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The charade of public education

There is a serious indictment of public education written by Steven Johathan Rummelsburg and published by Crisis Magazine. In his essay, The Empress is Naked, Mr. Rummelsburg claims that many of the successes touted by educators are more a manipulation of standards to make results look good.

Public education has taken on a life of its own.  She has a specific character and a predictable personality.  I contend she is animated by the father of lies. We will call her the Empress. The Emperor’s invisible clothes in the tale can be likened to the programs the Empress uses to clothe her massive body of schools.  Just like the Emperor, the Empress is “so excessively fond of clothes” that she spends all her money on them.  These outward signs of vanity are garments woven from invisible threads invented by the swindlers we know as “educational experts.” 
The Empress adorns herself with new and ever-changing signs of achievement.  One hour she shows off higher test scores, the next she touts diminishing dropout rates, after that she struts diversity, and then she puts on higher literacy rates. The higher test scores are generally an arbitrary measure of a lowered standard. The diminishing dropout rate is a narrower re-definition of the word dropout. Her claims to diversity are couched in the most rigid uniformity.  The higher literacy rates possess almost no similarity to what an ancient grammarian would call literate.  And yet still, the public applauds these invisible successes as if they were real.
Mr. Rummelsburg bases his assertion on his twenty years of teaching in the public schools. I have been teaching at the local community college for the last three years. I cannot verify that Mr. Rummelsburg's analysis is correct, but I can tell you that our public education system is broken. Students are graduating from our public high schools and they need remedial math and remedial English instruction before they can continue with college level work. This is not the exception. This is the norm.

For example, my presentation on the skeleton begins with a picture of a man holding a skull and is captioned, "Alas, poor Yorick". If I am lucky, one of the 24 students in the class might recognize this as Shakespeare. It is rare that anyone can state that it is from Hamlet. But perhaps reading the works of Dead White Males is not necessary for  future success in anatomy and physiology. The ability to read and comprehend the text book is, however, critical. Words like subsequent, contiguous, and superficial are foreign to their vocabularies. When I give the instructions, "List in decreasing order of complexity," most of my students do not know whether to put the most complex or the least complex first.

Math skills are even worse. When studying the heart, we use the equation:

Cardiac output (CO)  = Stroke Volume (SV) x Heart Rate (HR)

When I write this equation on the board, there is panic. Oh, no! We are going to do math! If I give the students two of the variables, they cannot solve for the third. They do not know now to manipulate the units of the variables. They cannot change liters to milliliters. They are not even aware that the units on both sides of the equation should match. And the mere thought of multiplying or dividing fractions sends them into a tailspin. I found out that my students do not know that miles per gallon or MPG is a mathematical ratio. They have no idea how to calculate it. They think MPG is just a ranking system like 4-stars or 5-stars. Bigger is better.

The root of this problem is multifactorial. It begins at home with the breakdown of family life. Parents, rich and poor alike, are so busy with their own lives that they make little or no time to engender and share in the educational process. Schools are all too often more concerned with social engineering and indoctrination than with teaching foundational academics like math, language, history, and basic economics. Reading lists are purged of classic literature and replaced with selections from Oprah's Book Club in the name of diversity. We have developed a culture that is so focused on self-esteem that our children do not understand failure is a possibility. We hesitate to celebrate academic excellence because it might make the average student feel uncomfortable. Everyone gets a participation trophy because actual performance is irrelevant. After having four children graduate from a public high school my assessment is that if you are in an AP or honors classroom, there is a chance--not a guarantee-- you will be educated in the subject. If you are in a general education  classroom, it is more likely that the teacher will pencil-whip the grades and you will move on whether you learned anything or not. 

I do not know the complete answer to this dilemma. However, I do know that the problem does not stem from lack of funding. We have poured millions and maybe billions of tax dollars down the black hole of public education for decades and have nothing to show for it. National standards and oversight are not the answer. It is time to fire the Department of Education and give control of education back to local communities. They cannot do any worse.


RAnn said…
I agree with you about putting control back in local hands--unless my child is going to be hurt by it. Unfortunately, most of the top-down directives in the last 30 years have had to do with protecting and giving opportunity to the poor, the minorities and those with special needs. As long as "our" schools were good, we didn't much care about "their" schools. 30 years ago special ed kids were in the trailer on the back end of campus and never took classes with "normal" kids. Today, they do and on average achieve better in mainstream classes than in special ed classes.
The theme of Catholic schools week here was "Catholic School, Raising the Standards". My first thought was "What about the kids who can't meet the standards?". The solution of the Catholic school system is to counsel them out, fail them out or expel them. The Catholic school system brags that 90% of the graduates of their regular high schools enter college. To me that just says that non-college bound kids aren't welcome in Catholic schools.

Unless the community college system there is far different from here, you have the kids who couldn't get into other schools or who have already decided that they want out of school asap. Those kids all probably took algebra in high school because it is now required; back in the day those kids took practical math.

I guess what I'm saying is that I get tired of hearing people knocking the public school system, yet no one else is willing to take on their job--the job of providing an education to all, not just the kids who are going to college, not just the kids of the middle class, not just the kids whose parents care, not just the kids who are academically successful.

I live in LA, which provides vouchers to low-income students from schools rated c,d or f so that they can attend private schools. The number of high schools which will admit these kids is very limited as they are not permitted to give admissions tests. Some Catholic elementary schools admit voucher kids, but usually only in limited numbers, in the lower grades, and if the kids don't make the grade they are held back. Those who would be held back again are told not to return. The system hasn't been in place long enough to determine whether the kids with vouchers do better than they did in public schools but I'd be interested in seeing such an analysis.
Denise Hunnell said…
Actually, the community college system here is very good. This is by far the best bargain for getting a college degree. You do two years at the community college and keep your GPA up and you have guaranteed admission to most of the Virginia state 4 year universities. Your diploma says UVA or Virginia Tech or George Mason so no one knows you spent the first two years at the community college for a fraction of the cost. I have quite a few students who are average to good students right out of high school. I also have an equal number who are coming back to school after being out for a while. Many are military vets. There are also some that have no business being in school because they have neither the foundation or the desire for college work. So it is a mixed bag. That said, the vast majority are coming in with an inadequate grounding in basic math and language skills.
Having seen the curriculum in my kids' supposedly top notch public high school, I can say with confidence that their knowledge of literature is more from our home library and dinner time discussions than from anything they did in school. I proofed their papers and taught them how to write because their teachers did not. They used to cringe when I took out my red pen because they knew I was going to make their paper "bleed". Their teachers were more concerned they understood the "social message" of what they read than whether or not they understood the basic constructs of language.
As I said, this is a multifactorial problem and parents have to be part of the solution. The focus needs to be on education, not indoctrination. And you are right, lots of focus on the extremes--kids with special needs and kids who are gifted and talented. The kids in the middle are often ignored. But whether or not these kids are going to college, they need to be able to comprehend what they read. They need to be able to do basic math. They need to have an understanding of history so they can judge current events against the past. They need a rudimentary knowledge of economics so that they know how the world of jobs and commerce operate. They should know the structure of our government and the founding principles of our nation. If we can't get it right in the public schools, anyone with any means will be switching to home schooling or private schools and the public schools will be the bastion of the disenfranchised.
RAnn said…
I sort of agree, but I have to wonder if, other than schools catering to the cream of the crop, private schools do any better? How do they do with the kids who aren't on the honors/AP track but who are capable of college, or at least a two year program?

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