With so many political topics seemingly designed to divide us, one would think education could be a uniquely unifying issue: a rallying cry for young and old, rich and poor. But like every other matter of national importance, there remains a myriad of opinions on how best to solve the problems inherent in America’s broken education system.
Teachers and students, parents and professors agree that a 50 percent dropout rate among African-American and Latino high-school students is simply unacceptable; teacher unions provide job security, but create very little incentive to actually teach and excel. Local funding via property taxes creates disparities across community and state lines, and the idea that no child be left behind seems buried along the very road on which it was written. There is a problem across this nation, a problem which no one seems prepared to solve.
President Obama and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan have outlined an ambitious plan to address many of these issues, but there are no simple answers to these very complicated questions. Beyond the obvious musings, I am concerned about what happens when young people fail out of school. Many are lost to crime, teen pregnancy, low-paying, unskilled employment or welfare dependency. These are ills which have plagued low-income communities for generations, and higher education has always been seen as the way out. What happens when there is no way? And the present state of education is less alarming than its future implications.
WATCH MSNBC’S TAMRON HALL & ACTIVIST HILL HARPER DISCUSS THE EDUCATION CRISIS:
Even the students who do graduate and go on to college are increasingly ill- equipped to compete in a globalized economy, where specialized skills are the monetary of the future. Arne Duncan, said it best in a speech to the National Urban League when he said, “This issue is even bigger than education—it is an issue of social justice and economic security. We have a moral obligation to change these outcomes… Just as justice delayed is justice denied, I believe educational opportunity delayed is education denied.”
Time is of the essence. Even in this massive economic recession, there are still millions of highly-skilled American jobs which go unfilled, because of the sheer lack of a qualified workforce. As a result companies are recruiting from overseas, and the trend toward outsourcing continues: sending American dollars abroad, strengthening foreign economies, and leaving our children, our students and our workers with fewer options or opportunities. The conventional wisdom has been focused on a few major solutions. I will explore those here: (1) Emphasising Parental Responsibility, (2) Magnet and Charter Schools and Voucher Programs, (3) Local Funding versus Federal Funding, (4) reforming teacher unions, eliminating teacher tenure and creating financial incentives for high performance, and (5) Implementing best practices, using national and international examples.
The idea that parents are primarily responsible for their children’s education seems obvious; except for the reality that many parents are themselves uneducated, making it difficult for them to provide guidance to their children. Providing parents with an active role in a child’s educational development is key to ensuring that both teaching and learning actually does transcend the classroom. Special needs students in particular can spend years before being identified, and family issues can often complicate circumstances in ways that make it difficult to identify areas of strength or weakness. Parents and teachers have a responsibility together to achieve common goals, and this must be realized through real effort and organization.
Magnet and Charter schools programs have been met with relative success. Magnet schools essentially cater to a particular vocational interest: whether it be science and computer learning, arts or languages. This provides children who have excelled in particular areas or have a unique interest, to hone their skills and specialize early on. Charter schools are normally privately funded or corporately controlled, and have varying degrees of success. These institutions provide real alternatives to parents and students who cannot afford private school educations, but want smaller classes, better teacher-to-student ratios, and environments which are conducive to learning and foster academic excellence. They tend to be competitive, with limited spaces and therefore not always an option. Voucher programs, in which parents receive tax credits they can use to pay for schools of their choice, has been a great way to provide more control over a child’s destiny. A sense of competitiveness is fostered among schools and school districts, and creates incentive for teachers to produce high-performing students and programs.
Funding is perhaps the most crucial issue of all. Traditionally education funding derives from local property taxes, a system which is inherently unequal. Over 40 states have faced legal challenges to their school funding system because of disparities. In Obama’s home state of Illinois, wealthy districts can spend up to $25,000 per child while poor districts spend as little as $6000. Although it is true that urban environments may well provide more dollars in total, the quality of education and large classrooms means that students can go neglected as teacher’s intellectual capital and resources are stretched. A national standard and curriculum may be the answer to streamlining education programs – and ensuring a more equitable level of resources. This would require federal intervention, and perhaps federal funding — an issue for Washington politicians and The White House to decide. In many European nations, national standards are imposed and there is less disparity as a result.
The American system has deferred heavily to the states, but that has proven to be ineffective. In addition, the federal government has issued mandates which state and local communities must institute budget cuts in order to fund. With a national curriculum and national funding, these mandates could provide real solutions to schools and real opportunities for students. Undoubtedly, the critics of this approach will decry socialism and big government having too much control, but the reality is that our children are falling behind our European allies with nationalized education programs that work and are successful.
Likewise, China and India are winning the technological race, and their workforces are becoming increasingly more competitive than the U.S. As a society, we have been content to incarcerate young men and women at a cost of $60,000 per year, but unwilling to spend just $10,000 or $15, 000 a year to educate them properly before the allure of the streets and crime take hold. Examining our goals, and taking responsibility for these failures, is crucial in the education debate.
In her recent contribution on the issue of teacher unions and tenure, fellow MSNBC and Grio contributor Michelle Bernard pointed out that in Chicago nearly “83 percent of bad tenured teachers, rarely or never, get fired.” Teacher unions have been successful at one thing: protecting their own jobs. Providing a qualitative and innovative education for their students has taken a back seat. That is the epitome of a broken education system. Financial incentives should be available for teachers to perform well and exceed expectations year-on-year. That would be better than providing financial security for mediocrity.
Finally, best practices must be implemented. Using examples where education programs are working well across America is important, but learning from systems abroad is equally beneficial. So much of the failure we are witnessing has been informed by an unwillingness to change and be open to new ideas. This is fundamentally regressive and an approach which inevitably leaves our students crippled.
There are no quick fixes or easy solutions, but with a methodical approach to the complicated questions, we can find answers. In many ways, education reform may become the greatest civil rights concern of the 21st Century. Education is the pathway out of poverty. For too long poverty has perpetuated ignorance, which feeds discrimination and social segregation. African-Americans and Latinos have a more pronounced struggle, because they disproportionately represent the less-privileged, but the truth of the matter is education affects everyone, regardless of race. Unemployment and lack of opportunity affects everyone, regardless of race.
The racial and ethnic disparities pale in comparison to the universal dilemma at the heart of America’s educational crisis: ambivalence, complacency and an intellectual despondency that is all too common. President Obama and Arne Duncan seem committed to the cause of creating real change in this area. I believe in this president and I believe in his vision, but most importantly I believe in our children, yours and mine. They represent the greatest cause worth fighting for.