September 29, 2020

Public schools: Is there a big fix?

Public Schools: Is There A Big Fix?
by Steve Mcfarland

Being the center of attention has its advantages. People look at you, talk about you, and read reports from others about what they think of you. The world perks up it’s ears when your name is mentioned. When you speak everyone slides to the edge of their seats anticipating something is about to happen. But, while lights and cameras often highlight beauty, they can also easily draw attention to the flaws.

For the American education system, the public cameras have been in position and the carpet unrolled as once again it falls into public scrutiny detailed enough to make Joan Rivers blush. Over the past several years, talk of the need to reform public education from its free falling collapse has dominated national state and local elections. And the debate is just getting started. Believe me, the education issues have barely stepped on the runway in what looks to be a long-term stroll down the walkway of public opinion.

There are simply no easy answers to the problems facing schools in America. As Lucy said to Charlie Brown, “If we can identify your problem then we can label it.” The first big issue facing the Bush administration is getting people from both sides of the aisle to agree on the problem. For that matter, George and company face the clear and present danger coming from those not convinced a problem even exists. As the space capsule hurls itself uncontrollably toward the earth, we are shocked to hear, “Houston, we can’t seem to find the Tang.”

In 1990, the Commonwealth of Kentucky ruled that the state’s education system was unconstitutional in that too many students were failing and/or dropping out. Equally as distressing were the unfair standards used to fund school districts. Many impoverished schools from Appalachia were crying foul over the property tax based funding formula that left them without textbooks and materials, not to mention needed building repairs. Now over ten years into the Kentucky Education Reform Act, highlighted by incorporating the newest trends in education research and methodology, test scores have some declaring, “We have a problem!”

Before we start pointing fingers and accusing each other for the state of our schools, perhaps it’s time to make this startling declaration: educating the public in America is a very, very, very, difficult assignment. Who knows if a voucher system will work, if continued education reform will really improve learning, or if more money for teachers will really create better teachers and therefore better results? Perhaps those should be tried and tested as other ideas in the past have been. How will we know if new brain research findings will lead to reformed teaching methods that will enhance academic achievement if we fail to think with innovation? Public education has always been a frontier for new ideas and the benefits of new ideas have reached far beyond the world of education. We need to continue thinking, changing, innovating and creating. But, it may be time to finally say what many in the education field have felt for years: this job is not easy.

The trend in our society is to look for singularly simple answers. No where is this more prevalent than in the public education debate. Today it is curriculum alignment issues, yesterday it was after-school programs, tomorrow it may be teacher qualifications. What may be overlooked is that the complexity of the problems do not call for simple answers. The task before public education has always been the most daunting in America: providing education for every American child regardless of SES, ethnicity, disability or environment. And research based programs that work in one setting, often fail miserably in others.

For years the conclusions from all the research has pointed to the lack of “best practices techniques” and the improper use of programs and teaching methods that “work”. Having worked as a school social worker for the past decade, I have been exposed to a myriad of programs that although “proven” by research to work, still fail miserably in our school. Our conclusions have ranged from simply not doing the program correctly to our school being different, with it’s own unique needs and problems.

Perhaps it is time to admit the difficulties facing public schools. Most schools in our land do an amazing job educating a culture of young people devastated by defaulting families, drugs, violence, and the other backwashes of the past forty years. It is time to declare this is not ever going to be easy. As the debate about what needs to be done with America’s education system continues, it would be music to the ears of many hard working teachers and administrators to hear some common sense conclusions. Including some from a president famous for common sense thinking.