The State of Education
Last night, President Obama gave his annual State of the Union address. In the time-honored tradition of self-important writers co-opting that event as a segue into whatever they want, I'd like to offer my own “speech” on the State of Education.
My fellow citizens, students, teachers, and policy wonks, we are near a turning point. Our national debate about education policy has illuminated serious problems but offered inadequate solutions. The challenge before us today is to find a way forward. A way forward that acknowledges the origins of our problems. A way forward that demands better answers. And a way forward that ties our communities together instead of driving them apart.
Make no mistake: the state of our education is fragile. In the nearly 30 years since the Reagan administration released “A Nation at Risk,” we have seen our national debate around education policy gripped by a frenzied state of panic. Passions ran high, and familiar lines of party and ideology became blurred.
The source of this passion is obvious. After centuries of work expanding access to education, we finally confronted the fact that, while nearly every child can get an education in this country, too many children come out of school ill-prepared for the life ahead of them. Too many of our children from low-income families, from African-American families, from Hispanic families leave school without the knowledge and skills necessary to realize the American Dream.
Unfortunately, while the symptoms of this problem are obvious, the underlying cause is more complex. Too often, we tell ourselves simplified stories about why this tragedy endures. Some of us blame families. Others blame poverty. Others blame poor schools or bad teachers. And then there are those who blame the children themselves.
Blame feels good. We don't like to admit, but it does. It is comforting to say, “Well, those people are why we have this problem. If they would just be better, things would improve.” This is easy, safe, and very, very human.
It is also dangerous. It is why some of us can justify doing nothing, on the grounds that really it's the responsibility of the people with the problem to fix it. It is why others of us can justify attacking the very people who are working hard every day to teach our children, on the grounds that they alone can fix it. It is why our communities fray and shatter when this issue comes up, as we all look for someone else to take responsibility.
What have the results of this passion and blame been? The achievement gaps that were present in 1983 are still here in 2012. The United States continues to stagnate or slide in international rankings of educational performance and economic competitiveness. In some ways, nothing has changed.
In other ways, everything has changed. Charter schools have proliferated, springing up across the country. Teachers' unions have been attacked by politicians, pressure groups, and popular documentaries. Teachers themselves have been placed in a pressure cooker, told to produce higher test scores or else. We spend huge amounts of money preparing, administering, and analyzing low-quality state tests. We administer more state tests than any world leader in education, and continue to attach more and more consequences to those tests, even though they are much worse than those in the best countries.
What, then, is there to do? For one, we can restore our focus on developing excellent public schools. We have experimented with alternative systems of various stripes for decades, only to find that they produce the same results as traditional public schools in the same areas. We have allowed inflation and our misplaced attention on these alternatives to disguise cuts in support to our schools. It is time to give our traditional public schools the support and flexibility they need to further expand their already diverse approaches to education.
We can provide the social services our communities need to raise kids that are healthy and ready to learn. We can focus on working with families and doing whatever we can to lighten the material burdens that constitute real barriers to successful family engagement. We must broaden our focus beyond the usual K-12 classroom and consider early childhood, summer break, and other areas that we know add to the achievement gap.
Now is the time to set aside the idea that either schools or families can, in isolation, produce the educational results our society needs and our children deserve. Instead it is time to embrace a robust approach that unites, empowers, and supports everyone who has an impact on the state of our education.