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The American Way of Miseducation

Joel Schechter
August 1, 2007

Some Radical Proposals for Reform

by Joel Shatzky
The American educational system has been considered ‘in crisis’ ever since the 1966 report by Johns Hopkins sociologist James S. Coleman, Equality of Educational Opportunity, suggested that race and class were more influential than school funding in shaping educational outcomes.
Rather than looking at the fundamental social problems that cultivate educational failure in our country, however, the educational establishment and the politicians who support it seem committed to finding ways to make the crisis deeper and more profound. The “No Child Left Behind” program, initiated by the Clinton administration and institutionalized by the Bush administration (at this writing in May, reauthorization of the program is being debated in Congress), is an example of how those who don’t know what they’re doing make things more difficult for those compelled to undo the damage.
This latter group includes, of course, grade school teachers, whose average length of service, according to various statistics, is now only three to five years. If such were the case with lawyers, doctors or engineers, our nation would consider itself to be in a national security crisis. On the scale of public esteem for the professions, however, public school teachers rank not much higher than long-haul truck drivers.
As a recently retired professor who taught at what could be considered a teachers college for thirty-seven years, I have found that among the thousands of students I attempted to help educate, I could not feel confident that more than a handful would be more than minimally competent in teaching elementary school. There were exceedingly few among them whom I would have welcomed into the classroom to teach my own children.

“I like children” was often the reason my students gave for choosing teaching as a vocation. Yet their general grasp of basic concepts and facts in history, music, literature, the arts, the sciences, and other subjects was woeful; college-level literacy seems to me to have steadily declined over the past four decades. And students intending to teach are given no realistic idea of how to go about it — or, almost as important, how to subvert the bureaucracy that is by now so entrenched in the school system that removing its grip, systemically, would be as daunting as launching a social and economic revolution.
The children they are teaching, meanwhile, have an exceptionally hard time being successful students thanks to too much television watching, especially at a young age; too much time spent with video games, iPods, computers, and other electronic distractions; overworked parents; overstressed teachers; and meddling school officials, school boards and PTA members who get exercised whenever even a vaguely controversial subject is brought up in the classroom. All of these factors contribute to a situation in which over 10,000 U.S. schools are rated as “failing,” under a system of mandatory testing that is guaranteed to drive the middle class out of the public schools — which was, I believe, the hidden motive of “No Child Left Behind” in the first place, with the intent of weakening the public school system (and its unions) in the name of ‘privatization.’
Notwithstanding the Coleman Report’s conclusions (which were quite nuanced compared with the media coverage it received), money is a large factor in determining performance in some schools. According to the U.S. Department of Education, American taxpayers are spending $536 billion on K-12 education per year, 83 percent of it through state and municipal budgets. Yet that spending is apportioned with wild disparity from school district to school district. The New York Times recently reported, for example, a 5:1 disparity in per capita spending within New Jersey, from $33,000 per pupil in one district to $7,000 in another. Most other developed countries, by contrast, have uniform per capita spending on education. As anyone knows who has gone through American school-tax wars, however, attempts to ameliorate this situation are met with the strongest resistance from the ‘haves’ who believe that every cent of their money should go to their own district, including as much state aid as possible.
With dubious wisdom, the Founders assigned responsibility to the states for K-12 education. Property tax disparities are therefore now the greatest obstacle to a more equitable distribution of school aid in our country. As a result, the condition of many of the public schools today — not only their lack of basic supplies like textbooks and paper, but their inability to supply safe, decent environments in which children can learn — makes them resemble the schools of so-called Third World nations.

Another major factor in the continued decline of public schools is the very positive social and economic progress won by the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and ’70s. When I attended grade school in the late ’40s and early ’50s, most women who were not content with the lot of a housewife, nurse or librarian, and had the intelligence and fortitude to endure the academic (that is, non-commercial) curriculum in school, became the teachers of our nation. Today’s cohort of bright, ambitious, and resourceful women are now doctors, lawyers, business and government executives, and leaders in the arts. I don’t wish to romanticize my memories of grade school: Some of my teachers were pretty awful. But at least four of the six women in my primary-grade classrooms would today, I’m sure, be practicing law or medicine, or running a company or a government agency. Certainly, there are eager, bright young women going into teaching today — but they are generally not, as they were in the past, among the leaders of their generation.
A third failure-factor is school curricula. “Teaching to the test” was frowned upon in my grade-school days, but “No Child Left Behind” has reduced most teaching to drill work, which leaves bright, intellectually curious students bored with school, and those less gifted hating it. Until this malicious program is eliminated and school funding is used to inspire student learning, it will be more and more difficult to recruit able teachers committed to a long career.
There is more wrong with school instruction than the current testing mania, however. Anyone who has studied the curricula of other developed countries (notably Japan and the European nations) will find that the American curriculum is loaded with too many topics, none of which can be adequately covered by most teachers or absorbed by most students. Other countries’ models require students to learn fewer concepts in a greater amount of time, which grants them a fundamental mastery of subjects that can be built upon as students move from one grade to the next.
Our fondness for teaching “gimmicks” — as in the widespread over-emphasis on computer-based learning — also does a great disservice to students. Extending the school year and school day —another gimmick that is the present rage — without addressing the fundamental problems that block success during the average six hours of instruction today, is like trying to solve a problem by making it bigger.

Numerous other factors contribute to public school failure. These include:

  1. the fundamental anti-intellectualism of American culture, which expresses itself in ridicule and disparagement of the ‘egghead’ and the ‘nerd’;
  2. the increased reluctance of parents to acknowledge their responsibility for the disciplinary problems of their children, rather than faulting the teacher;
  3. the extraordinary financial pressures faced by the average American family, which require both parents to work, sometimes at more than one job each, leaving very little time for parenting (a recent study found that children who have been in childcare for lengthy amounts of time are more likely to become discipline problems in school, particularly if they are enrolled in poor daycare programs because their family cannot afford anything better);
  4. the pressures of ‘political correctness,’ from both the left and the right, which expresses the fear that exposing children to ideas that they are ‘not comfortable with’ will destroy their self-esteem;
  5. the growth in the number of learning-disabled children in the mainstream classroom, which adds to the burdens of ill-equipped teachers.

Even before a child attends the first day of preschool — for those fortunate enough to go to preschool — the most fundamental building blocks of learning have been formed. Several years ago, a study reported in American Educator revealed that even the number of words spoken to a child from infancy to school age varied widely according to economic class: The needed stimulation of the spoken word was far more present in affluent families by hundreds of thousands of words per month than in poor or poorly educated families. Even before birth, good nutrition and health care for the pregnant woman are imperative if a child is to be born with full intellectual potential. The challenges to effective education are thus deeply rooted in economic injustice.
I nevertheless would offer certain proposals as a starting point for tackling the problems of our education system — not necessarily to make it ‘more competitive,’ but to make it an enriching and enabling experience for most students whose parents do not have the means to afford a private school for their education.
First, abolish “No Child Left Behind” (alternatively called “No Teacher Left Standing” and “Leave Every Child Behind”), and use federal funding to provide the materials, programs and facilities that children really need in order to learn, not just drill.
Second, phase out teachers colleges and college programs so that all students who go into teaching have a degree, not just a ‘concentration,’ in a particular subject. In all my years of teaching, I rarely heard students saying anything favorable about their education programs (other than that they might have liked an instructor). Eliminating such programs would weed out candidates who believe that “I like children” is the basic criterion for going into teaching. Basic courses in educational methods could be sprinkled throughout aspiring teachers’ undergraduate years, and these should simply expose them to real-life classroom conditions with the guidance of mentor-teachers.
Third, abolish the use of property taxes as the major source of funding for schools and levy a federal school tax that equalizes the funding of schools throughout the country.
Fourth, begin to recruit the “best and brightest” into the teaching profession by eliminating extraneous paperwork and bureaucratic red tape so that teachers can spend their time teaching instead of being clerks and attendance monitors; and by giving teachers greater autonomy in curricular matters. Teachers should be encouraged to develop their own classroom content and strategies, rather having to implement a uniform and often arbitrary set of criteria. Class size should be between ten and fifteen — an optimum number for effective teaching and learning.
Talented young people could be attracted to the teaching profession if starting wages were set nationally at $100,000 a year, with yearly increments up to $200,000 and then COLA adjustments. The money for these salaries could be raised by minimizing school bureaucracy and limiting non-teaching personnel, besides custodial staff, to a principal, an attendance monitor, several guidance counselors, a school nurse, and a “dean of students” for discipline problems. Inflated bureaucracy in many schools creates much of the red tape that makes teachers’ lives miserable and helps them to burn out quickly.
Recruitment would be further helped if the qualifying examinations for principals were eliminated and principals were elected from among teaching staffs. A good principal is vital to successful schools, but many of the people who are attracted to the profession and willing to jump through the hoops of exams and requirements in order to qualify are not the types needed to inspire confidence and loyalty in their staff. While selecting principals through teacher elections may open the door to favoritism and even corruption, most schools are small enough communities to be workable democracies, and such safeguards as whistleblower protections could help prevent abuses.
A number of these suggestions for recruiting first-rate teachers are already being implemented (not the professional salaries, however) in elite private schools, which have so far been untouched by the “Leave Every Child Behind” requirements.
My other proposals range well beyond the classroom. For example, we should try to tackle, in symbolic as well as substantive ways, the anti-intellectualism that pervades this country — for instance, by electing as President someone who has respect for knowledge and truth. We should clean up the environment so that the damage done to children’s ability to learn before they even enter school can be prevented. We should greatly decrease poverty so that all children have a decent chance of taking full advantage of their educational opportunities. And we should be developing seamless support systems through social programs so that each child entering the school already has a healthy breakfast and can attend community or religious-based activities after school until their parents or other responsible elders come home.
I realize that many such proposals could be considered utopian, but unless we deeply examine what is wrong with our public schools and try to address the real problems, the private, charter, and home-schooling movements will continue to empty our public schools of the high-achieving students and teachers who are their most influential citizens.

Photo of Joel ShatzkyJoel Shatzky was an English professor in the SUNY system for 37 years, retiring in 2005. A member of our Editorial Advisory Board, he is the editor, with Michael Taub, of Contemporary Jewish-American Dramatists and Poets: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook (Greenwood Press). Shatzky currently lives in Brooklyn and is resuming a career as a playwright.

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