60% of high school seniors can’t read at a “proficient” level. 75% of them can’t do math. Those are the findings from the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress exam, administered last year to a representative sample of 92,000 US students. While younger students in the 4th and 8th grades have shown some improvement over the last decade, high school seniors are still struggling. And yes, racial disparity persists in the 2013 scores.
So, we’ve got flat scores in educational achievement since the 1990s. Let’s take a look at spending—federal spending, to keep it a fair comparison (most public schools are funded by states & local property taxes). Maybe spending fell off somewhere in there.
Oh, wait. No. It’s almost like we’re throwing money at a bloated, ineffective public bureaucracy.
Now, many members of the extended Merryweather family have made a career in the public education field, so I’m not oblivious to the usual slew of complaints teachers have about their jobs. Unsurprisingly, teachers tend to get a little upset with the absence of respect and understanding in the policy discussions about their field. Yes, teachers work hard, often putting in 10+ hour days. And thanks to collective bargaining, they don’t get the same kind of merit raises or promotions that you get for doing a good job in the private sector.*
Parents are awful, too. You try to be a good steward of these children when they’re under your supervision, but parents make that job impossible. Whether they’re telling you what books their kid isn’t allowed to read or demanding special attention for their special little snowflake, well-meaning parents get in the way more often than not. At least they’re trying, though. A lot of parents don’t seem to be doing any parenting at all.
The bureaucracy is also terrible. You can’t simply deal with a kid’s misbehavior; you need to write a 200-page individualized plan that the principle, counselor, school district, and parents (assuming they’ve actually showed up to this meeting) can all agree on.
All of this is to say that I get where teachers are coming from—it’s a bum deal. Burnout is high, and you’ve always got some Fox News pundit blubbering about how you’re being paid too much for a job you’re not doing well enough.
Regardless! Teachers, listen: the public education system, in which you are willingly participating, and from which you are earning a living is failing. It has long ago proven itself incapable of functioning in areas crushed by poverty. It is increasingly unable to fund itself in poor, low-density rural areas, or in small cities with lots of older residents who vote against every tax-hiking referendum. It is unable to carry out its only function—education—in areas where the popular majority’s politics dictate that science takes a back seat to a single creation myth (among the many that have been told in the history of the species). Public education is by definition politicized education.
A popular explanation for the state of education today is that, because the public school system was established in an era of industrial factories and manual labor, its goal was to shape children into relatively standardized, productive, obedient laborers. We know what happened to that economy.
Compare that industrial economy to today’s economy. My six-year-old niece might grow up to be a teacher like her parents or work in the hard sciences; she could be a photographer or an artisanal pie maker; she might write code for the next big digital blockbuster company or (god forbid) go into politics. The possibilities for today’s kids are unimaginably diverse—much more so than they were for our grandparents, our parents, or even for us. So why are we so invested in one-size-fits-all education?
Learning is one of those basic things that just comes naturally to humans. To remake education in a manner that is responsive to students’ needs and adaptable to the changing economic circumstances, the entire system must be liberalized/liberated. Bring on the vouchers, the charters, the experimental models, the inexperienced-but-scrappy startup schools, and anything else that offers parents, teachers and students a real choice in how they learn.
*To be fair, they work 9 months out of the year – when accounting for the time spent on the job, their hourly wage is pretty damn respectable