There is nothing fundamentally wrong with public education in the United States; it is not the monster right-wing millionaires and their on-a-leash politicians would have you believe. There is nothing wrong with public school teachers either; they are not incompetent free-loaders, not monsters indoctrinating children with liberal ideas. The notion that something is wrong with public schools and teachers sprang up as full blown from the forehead of Zeus when multi-millionaire entrepreneurs began seeing public education as a profit center. Rupert Murdoch, for example, once declared public education a multi-million dollar opportunity for entrepreneurs. When the idea of for-profit public education dawned on certain groups of people public education became an instant “crisis” and was thereafter bleeding in front of sharks.
Public school teachers became targetable in large measure because they are seen as bastions of political liberality by organizations such as ALEC hence its mission to privatize public education, eliminate teachers unions, and even to influence curricula and teaching at public universities compliments of the Koch boys. Now that we have a president-elect for whom money is paramount, we suddenly have a “huge” crisis. The attacks are now destined to be full-frontal with an outspoken advocate of privatization, Betsy deVos, to be installed as the Secretary of Education who, like so many other critics of public education, has no credentials as an educator. DeVos is a long-time advocate of charter schools and the schools she championed are now seen generally as failures. Apparently, nothing succeeds like failure.
Here follows the most essential piece of information concerning public education generally. No two children are born the same in any way, shape, or form. Children do not learn anything at the same rate, in truth, they learn all things at different rates. Not all children come from homes where education is valued and learning encouraged. None of this is news. We have not, on a national scale, established an approach to public schooling that respects the learning abilities of all children as individual centers of experience and ability. Given what we know about teaching and learning, about the variables in learning abilities, about the importance of home lives in the development of children why have we continued an antedeluvian pedagogical model that is anti-child?
Schools of education teach about child development but regardless of this being the curriculum for very many years, public school organization is still mired in rigid grading systems, that move kids along the same timetable, the same learning age and grade track as when I was in elementary school 74 years ago. More than any other reason school organization is political and it is seriously wrong, harmful, and dishonest. These truths are seldom if ever spoken out loud in part for political correctness, to not enrage parents, and, most importantly, to avoid stigmatizing children. Sitting on the floor singing “Kumbaya” is not authentic education either.
Age grouped grades are and have been a hoax and a cruel one that has been imposed on children for many years rewarding those for whom the learning experiences are appropriate but destructive and stigmatizing those for whom they are not. Every professional educator is aware of this, it has been the elephant in the room since public schools were organized and still no one wants to talk about it. There is no such thing on Earth as a “standard child” and by that reasoning alone standardized testing as the ultimate measure of pedagogical success is false on its face. To claim otherwise is to trivialize human nature and human experience – it is, in fact, dehumanizing. To contend that standardized testing is a fair and proper method of assessment betrays a diminished view of humanity and willful ignorance of the educational process. To use such testing to make a buck is immoral. Education is not a manufacturing process and uniformity is never the objective of authentic learning.
The greatest threats to public education today are politics and greed. In the past ten and more years public education has become increasingly politicized with devastating results and for venal motives that have nothing to do with wanting children to be educated. The teaching profession has been under political attack to such an extent that there is a looming shortage of traditionally trained classroom teachers which is certainly to the satisfaction and purposes of those attacking the profession. In New Mexico, where I live, researchers have found there are nearly 600 open teaching positions. Even substitute teachers are in short supply as for example Albuquerque is currently looking for more than 200 people to fill in until accredited full-time teachers can be hired.
The keys to authentic education have always been interest and ability and when these are absent so too is authentic learning. Needless to say authentic learning and authentic teaching go hand-in-hand, neither can function when teachers cannot devote an appropriate amount of time to each learner. Nor when teachers must teach to a test to satisfy a political agenda. Consequently, when a school system increases class sizes and the number of available classroom teachers decreases we have a prescription for failure writ large and no claims to authentic teaching and learning can be made. What it does accomplish however is expose public education to the circling politically connected privatization vultures.