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Public Education: Reform -- or Revolution?

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As a former teacher in the public schools, I am going to briefly touch upon here issues that confront American society in the realm of public education. Much of it will be based on my observations and experiences and I will try to provide some support for them from available educational research. I feel that there are possible generalizations that can be made because I know that others see them as well.

Despite the glaring inadequacies of our public education system, community dialogues have not occurred. Often this has resulted in parents being pitted as individuals (consumers) against teachers and administrators. No one is addressing the root causes of the problems at a systemic level. Instead, there is a blame game where teachers blame parents, parents blame teachers and administrators blame them both.

The first and most critical observation is that American public schools have passed the point of no return. They are dysfunctional and non-productive institutions that have lost their prior raison d'etre. They are not producing workers for the American economy, unless minimum wage jobs now qualify as the American economy. They are not producing leaders for business or the public sector who are capable of functioning in a highly competitive environment. Neither are they demonstrating any capacity to provide the foundation for the advancement of science and technology in the twenty-first century.

Instead what has evolved are youth warehouses where populations of young people go for the purpose of socializing. Just looking quickly at one study it found much more of a positive view towards school from immigrant children as opposed to American native-born children. "White American students were the most likely to have negative responses to their own school (42 percent) and had the lowest percentages of positive responses (20 percent). For immigrant youngsters, 88 percent gave a positive response when asked about their school and only one student included a negative term. The rest were neutral.

Other studies found that attitudes towards school were significantly impacted by the school structures and how new they were.

In regards to this I have seen how portables have replaced new school buildings. Today there is an emphasis on public budget cuts flowing from the dominant tax cutting philosophy of elected officials. The result is the continued deterioration of the public infrastructure.

This has touched on two distinct dimensions of the public school issue- student attitudes and public investment. There is more to be said about both. The fact is that there is a certain percentage of high school non-dropout who have a distinguishing role in current educational settings. But, with the dropout rate reaching the 30% rate there is obviously more wrong than just federal funding here. Likewise, it would be erroneous to blame accountability as the culprit.

The recent testing of No Child Left Behind is only demonstrating the extent of the problem, not creating it. While teaching to the test is clearly an unintended consequence of NCLB, it has not been the reason for testing scores being as low as they are. "Of the 49 states and the District of Columbia reporting the number of schools not making AYP for at least one year in 2004-05, a total of 20,948 schools failed to make AYP."

The effort of No Child Left Behind to focus on accountability is long overdue. The problem however is not just that students are failing to learn the appropriate level of material commensurate with their age/grade level. It is also that the schools have not retooled to address the changing of the world economy that has gone through a period of technological innovation. Even those students who are demonstrating proficiency in mastering core subjects are not being prepared for the post-high school employment resulting in many young people with high school diplomas underachieving.

Gone are the sources of employment that pay and require little formalized training such as in the industrial sector. The material needed to function in the high-tech world of business and commerce are simply not found in present-day public schools. "The core problem is that our education and training systems were built for another era. We can get where we must go only by changing the system itself. "

There is in this understated evaluation of the report entitled "Tough Choices or Tough Times" a harbinger of the bad news to come and the impact of the failings of the American educational system on the future generations.

The pressure to increase performance has not yet reached the students outside of the formalized tests. It has reached the teachers with the expectations increasing yearly to improve student performance. "Every year I ask my college class how many students have seen a high school teacher cry, and most students raise their hands. When I ask what provoked the crying, most stories are about teachers who threaten to give students bad grades and students who do not care. When I ask my colleagues the same question about their high school teachers from one or two generations ago, virtually none can recall such tears. This is not a systematic survey, but it suggests a big change. "

There is a gap between the students' views of their chances for success and the reality. Even with all the testing young people have not grasped the relation between their work in high school and their future by students or their families. "As of 1992, 84 percent of high school seniors planned to get a college degree (NELS, 1992); but data from the high school classes of 1972, 1982, and 1992 tell us that only 45 to 49 percent of students who enter college and earn more than 10 credits actually earn a bachelor's degree--many even fail to earn 10 credits (Adelman, 2004). For students with high school averages of C or lower, the chances that they will earn even one college credit are less than 50-50 (Rosenbaum, 2001)...... "Despite the availability of open admissions institutions and increased student aspirations for college degrees--factors that increase college enrollment--the easiest-to-use predictor of a student's likelihood of graduating from a two- or four-year college is still his or her high school grade point average.* "

This brings us to the policy issues in education which until recently have been focused on the issue of vouchers versus public schools. The public seems to project a significant minority opinion regarding the solution to public education. "3. A slight increase over 2004 finds 68 percent of the public saying that reform of the existing public schools is the way to go to improve public education and just 23 percent saying the focus should be finding an alternative to the current system."

This clearly puts me in the minority position. In an educational system where everyone but educators are driving policy, I have no difficulty with coping with being among the few. This gets us to the real issue of my treatise.

No one is developing educational policy, funding, teacher education or assessment of the system based on the current state of affairs. There remains an avoidance reflex that seeks to minimize the contention in educational policy. The disconnect between policy and research results in establishing policy based on decreased funding and avoiding the more glaring contradictions in the system to perpetuate themselves indefinitely.

In the political realm the issues of discipline, performance levels, grading criteria, attendance requirements, student accountability, resegregation of urban schools, parental responsibility and vocational and special educational programming have often been obscured behind agendas regarding vouchers or diversity curriculum. The lack of confidence in schools and the schools' lack of adequate performance indicates a new for change in direction.

Private schools and home-schooling exist because the public schools are failing in their delivery of educational services. There is neither equality nor excellence. There is little reason that parents should be patient for what the student misses in grades K-12 will cost them dearly throughout their lives. "About 12 percent of elementary and secondary school students in the U.S. are enrolled in non-public education. This includes students educated in private schools and at home."

The reasons? "Concern about the environment of other schools, including concerns about safety, drugs, and negative peer pressure (31 percent of parents); To provide religious or moral instruction (30 percent); and Dissatisfaction with the academic instruction available at other schools (16 percent)."

This demonstrates that the move away from public education lies in the negative aspects of schools and not just as a result of parental religious views. Why is this significant regarding educational policy? Because for a long time it has been premised that vouchers and other options are rooted in an effort to promote religious schooling. What's been lacking are sound proposals that present parents with real alternatives to the public schools.

Further, there has been no leadership in addressing safety issues of students in urban schools or drug and gang issues in schools. There is a need to develop safe zones for our young people to learn in and to have the courage to make the decisions regarding what that will take. There is no reason for a society to tolerate the return to the days of the "Blackboard Jungle" and no reason to empower delinquency at the cost of student educational progress.

This is not an effort to cloak some neo-con or right-wing agenda and promote it. It is a recognition that the criticism from the Left has failed to deliver a solution despite years of complaints. It is a plea for beginning to recognize that most students are not getting the education that they need to function as citizens and that this will have an impact that will continue to mushroom and impact on our American institutions in the future.

Finally, it is a call for educators to engage politically and increase their voice in policy formation. We should be formulating new alternatives instead of promoting the current misdirection of policy.
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Martin Zehr Social Media Pages: Facebook page url on login Profile not filled in       Twitter page url on login Profile not filled in       Linkedin page url on login Profile not filled in       Instagram page url on login Profile not filled in

Martin Zehr is an American political writer in the San Francisco area. He spent 8 years working as a volunteer water planner for the Middle Rio Grande region. His article on the Kirkuk Referendum has been printed by the Kurdish Regional Government, Another article was reprinted in its entirety by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) He is a Contributing Writer to Kurdish Aspect more...)

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