American Public Education: Why it May Never Significantly Improve

American Public Education: Why it May Never Significantly Improve

The criticism of public education has been almost constant since The US has become the most powerful nation on earth. It has been expressed in a myriad of ways and for many reasons. Some criticism is from individuals and groups with specific agendas. These may have legitimate purposes but most focus on temporary issues and needs. Examples are the cyclical need and glut of engineers over the past century, for social workers, and for skilled workers and steelworkers in America’s fading industrial workforce.

But many knowledgeable and well-meaning people criticize the public schools. Their basic objection is that they have not and do not meet sufficiently the needs of their graduates.

What is the overall purpose of public education? There is general agreement that it should produce graduates who become productive, independent of community support, and able and willing to raise a family (to perpetuate the society). To do that, they must be well-informed enough to vote intelligently (to assure the survival of democratic government and national security). And, enough of the more capable of them must become wise and creative so that the nation can remain a leader in the economic, political and social international communities.

In the opinion of many, the nation’s schools are and have been deficient in meeting many of these goals. National, state and local governments require children to attend educational institutions, and parents must affirm that they have provided such an education to their minor children. But despite this, and the establishment of standards, a large minority of children leave school WITHOUT having met them.

Non-public schools, secular and religious, private or partially public schools are permitted but few of them are significantly more effective than the public schools. Exceptions are expensive private schools, some religiously-supported ones (also becoming expensive), and a few “charter” schools, (the most recent “fad” that seems to mirror the public schools in proportions of bad, fair, good, and excellent ones. Informal and some controlled studies show that “home schooling,” done by over a million families nationwide, does better in meeting learning standards. Why? The obvious answer is: “home-schooled” children receive “individual attention” that is impossible to provide to children in most public schools because of its high cost.

This single finding should, but does not, provide at least a “common-sense” conclusion that IF students are given more attention, they will learn more. For some reason—the most likely is that communities can’t or won’t pay for it—this is not an option for the nation, at any level. Additional evidence supporting this is found mostly in private schools and schools that receive additional funding.

The reasonable conclusion must be that much of the criticism of the schools is hypocritical, self-serving, based on ignorance and on the per-concieved opinions of special interests that have vested interests in NOT having a better-educated society and knowledgeable electorate. Recent elections seem to validate this conclusion.

What actually DOES make significant improvement in American education difficult even in the short term, unlikely in most school districts, and IMPOSSIBLE most states and the nation? Here are some reasons.

FIRST, the American educational system is not actually a single one but comprised of at least
13,000 local “districts”, fifty more or less efficient state systems, and an almost powerless and ineffective national “office of education” that provides funding for specific purposes and some technical assistance in specific fields. Private and other non-public schools comprise less than 10% of alternatives.

SECOND, the lack of financial support and control of curriculum requirements make IMPOSSIBLE timely change of any kind but the most dire emergency CHANGE in most of what either local or state schools are able to initiate.

THIRD, the KINDS OF COMMUNITIES in which most American children grow up are incapable of providing the kinds of OUT OF SCHOOL EXPERIENCES needed to make most children capable of BECOMING INDEPENDENT LEARNERS BY THE AGE OF 12 OR 14 YEARS OF AGE. Unless a learner can become increasingly INDEPENDENT by that age, the likelihood of becoming an effective learner diminishes significantly.
What are some of those non-school influences? They include parental interest and effort to motivate and emotionally condition children to actually WANT TO LEARN. The social and economic environment of the local neighborhood and communities are often determinative of how well a child achieves. For example, even though high-achievers can be found even in low economic levels communities, the AVERAGE student coming from them does not usually achieve above the “average” level of the community’s students. The media, neighborhood friends and acquaintances, and the overall environment are much more powerful than the schools alone.

STUDIES OF LEVELS OF ACHIEVEMENT IN COMMUNITIES OF VARYING ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL STATUS show that even when the quality of the school curriculum and teaching is similar, the achievement is higher among students in the HIGHER-ECONOMIC LEVEL COMMUNITIES. The obvious conclusion must be that so-called “equalization” must be in the COMMUNITIES, NOT ONLY THE SCHOOLS. Is this possible?

The answer is NOT COMPLETELY. Some improvements, though, CAN HELP, and some have, in rudimentary form, already been established.

Effective education of teachers can help, IF the way school programs are organized and implemented is improved. Most important is the use of NON-COMPARATIVE testing to identify LEARNING NEEDS, NOT PAST ACHIEVEMENT. AND THEN FOLLOW-UP INSTRUCTION PROVIDED AS SOON THE NEEDS ARE IDENTIFIED.
The goal of all education and training is to make the learner independent, that is, can perform—think, write, act, and and function without further instruction. The most efficient instruction provides the skills needed to “learn how to learn.” That is, unfortunately, not well done in too many schools, training programs and other instructional activities.

Elsewhere I have suggested ways to improve ways to teach and learn to become “independent learners,” This means, to me, someone who has the skills to continue to study and learn without the immediate presence of a teacher. That is, someone who knows how to develop and use their mental abilities and has sufficient knowledge of where to obtain the “raw data” they need to succeed by themselves, including the wisdom to know whom to ask to obtain help when they need it.

John H. Langer, JD, Ed.D. Retired Federal agency manger, former professor of education, public school administrator, and writer of a number of articles and publications on education, public affairs, substance abuse and social issues. In writing a book on attention and memory as it relates to education, this blog is helping to focus attention n current issues, and hopefully, add something useful as well.

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