Can public education be fixed in America? No, but it can be reinvented
Between the Lines
A massive public debate has ensued around education. From the White House and Congress down to every state, every city, the discussion is not “how do we reinvest in education” but “if we should reinvent public education.”
It’s an asinine question, given the investment our global competitors are making, but Americans today seem not to want to reinvest in anything beyond their own pockets. Past generations modified society to fit the needs of the times. This generation modifies its needs to fit society.
It’s a sign of the times, an antiquated, anti-intellectual approach to the future. At some point in time, this generation is going to have to pay (invest). We either invest in ourselves now, or pay later as a less competitive society. We need to fix ourselves before we nix ourselves.
We generally acknowledge that public education is an inefficient output where failure (dropouts) often outnumbers successes (graduation). Some might even call that broken. The emotionalism tied to education oftentimes doesn’t allow for exacting critique. We focus on the success, ignore the failures and dismiss critical analysis that connects teaching to learning. Because public education still works for some, particularly in suburbia, it is difficult to dismantle the now 60-year-old paradigm of the 1950s classroom teaching model that dominates most urban and rural classrooms.
Our current school year model is based on a 19th century construction that afforded children time to help with farm work after school, and we still let our children out for the summer harvest, even though we shifted from an agricultural to an industrial society nearly 100 years ago.
Now, 30 years into our industrial shift from automation to technology, we’re still doing the same old thing in our schools. Learning has changed and teaching has changed. Unfortunately, reality hasn’t changed, which causes us to ask the question: can public education be fixed in America? Not if it’s not reinvented.
It’s time to raise the noise level on this right now. I’ve attended two public education forums over the past month. One I hosted to look at why success models in education are so difficult to embrace. The other was an educational summit (hosted by the United Way), looking at creating pathways out of poverty through education. Both were well attended. People are interested in the issue of education, namely why it doesn’t work.
The stakeholders are combative and well entrenched—government versus schools, public schools versus alternative schools, teacher unions versus school boards, administrators versus superintendents, parents and teachers blaming each other more than working together.
The output, the children, are marginalized in the district. More drop out than graduate in urban cities. No one accepts blame, and all claim there’s no one to blame.
I beg to differ. Our refusal to change our educational paradigm is the reason for the decline. Schools receive funding based on attendance, not performance. Antiquated.
Teachers retain their jobs based on seniority, not proficiency. Unions refuse to allow teachers to be tested in their disciplines. Antiquated.
State government divested in education and invested in prisons. Antiquated.
School administrations and school districts are graded on how students test, not on what they know. Antiquated.
Parents refuse to consider all options for their offspring including making public education compete for their children and the funding that follows them. Antiquated.
There’s a breakdown in the whole system, and all the self-interested parties are protecting one thing—their own interest.
The last two presidents, Bush and Obama, have sought to bring accountability to education. One brought exit testing to end social promotion (Bush), the other brought innovation incentives to make public education compete (Obama). Both have had difficulties breaking the old public education mold. The federal government has been watching public education for the past two administrations, concerned that the investment is not worth the return … and it’s not. But if the federal government withdraws funding from education, the whole system collapses.
But it’s collapsing anyway, because it refuses to change. If testing is the measure, teachers simply teach to the test to keep their jobs. If innovation is the measure, the teachers most innovative are most likely to have the least seniority and end up laid off (as was the case this week, with a young Los Angeles Unified School District teacher, who actually won a teacher-of-the-year award for her classroom innovation, but received a pink slip as did 400 other teachers in a budget-cutting measure (if you want more info, e-mail me).
If successful alternative models are introduced, proponents of traditional schools undermine them to keep the successful approaches from being replicated. The point here is that the system eats its young and becomes self-defeating at crucial change points. Change ends up being no change at all.
Now, this is not for all students … just the ones that need it most—our students; Black children, who represent the low end of the achievement gap.
How does the worst-case scenario continue to be ignored? Nobody seems to know.
For as long as nobody seems to know, and the critical school stakeholders continue to defend the indefensible, I will continue to ask the question, can public education be fixed, and will Black children be included, particularly Black boys, who represent a pipeline to the prison industrial complex—a pipeline we must break.
We can invent a model that works for them. In fact, it’s already been invented, it just has to be replicated. So, I’m waiting for the answer. One that we all know. No, public education can’t be fixed. It can be reinvented, though. In that vein, one day, somebody’s gonna have an answer for me.
Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum and author of the upcoming book, “Real Eyez: Race, Reality and Politics in 21st Century Popular Culture.” He can be reached at www.AnthonySamad.com.
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My friend, Tavis Smiley, has a new documentary out on the plight of the Black male in America.
It’s a subject that has been part of the intellectual and academic discourse for the past decade. For the last five years, it has been the No. 1 issue in public education. For the past four years, it has been a subject of intense debate in Los Angeles, which has the worst large school district in the nation, right here in Tavis’ own backyard.
After spending eight years in the state Legislature, I can tell you that here in Sacramento, there’s no shortage of good intentions. But what we are lacking is a track record of good results.
In this time of government contraction, municipal services reduction and fiscal scrutiny, Los Angeles County, the nation’s largest county, is undergoing a massive revision of its General Plan.
The General Plan represents hundreds of billions in resource allocation based on regional and local population growth forecasts that will take place over the next three decades.
Watching a President of the United States give a State of the Union address is often like watching a peacock strut, its head jutting forward with each step, and its splayed feathers shouting, “Look at me. I’m tall. I’m beautiful. I have it all. I did it all.”
The president usually lists an embellished log of accomplishments and forecasts a list of unreasonable—if not unachievable—expectations. Then Congress comes back and peacocks what it has done. The president and Congress, like the peacocks, claim they can do everything but fly.
This week is our annual King dance.
I call it the King dance because it’s the time of year when American society dances around the significance of Martin Luther King Jr. and his contributions to the evolution of American society.
It is really difficult to grapple with the compromising of the King legacy.
King was more than a day off work. King marched for social justice and economic equality. He didn’t march in parades. I never got the parade concept. What are we celebrating? The life of Martin Luther King Jr., you say.