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The 5 Myths Encompassing American Public Education Reform

For over 30 years America has been trying to “reform” our Public Educational system. Yet, was it ever broken to begin with? It has in fact functioned well wherever possible despite some missing pieces and occasional mission drift. We can back track this terrific sham to 5 main premises never adequately questioned or disputed. Was it, and is it, fair or in our interests to compare this nation to nations such as China, India, Russia or other European countries academically? And, did we ever fully digest the drastic differences in national values, lifestyles, and overall accomplishments between the U.S. and those nations? We did not.

Since the 1980’s to present and in reaction to the Reagan Administration’s, A Nation at Risk commission on “our failing public education system,” education reformers have fully invested in 5 mythical premises:

1. We are to compare our national educational statistics to that of our international economic competitors

2. We are to align our educational standards to meet the needs of a future global workforce

3. We are to rely heavily on standardized test scores to measure student performance for international comparison

4. We are to blame teacher quality, or lack thereof, for this proposed failure of our national education performance output

5. We are to tinker heavily in the privatization of education throughout the nation

First, as mentioned in previous articles, how could we ever compare nations with different governmental structures, differing values, differing statistical integrity standards, and differing societal/class distinctions, etc.? For example, China is a communist country which imposes national educational standards upon its students, ignoring the uniqueness and intricacies of locales. They do this because they embrace communism and “the state” decides what, which, and where their industries are to be established. Their workforce is selected, tracked, and groomed from the elementary stage into adulthood. The absence of individual choice is trumped by a fierce utilitarian function embedded into their political system. This is not an American value and we have learned of the historical dangers of practicing such ideologies.

We are compared to India with its middleclass growing exponentially along with growth in software engineering, manufacturing, and medical industries. Their results at face value, is impressive. However, we overlook their impasse with issues of gender discrimination, class/caste distinctions, and racial barriers. While the US is no stranger to these issues, and certainly not innocent of them, we have put mechanisms in place to confront them, (though steadily losing their potency). Women are more likely to be educated and valued in the US presently. America still professes to value the combination of individuality and equality. Another historical lesson we have already embraced and implemented through our ideal of providing Public Education.

The globalized workforce affecting our educational priorities is a sketchy assertion at best. Why? Because it relies wholly on political agendas and policy decisions made during each US election cycle. Industry travels wherever corporate taxes are lowest and to where labor is cheapest. Since economic policy changes can be made within a single election cycle, does this mean we are to change our educational priorities along with time each time? Are we to focus on mathematics more simply because China and/or India are producing more engineers? Is quantity the issue or quality? And, are those nations producing more because of their quality, or because of their larger populations and more exploitable workforce? There was a time when America took pride in its citizenry and their quality of life, (or we at least professed this). Education rooted firmly materialism cannot thrive. The globalized workforce is a concept embracing the value of production, but ignoring our historical embrace of domestic innovation and citizens’ quality of life.

Standardized test scores may only make sense when attempting to justify funding from an outside source (a legislator) that is not present in the classroom, having no knowledge of a particular locale’s economic engine, and is a stranger to a community’s resources, challenges and cultural makeup. It is a one-size fits all suit, where a tailor made one is obviously best. Just as there may be multiple learning styles, there are multiple assessment tools to demonstrate learning and understanding. In America, we value individuality, individual growth, the uniqueness of community, and the benefits to diversity. Did we sensationalize test standardization to address educational quality, or to justify punishment and prepare for hostile takeover of school districts? This issue is linked to teacher quality. A teacher may only be as good as the resources made available, the support they receive, the development made ready, and the quality of life this professional may enjoy as a result of their commitment.

Lastly, privatization has been the cure all presented to the public at large. However, it subtly eludes the murky question of accountability. There is no guarantee to every citizen in the private domain. The private institution tackles admission as it pleases, administers discipline as it wishes, pays employees however it wants, and the bottom line is its ultimate concern. The private institution runs itself as a monarchy making decisions from the top down, appointing its nobles rather than collectively considering merit, and selling us convenience and speed while ignoring the necessary time to debate, analyze, compromise, and collectively agree. Democratic practices are lost.

These are the values in which we should be proud of and should celebrate: 1) we do not track our students, we facilitate them, 2) we do not compete our students against each other, but rather against their own circumstances, 3) we strive to value ALL of our citizens and their quality of life, 4) we embrace diversity, because we are proudly a diverse nation, and 5) we value our natural environment, our multilingual, multi-racial, multi religious and non-religious differences and recognize that citizenship in our nation requires advanced citizenship. We educate to create societal citizen engineers. America suffers from an education equality problem in distribution, NOT an educational quality problem.

The American Education Dream is Slipping Away

There was a time when each American generation thought that the next generation would do better than themselves. A good college education would lead to employment in a company for thirty years. The dream of an American education is slipping away due to the rising cost of post-secondary education. Now it seems that a college education does not guarantee sufficient income. Some college graduates are returning home because they cannot afford student loans and the cost of living.

Students who have to work to pay for college are finding it difficult to keep pace with the cost of living. It is not uncommon to have a book cost $100.00 or more. Students do not get much in return for selling their book back to the bookstore. The cost of room and board is rising steadily as the price for food, electric and gas continue to increase. The recent changes in minimum wage also lag behind the typical living expenses. Students are facing financial challenges outside of the classroom that are causing them to sit out for a semester or two.

The American Dream is also slipping in the K12 systems throughout the country. Too few students are prepared to function in a world that is filled with computer technology. Students need exposure to technology early. Some say that analyzing the changes in the American Dream by looking at elementary school is not appropriate. The country needs to take a long term look at how each citizen is prepared for future employment demands. The types of jobs that K12 students must fill will require different types of abilities which must be an integral part of their current education.

There is a sea of changes happening in the financial markets that provided families with funding to pay for K12 education and college. Individuals who have a decent income are finding it more difficult to obtain a loan with a good interest rate. It is putting a greater pressure on families to save more money. Unfortunately, saving money can be difficult when a couple is living in a major city. The inability to obtain fair interest rates may force students to take out loans with higher interest rates that will last 30 years.

People all over the world still come to the United States with the expectation of the American dream. The dream that they can start new lives and have greater freedom continues to draw them to this country. They understand that having access to education will increase their children’s employability. It’s important that the country uses the talents of every citizen that is here. America needs to prepare for an increasing diversity in the workforce of the 21st century.