I think every reasonable person in this country agrees that education in America is a mess. The debate over education instead revolves around what or who is to blame and how to fix it.
The easy scapegoat is always poverty but in reality the biggest problem is complete mismanagement on the part of the government. The federal government has shown time and again they are not to be trusted with our childrens' education. Almost every time Secretary of Education Arne Duncan opens his mouth, I feel nauseous. Yesterday in the Washington Post, Duncan authored an OpEd on school reform where he discussed the failures of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and various other areas the government has failed to fix education with its tinkering. His solution? More tinkering, naturally.
What's especially troubling is both parties seem to accept federal government oversight as the answer to our education problems. While government officials involved in education claim states should have more flexibility to manage their education systems, federal requirements on food and funding certainly limit a state's ability to govern its own education, not to mention the ridiculous use of standardized testing that forces teachers to teach to a test rather than the needs of their specific class. Duncan claims Republicans and Democrats alike want to "fix NCLB" but why fix something that never worked in the first place? Forget about fixing it, get rid of NCLB altogether. Does NCLB (or it's replacement, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) contain anything that makes bad teachers accountable? Does it effectively deal with the problems caused by teacher unions? Does it provide for better parental choice? Does NCLB or ESEA allow the state to decide what's best on a local level so they can deal directly with specific problems in each district? Does it hold bad parents accountable? The answer to most, if not all of these questions is "no" and our education crisis won't be repaired until those issues are addressed successfully.
None of this is meant to trivialize the negative impact poverty has on education. Poor students certainly have a greater socioeconomic burden to overcome but of all the problems in our education system, poverty is the easiest hurdle to overcome. You don't need money to study or help your kids with homework or take advantage of a teacher's willingness to spend extra time with a struggling student.
In her opinion piece yesterday, Valerie Strauss placed a large amount of blame not only on poverty but also upon all of us who are not impoverished. The fact that most people with children are struggling to raise their own kids was lost on Strauss as she pointed a finger at them for not caring enough about other peoples' kids. Yes, there are a lot of families living in or at near poverty levels but where is all the money for entitlement programs going if not to feed, clothe and house these poor families? How much more are Americans expected to give to others outside their household?
The song and dance over poverty being the root cause of poor education needs to come to an end if we are going to realistically and successfully deal with the problem. Lots of poor kids with the proper parenting still perform well in school. It is a parent's responsibility to work with their kid's teachers to insure he or she is learning in school.
Strauss claims we "demonize teachers," unfairly blaming them for a child's poor performance. She is only partially correct here. Most people don't blame teachers in general for education problems but rather place the blame on bad teachers and the system's refusal to dismiss these bad teachers. Teacher unions have consistently fought to weaken teacher appraisal, protect tenure, and even fight against a bonus award program that reward teachers financially for higher performance. All this has done is place more burden on good teachers while protecting bad teachers and ultimately doing a massive disservice to our students.
Strauss also supported pay increases for teachers, prioritizing national pre-kindergarten classes, and increase funding for public schools. Naturally she offers no suggestions on just how we afford these increases though I guess she expects those careless Americans she referred to at the beginning of her article to foot the bill via increased taxes.
Poverty is certainly a problem in our country and there's little doubt that poor kids will have a harder time in school. With that understanding, parents should know they will have to work harder and longer with their kids. School administrators will have to create curricula that has the flexibility to cater to students from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. Teacher unions need to work at protecting good teachers and allowing schools to weed out the bad ones via teacher evaluations. And government needs to step aside and allow all of the parties listed above to do their part without burdensome limitations.