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The Future of Education in America (News Analysis)

By Michelle Melamed, UC Berkeley student,assisted by Raymond Barglow.
Wednesday March 23, 2011 - 10:54:00 AM
Waiting for Superman
Waiting for Superman

Twenty, maybe even ten years ago, securing a job in the US economy without a college degree was feasible and commonplace. But as a college sophomore in the twenty first century, it’s clear to me and everyone I know that higher education is a must. Sometimes even that will not be enough; with competition more intense that it has been in the past, many will be lucky to land even an internship with their college diploma in hand. 

However, quality public school education, not only at the college level but in earlier grades too, is becoming widely inaccessible, as the American education system rapidly declines. There have been many explanations of the problems—and of possible solutions— in our no longer so glorified system, but these accounts are often one-sided or mistaken. The “Race to the Top,” for example, stresses the importance of standardized testing and assessment of teachers based on their students’ scores; Davis Guggenheim’s documentary, Waiting for “Superman” reiterates that unable teachers are the cause of failing schools and neglects the other issues in the education system. 

Both the federal program and the documentary filmdisregard the link between low-test scores and life in impoverished neighborhoods where students and their beleaguered families are more likely to be impacted by chronic unemployment, homelessness, crime, malnutrition, andother troubles. Study upon study shows that these circumstances negatively influence a child’s ability to learn and to cope both inside and outside a school environment. Many children do not have a fathering or mothering figure in their lives encouraging them to attend school diligently and do their homework. Thus, no matter how able or qualified teachers may be, they typically do not have the resources necessary to overcome the harsh, discouraging situations that so many students face. Assessment and comparison of teachers’ ability to educate, based on student test scores, is manifestly unjust, given that school settings differ so widely. Good teachers are of course essential in education, but cannot be expected to raise the performance level of students in inner-city schools to that of students from wealthier, more resource-rich communities. 

We wouldn’t recognize this from the pronouncements issued by “Race to the Top” officials, but learning in American schools is deeply affected by funding levels and access to educational resources. Today’s budget cuts are disastrous to education. When a school is adequately funded, classrooms are not overcrowded; hallways are not dirty and run-down; quality textbooks are provided to every student; personal attention and “interactive tools” help to address the individual problems that children encounter; physical education facilities contribute to students’ health and well-being. These are conditions that enable teachers to effectively and promisingly teach. 

Children learn in many different ways, and teachers develop various methods for reaching them. Over-reliance on standardized tests and standardized education enforces a one-size-fits-all pedagogy that is very inadequate to deal with diversity in our schools. Granted, we do need to look at the quality of teaching in the educational system. Sometimes tenured teachers lack either the ability or the motivation to teach well, and that can be a problem. But when a school is failing in its education mission, it’s highly unlikely that this is just the result of the teachers being incompetent. 

Tenure served at the turn of the past century to protect teachers and administrators from being fired for irrational reasons, such as (for a women) getting pregnant. In decades past, the privilege of tenure has indeed been abused; tenure has been given to teachers who have been working in a school for as little as two years. Once a teacher is granted tenure, the process of dismissing him or her becomes very difficult and expensive. Strong teachers’ unions and tenure can inadvertently protect incompetent teachers who are apathetic: Why try or care when you’re (almost) guaranteed lifelong employment? 

This is the pressing issue that Waiting for “Superman highlights, and that “Race to the Top” aims to address. But the assumptions shared by the documentary and by federal educational policy are flawed. While the film argues that the demise of the educational system in America is due to incompetent teachers, it neglects to point out why many teachers fail to educate effectively. “Race to the Top” proposes to evaluate teachers according to their students’ test scores – a measurement system not used by other nations that provide a good education to their citizens. (Schools in Finland, for example, which has the highest ranking in the world for its public education, scarcely use standardized tests.) The federal program is especially unfair to those dedicated teachers who work in special needs schools or schools serving impoverished, disadvantaged communities. 

I recently interviewed California State Senator Loni Hancock, who is active on the Senate Education Committee, to learn her thoughts about education in California. “The emphasis has shifted from how we can help a child succeed to how can we ‘hold people accountable’ for those children who do not succeed”, said the Senator. This recent approach hasn’t improved education, especially in states such California. Teachers are more inclined to “teach to the test,” Hancock pointed out, and there is “more drilling, more emphasis on repetitive instruction, and narrowing of the curriculum”, which defeats the aim of helping “young people turn into enthusiastic, life-long learners.” 

According to Hancock, the use of student test scores to assess teachers, as mandated by“Race to the Top,” leads to fewer teachers wanting to teach in schools with many low performing children: “It is very intimidating for a young, idealistic, enthusiastic teacher, for example, to be put in a very difficult situation in terms of teaching and then be graded on their students’ test score.” This intimidation discourages young people from entering the teaching profession, which may result in having teachers in our schools who are less capable and less motivated to do their jobs well. 

In the interview Senator Hancock mentioned John Dewey, one of the great advocates of progressive education in the 20th century, with whom she avidly agrees: “Young people learn by doing things; Education should be very interactive and ‘hands-on,’ and drilling is the opposite of that.” But as budget cuts diminish resources, and the number of students in a classroom increases, it is difficult for teachers to use creative, personalized teaching methods. 

California, moreover, faces an additional hurdle in seeking to fund education, because a 2/3 vote is required in the legislature to pass a state budget. “That is why the state budget is always late!” Hancock exclaimed. There is some hope, however. Governor Brown is more sympathetic to education funding than was his predecessor. And Proposition 25, which was passed by California voters last November, lowers the legislative voting requirement to pass a budget from two-thirds to a simple majority. Still, as of mid-March, 2011, the California legislature has not agreed upon a budget for the forthcoming year. 

There is no question that America’s education system is in mortal danger. Senator Hancock believes that the essential responsibility for failing schools lies not with teachers but can be traced back to the lawmakers who slash school funding. To be blunt, money, or the lack thereof, is the underlying factor that causes classrooms to overflow and deprives students and teachers of textbooks, facilities, counseling, and other forms of support. 

So what’s the solution? Taxing oil companies? Reallocating money from prisons to schools? Transferring funding from war to education? Or can it just be firing all the “bad” teachers in our schools? Improving education in America is not going to be easy. Reforms are needed that will take all the factors of education into consideration, granting teachers the respect they deserve while recognizing students’ birthright to a public education and providing them with adequate educational resources and community support.