When I was in high school in the late 80’s — early 90’s, it seemed that the U.S. education system was an abysmal failure — after all, weren’t the Soviets and the Chinese students scoring higher in math? Today, headlines still decry our education system as a failure. In a recent op-ed piece published in the New York Times, “One Classroom, From Sea to Shining Sea,” Susan Jacoby advocates for a national system with a standardized curriculum, standardized teacher training, and standardized funding. She states that our system has outgrown its antiquated independent heritage.
Funding. It’s difficult to discuss problems with our educational system without discussing funding. As a California resident, I’ve watched funding drastically diminish with, among other things, the passage of Proposition 13, the Enron scandal, and our latest recession. Education is not a funding priority. Regardless of curricular referendums, standardized testing, and increased accountability for teachers, without consistent and ample funding, our schools will continue to degrade. Without realistic budgets for classrooms, teachers, and materials, we are expecting the impossible from our schools. Even as a university teacher, I have often purchased supplies for my students and classroom. Under the best conditions, teachers labor with limited support. Imagine spending 6 hours in a classroom with thirty 12 year olds (those of you with pre-teens understand the challenge of an hour with just one), five days a week. While competing for their attention and attempting to manage the classroom chatter, now imagine that class days are longer due to budget cuts, or you’ve had a wasp’s nest near the outside classroom door for six months, despite several requests to have it with removed, so you need to keep the door and outside windows shut. Now imagine that most of the toilets don’t work because the district has had to cut a majority of its maintenance staff (I’m describing a colleague’s actual experience in a Southern California school district). These externalities are rarely part of discussions about our education system. Instead, let’s talk about standardized testing and holding teachers more accountable.
Education isn’t simply something to criticize. We all have a stake in its success. We choose. We choose to prioritize other issues, vote against bond measures, argue the intricacies of esoteric tax rules, and then blame our teachers, their training, or some other indefinable scapegoat for our failure to adequately educate our future. Let’s put our energy into figuring out an ample funding scheme for our schools, giving teachers and students the resources they need, create a climate of success and then re-visit questions of standardized tests, national curricula, and teacher accountability.