The American Education - Challenges and Solutions for our Passport to the Future
"Education's purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one."
In The Solution to Poverty in America, I shared some of my darkest, personal experiences growing up in a poverty-stricken ghetto - secluded in a segregated region by systems shaped by race and power. One of those systems is our topic for today - the education system. As usual, we’ll dive into challenges and solutions, and as a special treat, I’ve interviewed a variety of stakeholders with insight and experience in education.
Here’s my one-sentence elevator speech summarizing my idealistic thoughts on education: I believe that all children (and adults) deserve a practical education with equality of opportunity; one that cultivates their unique interests and curiosities, and provides them with social (i.e. capital, supervision), cultural (i.e. membership into social groups) and human capital (i.e. practical skills, knowledge, credentials).
Sounds simple, right? So I guess that’s the end of our article today. Have a great weekend…oh, wait. That’s not how it works?
It turns out that today’s education system might provide the poor with credentials - if they make it through future-crushing tuition (which increases 8% every single year). And it might provide the privileged with an abundance of social capital - if they don’t decide to simply drop out and create their own company. But, it definitely does not provide the majority with practical skills they can use in real life.
We’ll dive into that, and lots more.
We’ll cover the following:
Solutions (feat. interviews with key stakeholders in education)
Call to Action
Do you like to cook?
I don’t, but the best way I can sum up education is with a recipe. Imagine a large pot. First, let’s go to the pantry of institutions and try to find education. Of all the major institutions in America, education is the most important service sector. It is also the most archaic - largely unchanged since the 19th century. So, we’ll toss that in the pot.
Service delivery of classroom education is extremely labor-intensive, repetitive, and dependent on the teacher’s skill, knowledge, and resources. So we’ll toss that in.
The complexity intensifies exponentially when you take this unscalable model and extrapolate it across cities, townships, counties and states - all with their own localized practices and regulations. Throw it in.
Next, add federal guidelines that attempt to incentivize 50 different states to standardize quality and drive national achievement or outcomes. Here’s a brief snapshot of what’s wrong with our outcomes:
Only 29% of Americans rate their country’s K-12 education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics as above average or the best in the world.
The United States is no longer amongst the top 20 countries in science, reading, or math (we’re 39th in math).
America lags behind 11 other countries in terms of postsecondary attainment: 45% of 25-34 year-olds plan on obtaining any credential beyond a high school diploma.
Now, add a pinch of rampant, pervasive poverty impacting 38 million American citizens. And then add the even more who live in joblessness, low-wages, and racial and class segregation. Note that these issues are both the cause and effect of the basic problems in education. Generally, with some great exceptions, the American education system has become a vehicle for reproducing unequal outcomes across working-class children and more advantaged children.
Next, add a dash of the fact that 62 million adult workers lack a postsecondary credential of any kind; such low educational attainment negatively impacts worker productivity and stunts national economic growth.
And finally, let’s stir our pot with some useless politicians focused on weaponizing education as a topic to divide the country.
Heat in the oven for 200 years and what do you get? Education in America!
I had the pleasure of interviewing two key stakeholders in education, Ash Taylor-Beierl and Danice Isaak.
Danice is a former educator with 18 years of experience in the education system, and she is also my mother-in-law! She has worked in the Aberdeen (Idaho) school district, helping with Title I, ESL, K-5th grade, as well as in Great Falls (Montana) for five years working with emotionally disturbed children.
Ash is an incoming Ph.D. student (Education Policy & Leadership) who just finished her Masters in Education Leadership. Her research interests are based on diversity and inclusion in education.
What would you say is the current state of the union related to education in America? What are the key challenges needing immediate solutions in today's society?
Danice: “That’s a difficult question because each school is so different with the types of students that make it up. In Aberdeen it was 40% Mexican. With almost all of them, english was a second language, and they started school when they came to America. So, if they were in Kindergarten they would already be five years behind with their english. If the student wasn’t up to grade-level in three years, the school would lose their funding and teachers would get docked.
In Great Falls, where I worked with emotionally disturbed kids, the school I worked for had Air Force children who were frequently in and out. There were lots of lower-income children, and the difficulty was that these children were not encouraged at home. The biggest challenge is how do you motivate a kid that comes from a dysfunctional family? I worked with kids that had rat bites; kids that were locked in their bedroom all weekend and had to wear diapers; kids with emotionally disturbed parents, themselves; and kids with parents working so hard they had no time to help their kids when they got home.”
Ash: “Right now, education is the primary social program that is supposed to help people achieve the American dream. But, we don’t provide with the same consideration we do for other social programs, related to access and quality of service. Inequality is prevalent in our education system, partially related to how educational resources are tied to property taxes (an outcome from segregation many decades ago), resulting in disproportionate funding across different school systems.
Differences in funding and resources between schools result in differences in achievement and ability for students when they leave the system. Education is advantageous for White, middle-class students and its disadvantages primarily effect marginalized communities concentrated in areas with dysfunctional school systems. All of this results in members from marginalized communities being underprepared to be productive workers in adult life.
We need to get rid of high-stakes testing, increase population of diverse teachers in schools, and address disproportionate discipline in our classrooms (subjective determinations of poor behavior manifests itself in discrimination and disproportionate punishment of BIPOC students, due to the unconcious biases of teachers).”
Danice’s answer introduced an important, unresolved challenge in education. For an increasing immigrant population, what do we do about the language barrier and how can we ensure schools and teachers don’t bear accountability for uncontrollable variables such as parental impacts and at-home environments? The latter is an issue agnostic to culture or race and is only driven by socioeconomic status - which impacts millions of Americans of all races.
Ash’s answer emphasizes the unequal achievement of outcomes across racial lines; of which, we can define outcomes here to include expectations, grades, retention rates, proficiency test scores, SAT scores, course-taking, graduation, and post-secondary enrollment.
My Key Solutions to Improve Education:
The first solution is that we must hire more teachers to effectively reduce class sizes, which will improve achievement gains and graduation rates. While we’re at it, we must increase the population of BIPOC teachers - an important step to improving opportunities to learn across all races. Additionally, we need to hire more ESL supporting staff to ensure those students get the equitable support they need, while not disproportionately garnering more attention than other students in the same classroom. And, overall, we must pay our teachers more money. The work that they do under increasingly stressful environments is undervalued, and their pay is unsustainable.
A key source of unequal achievement are home environments with different resources, values, and cultural traditions. We also know that social, economic, political, and financial factors negatively influence the nature of the family dynamic. We need to develop grassroots campaigns and support programs within communities across the United States that aim to educate families on controllable variables, such as child development, relationship management (i.e. manage your anger, respect, abuse, etc), money management, and personal health. We need to teach parents to read to their kids, help them with homework, model achievement-oriented behavior, and generally provide their children with extracurricular activities, cultural experiences, tutoring, stable housing, good healthcare, nutrition, and safe neighborhoods.
Number two, above, will never happen until we solve for poverty. We have covered this topic thoroughly on Headway, so I will simply link to that edition: The Solution for Poverty in America. If you wanted to prioritize these solutions, resolving poverty should be number one.
Our interview with Ash revealed the fourth solution. She said, “we need to transition away from the high-stakes testing culture towards one of a more holistic nature that takes in mind the whole student.” She’s absolutely right. Although I believe testing is an important construct of society, its current manifestation in the school system is dangerous at best. This is because it does not improve education, but rather disengages students and teachers, narrowing and weakening the overall curriculum. Schools are incentivized to meet test scores and thus disincentivized to actually educate our children.
We need to equalize the starting point by instituting state-funded, mandatory public preschool across all 50 states. This provides a stable environment for young children - particularly those from low-income families - at a crucial age of their development. And it will also help to improve outcomes.
We need to transform our standard classroom lessons towards a knowledge-based curriculum. Despite all the debate, the results are clear. A knowledge-based curriculum offers compelling subject matter, teaching a body of shared knowledge, grade by grade. The more content a student learns in early childhood, the easier it is for them to partake in higher-order education like grammar, reading, and writing. Reading requires decoding and comprehension, and the existing gap in comprehension for American students is not a gap in skills, it’s a gap in knowledge.
It’s time to stop funding schools with local property taxes. I am a proponent of changing to a state-focused revenue system that replaces funding school from local property taxes with state sales, income, or state-wide property tax. Public schools in today’s society are generally funded by property taxes, which inherently limits those living in areas with low property values, such as low-income areas. Affluent children benefit from state resources, while communities of color lack necessities such as books, instruments, sports programs, and healthy lunches.
Finally, we need to expand the scope of what gets taught in school. Mainly, the following must begin to get taught if we want to increase the practicality (and thus, ROI) of education: money management, civics, mental health, social justice, morality, time management, self-confidence, elastic thinking, and positive and negative liberty (we will cover PL/NL in a future article). If you were to rank-order this list of solutions, this one should be second only to resolving poverty (#3 above).
Call to Action
Send a student to college. Assist low-income students to find college funding, through sources in your community.
Choose your issues and participate in shaping change in your community. Is there a particular issue that speaks to you?
Write your elected officials about poverty or education issues you care about.
Over-communication: In certain sub-cultures and working-class home environments, family responsibilities may take precedence over schooling, leading to decreased educational achievement. If you belong to a family of that mindset, I would encourage you to discuss this with your family - because there are likely one or more family members that have silent aspirations and educational desires.
Educate yourself on the Core Knowledge curriculum
Educate yourself on social issues; start by reading Headway’s “The Definitive Guide to Systemic Racism”
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