I recently heard a quote that went a something like this: You can’t come up with the solution, unless you understand the true nature of the problem. This quote practically sums up the current state of the American education system. There are competing views on how our educational system should be run and what is the best way to educate our students, ranging from pre-K students all to way to post-secondary institutions. Yet, what makes the American educational system unique is that there is no sole cause of the lackluster results among our K-12 and college graduate students. This is due to the fact that our educational learning falls on the shoulders of states and local districts where there are different rules and regulations making it difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of our nation’s educational problems.
The blame has been placed on bad teachers, ineffective principals, private schools, public schools, etc., when in reality it is a combination of these factors that leads to the problems we are currently facing in our K-12 public schools in America. For example, the recent cheating scandal in Atlanta shows how there are corrupt bureaucratic school officials that do not care about giving their students a quality education, while other places around the country suffer from both failing private and public schools.
As education policy reformers we ask ourselves how to improve the quality of education in America. Furthermore, how do we address the academic/achievement gap that continues to plague our society, where students from low-income neighborhoods, who tend to be African American and Hispanic, are more likely to attend a failing school, drop-out of high school, and attend college to then drop out at higher rates, than students of Caucasian or Asian descent?
When states try to improve the education of these students by offering them the opportunity to attend public/private charter schools through vouchers, opponents of the voucher programs vehemently fight to prevent its implementation; their main argument is that the voucher program will destroy the K-12 public school system in America. However, these people fail to recognize that the only reason the voucher programs are even in place is because public K-12 education in America is not adequately preparing our students for college and to compete in the global marketplace.
The problems affecting America’s public school education were uncovered in 1983, when an independent commission under the Reagan Administration released A Nation at Risk. This report showed that the achievement of American students was declining at an alarming rate and thereby placing America at the risk of falling behind other developed countries in the intellectual sphere and global community. It led to the sudden spike in educational policy experts who began proposing new ideas and solutions to address the problems that were highlighted by the report.
Despite the severe flaws that were described in the report, our nation’s K-12 public schools continue to operate at status quo levels. Frederick Hess, director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, stated that if we were on own our 20 yard line in 1983, we currently find ourselves at the 25, 26 yard line. The biggest fear is that America’s public school system will continue to remain at that status quo for a long period of time, as Congress has decided to make education a partisan issue. As a result, the last bi-partisan education reform occurred 12 years ago when President Bush introduced No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Since then, NCLB has expired and both parties have effectively shut down their counter-parts’ attempts at passing a new ESEA Reauthorization bill.
However, not everything in K-12 education is going downhill. Recent data shows that American schools are doing a better job at preparing its 4th and 8th grade students in areas like math and reading, as compared to 1983. Also, America is going in the right direction in ensuring that all students have access to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) courses during their middle and high school career. This will help prepare these students to compete for jobs in STEM careers, which is the fastest growing labor market. The quality of teaching – a vastly important yet underappreciated job – has also improved. Teachers in the United States do the best they can when they are constantly bombarded by budget cuts, teacher unions that fight for the union’s interest and not the changes that teacher’s themselves want to see implemented, and a rising amount of students who are coming from dysfunctional households, where teachers have to be both an instructor and a de-facto parent.
George Washington Carver, an African American scientist, once stated that education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom. He made this statement during a time when school segregation was justified under Plessey v. Fergusson (1896) and minority students, mainly African Americans, were segregated and subjected to an inferior education. As a result, in the name of equal and quality education, these students endured bodily pain, numerous death threats, and consistent verbal abuse, by those denying them the right to equal education. That generation of students sacrificed their life on a daily basis to get an education, yet students today treat education as a luxury. They forget the struggles by those who fought, some giving their lives, to make education a right for all students, because they understood that education is the gateway to a better life.
This is why improving the education of minority students living in low-income neighborhoods should become the main priority of Congress and the administration. As a society, we have fought to make education what it is today, which mandates that all students regardless of ethnicity or background have access to school. Now its up to us as a nation to collectively fight to ensure that all schools, regardless of location and socio-economic makeup, gives each and every American student quality K-12 education.