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SOS--Save Our Schools

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Note tho that not all students from poor families succumb to the above problems. Some children from the worst family backgrounds overcome all handicaps to excel in school. On the other hand, there are some middle class students with attitudes and behavior problems quite similar to those sketched above. Nevertheless, a school serving a predominantly poor population must cope with a far larger proportion of students handicapped by these problems than a school whose students body is largely drawn from the middle class. And many, if not most, of these problems are not susceptible to solutions confined to schools.

The attack on public schools

There are a number of alternatives to public schools. Parochial schools, and a variety of types of private schools have long served many children. Home schooling is another option.

Each type of schooling, including public schools, comes in a variety of flavors. Some high schools specialize in one or more subjects, such as music, or science, or technology. Teaching philosophies differ. In recent years, much use has been made of computers and the internet in various ways. Financing ranges from conventionally operated public schools to schools funded entirely by tuition fees, to mixtures of government subsidies, tuition, and subsidies by private foundations. In virtually every category quality appears to range from very poor to excellent; often there are differences of opinion as to how good a school is. As indicated above, it is not easy to evaluate schools because student performance is sensitive to so many factors not under the control of the schools.

In my judgment our public elementary schools are generally weak in math, and history is badly handled at all levels. I doubt that non-public schools do any better in these subjects. There is no good evidence of a general deterioration of the quality of American public schools. In general, they seem to compare favorably with schools in most other industrialized countries, when student income categories are taken into account. But, for several decades, American public schools have been harshly criticized, and the idea of privatizing schools has been vigorously promoted.

The attack on schools coincides with a general privatization movement. The US Postal Service was an early target that has been significantly weakened, mainly by allowing private corporations to skim off the most profitable services. Private prisons are now big business [2]. Water systems have been privatized in many areas. Flight Service Stations, providing weather and  navigation information services to pilots, previously operated by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), were contracted out to Lockheed Martin in 2005. Perhaps the most dramatic instance of privatization of traditional governmental functions are the companies supplying mercenaries, many, if not most of whom, are not Americans, to the military [3], and the outsourcing of a substantial portion of the functions of various intelligence agencies, including the CIA and NSA [4]. Within the US, there are many more armed guards employed by private security firms than there are police officers [5].

Public school systems vary in quality, because people in some places do a better job than others of electing good school boards and providing adequate funding; and because, as discussed above, it is more difficult to educate the children of the poor. Private schools of various types also vary greatly in quality.

Starting about two decades ago, a major tactic used to attack public schools has been the charter school concept, whereby tax money is diverted from public schools to privately run, often for-profit, charter schools [6]. This is in addition to the more traditional path whereby parents, at their own expense, send their children to private or parochial schools. Identifying a charter school as for-profit is not simple, because many charter schools, while operated by not-for-profit organizations, contract out almost all operational functions to private, for-profit, corporations. Laws pertaining to charter schools differ significantly from state to state.

About 85% of American children attend conventional public schools,

Roughly 8% attend private or parochial schools, about 5% attend charter schools, and about 2% are home schooled [7].

Blame the teacher

When children do poorly in school, and particularly when many students in the same school do poorly, obvious targets for criticism are the teachers. There are cases in which this is appropriate. Bad teachers can be found even in top notch schools. But, as described above, especially in schools serving poor communities, there are usually many more plausible explanations for unsatisfactory student performance.

Opponents of public schooling almost invariably attack teachers' unions, charging them with inflating costs of schooling, and with degrading teacher quality. I strongly disagree. In general, school teachers are, in my view, greatly underpaid in light of the importance of their work, and unions often help alleviate this to a modest extent. In a school system without an effective union, salaries and working conditions are often so bad that good teachers are unlikely to apply for positions, or, to stay very long.

Ensuring teacher quality is a complex matter. Leaving it entirely in the hands of a truly excellent school principal would be fine, but is not a generally available option. A common situation today is to have tenure conferred by boards of education on the recommendations of principals. Retention of non-tenured faculty is at the option of principals.

A better approach might be to utilize competent, experienced teachers to mentor new teachers and to evaluate them. An important part of the process would be frequent classroom observations by the mentors. The views of students, particularly in the upper grades, should be considered, tho these must be treated with caution, as they are often biased in favor of teachers who are not demanding, and who are over-generous with high grades. Similarly, parent opinions should be considered. Unions might also get involved, perhaps as advisors and advocates for teachers. It is important that the evaluation process be flexible enough so as not to screen out outstanding teachers with unorthodox styles.

Not surprisingly unions sometimes go too far to protect incompetent teachers. Union members should resist the tendency to reflexively, unconditionally, fight against every effort to discharge teachers clearly not doing the job. They should insist that their unions act responsibly in such cases. Irresponsible behavior in this regard makes unions less effective in defending competent teachers who are unfairly treated.

Charter schools

A big advantage of having all children in a community attend public schools is that all parents in the community are thereby strongly motivated to support the school system. The more students shift to non-public schools, the weaker public support for public schools becomes. This leads to lower school budgets, and hence weaker schools, which motivates more parents to withdraw their children. So we have the possibility of a downward spiral effect that can cripple public school systems.

A number of for-profit corporations operate dozens of charter schools, some more than a hundred. As is the case with public schools, some charter schools do well, some not so well, some very poorly. There are no good ways to obtain clear indications of performance quality, particularly given the variations among student backgrounds. It appears that the for-profit schools tend to be inferior, but there may be exceptions. 

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I am an engineer. My degrees are in electrical engineering and my work has been in the digital systems area, mainly digital logic, but also computer organization, software and theory. I am a Professor, Emeritus, Computer Science and Electrical (more...)

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