Remove the shackles from public education

By Maria Libby | Feb 16, 2017

As someone who has devoted most of her life to public education, it is discouraging to see it become so politicized. The importance of education in any society is far too great to be at the mercy of politics. A free public education is one of the hallmarks of our democracy. There is no doubt that some schools are underperforming, and the reasons are definitely complex, but the solutions are not found in politics. They are found in successful classrooms all around us and around the world. Even education reforms that weren’t born in politics, such as the Common Core state standards, can get swept away in the political maelstrom. The ensuing political battles do nothing to help our public education system. Yet, we need help because public education in this country has been under attack for decades and because the problems we face are incredibly complex.

The problems we face are many. They include embarrassingly high childhood poverty rates compared to other developed nations, a growing number of mental health issues among parents and children, relentless regulations, and an epidemic of students just going through the motions. Our country, and its place in the world, is in a precarious balance. I often find myself wishing that children growing up in the United States had more hunger for their education — had an appreciation for its value. This appreciation is present in so many other countries such as China, Korea, India, Finland, Singapore. Even if they have “problems” such as an overemphasis on rote memorization, students are intrinsically driven to do well. And they strive as a country to recalibrate and shift their system to better match more effective strategies. Their cultures also send a clear message about the importance of education. In the US, public education gets a bad rap. Our culture doesn’t value it as much as it does sports, consumerism, fame, wealth, to mention a few. Many U.S. students view K-12 education as something that is forced upon them rather than viewing it as a gateway to future opportunity.

The problems we face as a nation and world are also increasingly complex. Because of this, it has been well-established that employers are looking for critical thinkers, creative problem solvers, and people who know how to get along with others. As globalization has become a reality, the world we live in has become smaller and more diverse. Students travel more frequently, companies readily become international, and communication with foreigners is commonplace. To prepare the nation’s youth to enter this workforce is not a political notion. It is practical and logical and should not be subject to the shifting winds of politics. It is also in an individual’s best interest and in our country’s best interest to be as effective as we can be in carrying out this task.

It is a somewhat futile exercise to compare public and private schools (and potentially charter schools). I have worked in both. Private schools have the luxury of shaping their student body precisely how they want, with an ability to expel failing or misbehaving students. It fundamentally changes the playing field. Private school students have the following influences shaping their approach to education: 1) They can get kicked out, 2) Their parents are paying top dollar so they better not get kicked out, and 3) They chose to attend so are generally motivated to be there. Public schools have an obligation to serve everyone and routinely contend with students who misbehave and fail courses. Some students don’t want to be there in the first place. In addition, public schools are bound by state and federal mandates that often feel like shackles. From experience, I can attest to the fact that most of those mandates require time and attention that distracts energy and resources from student learning and contributes virtually nothing to our overall mission. To put the icing on the cake, public schools run on a shoestring. It is absolute nonsense to say we are flush with cash. Think bake sales and the $250 tax write-off for the teacher who spends $1,000 out of pocket and out of love for her classroom supplies.

The institution of public education won’t survive major cuts in funding. We can’t take away an already limited resource and expect better results. We might get better results by freeing public schools of so many external mandates and regulations — let public schools operate like private schools by taking off the shackles. We might get better results by raising the status of teachers — maybe more of our nation’s best and brightest would choose teaching as a career. We might get better results by taking education out of politics and applying the lessons learned from research. We might get better results if we start building up public education in our culture instead of tearing it down.

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Comments (1)
Posted by: Maggie Trout | Feb 20, 2017 12:45

Agreed that education has been put in shackles.  Under the current system with teaching shackled to Common Core, etc.,  and teaching for tests results, there will not be the "create critical thinkers, creative problem solvers," needed by society. Stripped of its soul, "education" loses its meaning and its effectiveness.

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