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American Public Education At A Crossroads

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Message Howard Schneider

Public education in the United States was one of the greatest creations of the nineteenth century. It was an example of our striving to give everyone access to the basic tools to become well rounded citizens and productive participants in society. Our Founding Fathers did not believe that all citizens should be allowed to vote for their government representatives because they lacked the knowledge and wisdom to make those decisions. Fortunately subsequent leaders had the excellent foresight to create our free public education system which allows everyone access to this knowledge and wisdom. It quickly grew to become the envy of the world and was soon copied all over the globe. Our public education system was preeminent in the world until recent times. The rest of the world has begun to catch up with us economically and one of their prime tools in accomplishing this was education. We have become complacent in this area which has allowed our system to erode. I intend to examine our public education system in this article. I will offer my four prime ideas on how to restore the system to its former preeminence. The future of the U.S. rests on our succeeding in this endeavor.


The first aspect of United States public education that I will examine is the innovation of the Charter School Movement. These experimental schools have shown promising results as incubators of new and innovative education ideas and processes. The first charter schools law was passed in Minnesota in 1991. This action was in response to poorly performing schools in that state. They were formed to give parents alternatives within the Minnesota public school system. These new schools were also created to experiment with new ways to educate their children. California followed suit in 1992 and there has been a steady stream of states enacting these laws ever since. There are now over 40 states experimenting with these schools.


I myself am somewhat familiar with these charter schools in Newark, New Jersey by way of a program called TeacherNex. They are an organization that trains teachers for both regular and charter public schools. I applied for this program as an experienced professional entering the education field. I was tremendously impressed with the program along with the schools and my fellow prospective candidates. The pool of candidates was a mix of both education graduates and experienced professionals. There were approximately 300 people being interviewed for the program after the initial screening. Most of the candidates were young education graduates and they were a very eager and impressive group. Approximately one quarter of the candidates were selected. Unfortunately I was not chosen to be part of the program. But I came away from the experience extremely encouraged about the possibilities for our education future. I did not meet a single person in the program that I was not impressed with. The charter school that we interviewed at was also remarkable. The pictures, charts, and articles on the walls illustrated how the teachers engaged their students in interactive work and coaxed them to think critically about civic issues.


This is the type of teaching that I believe we need much more of. Students need to be taught more than simple memorization of facts. I wrote about this form of teaching in my TeacherNex application essay and I was pleased to see it being employed in this Newark school. These charter schools are allowed to implement their own teaching practices and curriculum. The state gives these schools guidelines as to what subjects must be taught and tested upon. The charter schools determine how to teach these subjects. This is where the innovation in our schools is going to come from. The testing results from these schools has been well above average. Hopefully these charter schools will be used more extensively in the future and these positive results will be increased. The new teaching techniques and practices must then be shared on a continual basis with the rest of the public schools to improve the entire system.


The next area that I would like to address is performance and accountability for teachers and principals. I would like to make clear at the outset that I have the utmost respect for teachers and principals. I consider education to be the noblest of professions. The teachers that I have met and interacted with have all been remarkable and compassionate professionals. This includes teachers I had as a child as well as teachers I have met recently at TeacherNex. It also includes the teachers of my girlfriend's son. He is a 5th grader with ADHD and requires some extra patience and understanding which they deliver in abundance.


The problems begin in the school districts where student achievement is woefully deficient. Many of these problem schools and districts develop a culture of failure that builds upon itself. Accountability needs to be built into school systems where they will identify the teachers and principals who are achieving both positive and negative results. The teacher unions and governing school boards must come together and reach a compromise on a new accountability system. One possible compromise is changing tenure rules while also raising salaries. Teacher salary increases should be at least partly based on performance. The unions and administrators should also get together as part of a bargaining process and develop a fair and effective evaluation system for teachers and principals. Teachers should not become tenured until they have reached a sustained level of excellence. Principals should not be allowed to continue in their positions if their schools are failing or declining. The bottom line is that a new system of teacher and principal accountability must be developed otherwise sustained educational excellence will be elusive.


I would now like to discuss the subject of integrity in public education and how it can be improved. This encompasses revamping curriculums and improving student testing. For too long curriculums have been pared down in many school districts either because of budget constraints or to concentrate on core subjects. We should always be teaching our children a broad range of subjects to prepare them not only for an occupation but to become thoughtful and well rounded human beings. Our children should all be taught a comprehensive foundation of subjects. They are mathematics, science, language arts, social studies, foreign language, music, art, and physical education. School districts decide differently the mix of subjects that will be taught in their districts. I believe that all students should be exposed to the subjects I previously listed at some point each school year.


Comprehensive and fair student testing should also be reinforced into the public school system to ensure that our students are actually learning this curriculum. Essay writing should become a more important part of this testing. The students we are graduating out of our schools often times seem to have simply learned their subjects by rote without any real understanding or critical thinking. Essays will give test administrators the chance to see if the student can convey a reasoned argument. This will show us whether our students can put facts they have learned together and write creatively and persuasively. Teachers should also emphasize this more in their classes to teach their students these critical skills.


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I am a 54 year old financial services professional. I graduated from Wagner College in 1980 with a Bachelor of Science in Economics and Business Administration with a minor in Sociology. My interests beyond economics lie in politics, literature, (more...)
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