The issue of public education is discussed within two important premises; that the schools currently achieve their stated goals, and that a public, which is to say government, system of schools is necessary. Let us begin instead by examining these premises themselves, the first by the results of the system itself, and the second by exploring alternative means of providing a system of universal education.
The first stated goal of public education is to provide a well-rounded education in language, math, science and history to their students. The results, as every examination has demonstrated, are students who have no real knowledge of science or history, limited math ability and, in many cases, functional illiteracy. Many studies show a decrease in student knowledgebase beginning after the first few years of instruction. Therefore, many public schools fail in their obligations to their students under their own guiding principles.
Second, preparation for life is a claimed goal of public education, but instead of students who can manage a budget, understand formal social protocol and perform in entry-level or moderately skilled jobs, students are entirely without even basic knowledge of professional life. Two prime proofs are the credential creep in the business world, as jobs that once required a high school education (or less) now require a Bachelors Degree, and on a smaller but illuminating level, the first thing job interview trainers tell their students: “Do not wear jeans to job interviews”.
But the burden-shifting from primary schools to post-secondary schools is another claimed goal of public education. The claim is that teaching children to succeed in business is a college's job, and the job of the secondary school is to prepare the student for college. The problem, however, is the number of explicitly remedial courses now available at college, and the growth of remedial material in supposedly non-remedial classes.
Finally, on the famous “Instilling a lifetime love of learning” claim, ask average students if they have a love of learning. They will respond negatively. Not only is worthwhile study dismissed, but the word itself bears a negative connotation. After 13 years of public schooling, the average student associates learning not with the acquisition and practice of new knowledge and skills, but with mind-numbing nonsense consisting of empty reading assignments and pointless homework. In short, public schools more often foster a hatred of learning that is often overcome later in life.
Since all the data and observations make clear that public schools have failed their own standards of performance, we can look at the three primary reasons given buy the defenders of the public system.
The first reason is money, and in the face of decaying buildings, ancient textbooks, poorly maintained equipment and limited supplies, it certainly looks like this claim is incontrovertible. But looking at what is bought tells us very little about how much was spent. Average spending in the United States, annually per-student, is $10,615. Average class size is about 24-25 students, which gives the average classroom approximately $250,000 to spend on teacher salary (Around $42,000, on average), classrooms supplies, furniture, and the building itself.
So regardless of why, we can see that the money is badly spent, if the room is poorly maintained, the textbooks are thirty years old, and the desks even older. The teacher is only receiving about a fifth of the spending in that classroom as well. The solution to the money issue is not additional income, but rather spending the current income in a way that impacts students' educational needs. After all, at ten thousand dollars a year, parents themselves could hire full-time tutors for small groups of neighborhood children.
The second claim is blame-shifting to the parents. Parents are not involved enough in their children's education, is the claim. When parents are involved, children do, in fact, do better. However, the example of Jaime Escalante illustrates perfectly, that when a teacher presses their students hard, and forces them to rise to the level of the material, they do. Escalante took a school in danger of losing it's accreditation and created the best high-school math program in all of East Los Angeles. After he and his fellow-thinkers gave up fighting the administration and left, the math program was taken over by mainstream educators, and largely dissolved.
So while it is true that parental involvement does impact student achievement, the truth is that teachers who teach can make even the worst students succeed. Putting the blame on parents for not doing the teacher's job merely makes the point that the teacher isn't really relevant. If the parent has to teach their child, what purpose does the 'teacher' serve?
The final defense to excuse widespread poor performance is that the surrounding community is in some way at fault. This is blame-shifting to the “community”, generally followed by demands for money for social service programs or just a “So we can't help it.” But Jaime Escalante's experience was in the type of community that is written off by public educators. He was wildly successful in building an amazing program in the most famous urban area in America.
So if the standard defenses are all deeply flawed, what are the real reasons that public schools do so poorly? There are multitudes, but they stem from two major causes: Monopoly privilege, and Teachers Unions.
The monopoly privilege in this case does not come from a traditional monopoly grant. It comes instead from the confluence of two legal principles; conscripted attendance and tax-support. When residents must provide schools with both funds and students, the schools are insulated from the costs of their bad decisions. They are free to ignore complaints, parents, and actual student needs and pursue whatever goals they declare benefit the student body. While there is some competition from private institutions, this is an alternative limited to the well-off, as people who send their children to private schools must also pay their share of taxes to public schools are well.
This leaves the school vulnerable to political pressure, and the primary form of political pressure is the Teachers' Unions. Teacher and other educational unions are among the largest forces in American politics, and are among the Democratic Party's largest contributors. The unions use that power to influence legislatures to protect and advance their interests at the expense of the quality of the schools. It is the largest example of what is called “Regulatory Capture”. Not only do unions spend lavishly on state and federal legislators, they also spend a great deal of money getting their own members on local Boards of Education, turning even the organizations that are supposed to protect the interests of the community into organizations that shield the schools from the community.
Of course, the influence doesn't end in the political environment, but like private-sector unions, Teachers' Unions also seek to maximize their membership through absurd work rules and restrictions on what can be done by whom, making it effectively impossible to fire poor teachers and using a seniority system that rewards teachers based on their established loyalty to their union, not their performance. But while private unions have their impulses mostly balanced by the threat of business failure (though not always, as what happened with Hostess makes plain), public unions never have to worry about such outcomes. Their maximization comes at the cost of educational quality, as rules kill innovation and development.
Additionally, the union's focus on seniority-based pay, promotions and retentions harms educational quality. The union's goal in seniority is to reward those members who have been union members the longest. The longer someone remains within an organization without causing trouble, the more likely they are to support the union regardless of what it does. There have been several instances of where teachers-of-the-year have received their commendation and dismissal notices within the same year. Only a government-protected union monopoly could fire those they acknowledge to be the best among them.
These factors shield the education system from the consequences of bad, selfish or destructive decisions. One such decision is the certification system for teaching in public schools. They require, not a degree or experience in the subject, but a degree in education. Experienced doctors, lawyers, and scientists are not qualified to teach medicine, law and science and can't, but a newly-graduated Education major without any background in these subjects is and can.
A second selfish decision is the choice to teach to the middle, and write off the top and bottom performers in the student body as losses. While there are auto-didacts, children with a great amount of parental support and students who adapt well to the current school system, students who could be top performers in a specialized program are simply written off as lazy. Likewise, poor children who could be good or average students with appropriate support are ignored. In fact, the word “special” and the phrase “special needs” within the school system belong exclusively to the mentally retarded children, all of whom will never rise above “functional”, many of whom will never be self-supporting and some of whom cannot learn at all, and will remain institutionalized for their entire lives. Public school condemn everyone else who requires more than the 'default' setting to neglect and failure because they do not have to care about the outliers in a way a private school would, or may even specialize in them.
A third choice in this vein is to teach down to the level and material that the students have already achieved, rather than challenging the students to advance in their education. So while the top and the bottom are simply abandoned, the middle is not challenged, and shifts down as students avoid demonstrating mastery of the material to avoid the introduction of new, and therefore difficult material. This perverse system of rewards, where failing makes life easier rather than harder, teaches students to feign ignorance so they can spend more time coasting through already-learned material. This choice is often justified as “teaching to the slowest learner”, as everyone is “entitled” to an education. But other students that have learned the material are still present in that class, and their time and education are being sacrificed to the ineptitude of the “slowest learner”.
Another common example of selfish, destructive choices is one that public school system and it's unions claim to oppose. The phrase “Teaching to the test” is the shorthand method of referring to it, but it has two separate meanings, one of which is actually beneficial to student achievement, and another, which is actively harmful. But what the system is actually opposed too is the testing, and any metric by which the system can be evaluated. (Incidentally, this is the same reason many students oppose testing.)
The two meanings of the phrase are contradictory; the first meaning is “Teach the material on the test.” Teaching material on properly-designed tests of basic skills will give students basic skills, many of which are missing from educational programs. This is what the system is opposed too. The second meaning, however, is what the system actually does. They teach students to pass the test, independent of the material. The biggest example of this is the “whole word recognition” method of teaching literacy.
Whole word recognition(WWR) teaches the shortcuts readers develop on their own as they gain experience in reading. It does not teach the core concepts of phonics, allowing students to move quickly past words they have been taught, but without any ability to learn new words on their own. This gives illiterate students the ability to pass reading comprehension tests with grade-level word-sets, like state exams, and deny illiteracy more effectively, while remaining unable to read books outside specific, grade-level criteria. It gives the teachers credit for doing their jobs while leaving students dependent, unable to teach themselves and advance their own knowledge. This policy extends widely throughout education, and WWR is merely the most extreme example.
Finally, because they don't have to, schools refuse to change in the face of new conditions or new facts. Research has discovered, for example, that teenagers are biologically predisposed to wake and fall asleep later, and that early-morning studies are detrimental to many students. This research is nearly twenty years old, but many schools have shifted to earlier start times, not later ones.
Likewise, mechanics, machines operators and other skilled trades could be taught at the high-school level and are in high demand, but schools cut car mechanics from the curriculum thirty years ago and never looked back. Reacting and adjusting to either of these facts would improve their students' ability to succeed, but schools simply demand more money for what they are already doing, despite enough money being available to add useful programs.
There are solutions to these issues, however. The first step is to introduce voucher systems at the state and local level. Vouchers are government grants in the value the state is already paying for an average child's education. The money is paid to the school the student attends, instead of the school assigned to the territory the student lives in. The money could be used to send students to any public or private school, within the political area of the government, or even without. To reduce the burden on the state, and introduce price competition, parents who send their children to schools that charge less than the value of the voucher could receive some fraction of the savings in cash.
This would be an immediate policy-level solution as it wouldn't require removal or reform of the public system, but would allows parents to evacuate their children to an alternative, competing system. The profit-motive would cause a wide variety of schools to appear, catering to specific need-sets of the students they serve, solely and only because parents could punish failing schools by leaving, and reward successful schools by joining or staying. Schools that act as indifferently to student needs and parental desires as the modern public school would quickly find themselves out of students, and that is the only real objection – it endangers the union-monopoly on education.
Is a system that fails a large portion of it's students by simply boring them out of the school system, and leaves other students functionally illiterate worth protecting from even the specter of serious competitive pressure to adapt? Is it worth dooming students to an insufficient education for the modern world to line the pockets of wealthy unions? Is it worthwhile to sacrifice your children so that an incompetent or abusive fool can claim to be a teacher?
http://www2.census.gov/govs/school/10f33pub.pdf Accessed 12/03/2012
http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/11/class-size-around-the-world/ Accessed 12/03/2012
http://www.payscale.com/research/US/All_K-12_Teachers/Salary Accessed 12/03/2012
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2160380/Teacher-Year-fired-ruthless-California-budget-cuts.html Accessed 12/04/2012
http://www.jsonline.com/news/education/96349689.html Accessed 12/04/2012
http://radioboston.wbur.org/2011/09/07/teacher-of-the-year Accessed 12/04/2012
http://townhall.com/tipsheet/townhallcomstaff/2012/06/08/new_educators_win_teaching_awards_then_shown_the_door_by_their_union Accessed 12/04/2012
http://kidshealth.org/parent/growth/sleep/sleep_problems.html Accessed 12/19/2012
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/education/8579951.stm Accessed 12/19/2012
http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/sleep-topics/school-start-time-and-sleep Accessed 12/19/2012
http://www.womensforum.com/why-teens-drop-out-of-high-school.html (Reason 5)Accessed 12/19/2012