help? There’s a reason some parents add learning time outside of school. Their kids not only need more but want more and that’s especially true for students who are most at risk.
Racism: The unwillingness of many people to send their children to diverse schools perpetuates inequity in resources, intolerance and segregation. Diverse-by-design schools and inter-district transfers offer some hope, but we have a long way to go to change hearts and minds. Bias also plays out in lack of diversity in teachers and the ensuing cultural incompetency along with low expectations and disproportionate discipline.
Accountability: The current system of test-based accountability is better than the absence of accountability but it still leaves much to be desired. There’s little real pressure on all but the worst schools to improve, even from parents, most of whom think their own schools are OK largely because the system tells them so. The unintended consequences of accountability, from over-testing to narrowing of the curriculum, are mostly driven at the local and state level and are easily remedied.
Desire: In “The Smartest Kids in the World,” author Amanda Ripley concluded one key factor contributing to America’s mediocre performance on international tests is that our students and parents don’t seem to value education as much as their counterparts in South Korea and Finland. It’s hard to argue that parents don’t care about their own kids but it’s pretty clear that they don’t care enough about all kids to drive systemic change.
Evidence: Despite the big push for “evidence-based” reform, the number of studies showing a direct causal effect between educational strategies and student achievement is pretty close to zero. The number of studies finding unmixed results is also slim. And yet, good teachers know what works and get it done every day. The challenge is to reach agreement on what works and take it to scale.
Resistance: Between school boards, administrators and unions, there is an awful lot of resistance to improvement even when the status quo is clearly not working. Reform, in any form, relies on the good faith of teachers and administrators at the school level. At the end of the day, they have to want it. Some do. Many don’t.
Teaching: At its best, teaching rises above many other professions in terms of complexity, responsibility and impact. But few professions assign rookies to work alone with the toughest kids (clients or patients). Fewer still guarantee employment irrespective of performance. Shutting down weak teacher training programs is a good place to start along with restructuring labor agreements to be more aligned with a self-regulating profession.
Bureaucracy: Approximately half of public school employees are non-teachers and in some districts it’s as high as 60 percent. Many of them play important roles but many more are doing paperwork. Part of the problem is the high number of school districts in America. As of a few years ago, 80 percent of America’s 14,000 school districts had less than 5000 students. A third had less than 600. Calls for consolidation usually go nowhere.
Local Control: It’s an article of faith in education that the people closest to the decisions will more often than not make the right ones yet mediocrity, bias, low expectations, neglect, segregation, and dishonesty persist in our public education system. Does local control foster innovation? Maybe. Does oversight suppress it? Hardly. Whether at the district, state or federal level, oversight is still needed even if it does contribute to bureaucracy.
*** Despite these challenges, there is much that’s right about public education and much that’s working well. Yet, just
37 percent of high school graduates are college-ready. Education isn’t baseball. A .370 batting average isn’t good enough. Summer’s over. Time to work.
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with