Recently, I wrote about the problems with a few of Pres. Obama’s ideas for education reform. I don’t like it when people just say what we’re doing is wrong. That’s the problem with political attack ads. They focus on something they don’t like and generally don’t provide alternatives. So I feel it is important for me to say what I think the government could do to help education in this country. I can even boil it down to a catchphrase: “Think outside the classroom.”
Federal education law over the past 50 years has always focused on what schools and teachers need to do. Recently, it’s been all about accountability. The theory says if teachers are held accountable for their students success (or lack thereof) that they will teach better. Much of No Child Left Behind is based on this concept. I’ve long had a problem with this theory. On average I don’t believe that teachers are just getting by. If you work from this assumption, then you have to ask, “If teachers aren’t the problem, what is?”
The answer isn’t completely clear, but some things seem probable. Most failing schools are in the inner-city. A few things are generally true about the inner-city. The people have lower incomes, they are predominately minorities, and will likely have more people for which English is not their native language. The children in this environment attend these schools and on average they don’t perform as well as others.
Government looks at education with a very narrow lens. They see failing schools as an education problem, but it is actually a socioeconomic problem. Poverty has long-lasting effects on everyone it touches. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 19% of kids live below the poverty level. More depressing than that is the fact that 41% live in low-income families, which are families whose income is not enough to provide essentials for their children. These kids come to school hungry, and tired. They have little parental guidance because parents often work two or three jobs just to pay the rent if they’re lucky. If these kids are unlucky, their parents are drug addicts or worse. Addressing the problem of children in poverty will go a long way to helping education. Some will say that if they wanted these kids could work hard and break free from this condition. In theory that’s great, but the fact is theory is not reality. These kids grow up with the daily sight that school doesn’t get them where they want to be. The rich people in these neighborhoods didn’t go to college. They’re pimps and drug dealers. If we want to improve inner-city education we need drastic reforms. Schools need money to provide free meals; starting at breakfast. We need more money for after school programs that help keep kids off the streets. If you like incentive based programs, we need more incentives for teachers to go to the inner city. We need to forgive student loans for teachers who spend enough time in certain districts. It is important to make sure teachers are skilled, but it is equally important that we put children in a position to learn. That happens before regular schooling. We must expand pre-K programs like HeadStart.
Unfortunately, most of these ideas would fall on deaf ears. No, they would fall on the ears of those who don’t care to listen. Republicans have long tried to eliminate at-risk preschool programs like HeadStart. They say that these programs don’t work. Often cited is the so-called “washout effect.” At risk preschoolers who attend HeadStart and those who don’t generally score the same on standardized tests by about the 2nd grade. This leads to the belief that HeadStart, and programs like it, are not successful. Recently, economists have published reports that show kids in at-risk programs have higher graduation rates, higher college enrollment rates, and higher average lifetime earnings. This comes out to an average of $320,000 in a lifetime. I believe that is success.
We also must look at teacher education in this country. I have a number of friends who have gone into the education field. They all seem to have the same feeling about their college programs. They had a lot of knowledge about subjects but not about kids. Teacher eduction programs need to put students in the classroom more. After college new teachers need to work under experienced teachers in serious mentor programs. Nothing in the world can account for what a person who has been teaching for 20 years knows. Experience is key in education and we need to be tapping that in our teacher education programs.
Improving education in the U.S. isn’t going to be easy. It will require the political will to engage in programs we can’t measure for years. It will require the President and Congress to be more creative than ever before. We must acknowledge the fact that education is tied to other issues in society. Only by addressing all of these can we be successful. We must “think outside the classroom.”