The One Reason Public Schools Can’t Be Fixed

I figured, since this is my blog, I would share a personal experience. The following experience caused me to really question the long-term viability of public education for the first time. It happened several years ago. We had a major snow storm where I lived; I believe it was around Valentine’s Day. Hundreds of people were stranded. The local grocery store became a place to wait for the storm to close and the roads to re-open. It was a mess, and I was among those that could not get home. Luckily, I had friends that lived near the point where the roads had closed and I was able to stay with them rather than trying to get comfy in isle 13 with the dog food and other pet supplies.

The next day was like something out of a movie. Cars had been abandoned by the side of the road because they had run out of gasoline waiting in the stationary lanes of traffic. Snow drifts had begun to engulf the lonely cars during the night. I felt alone as I made my way home that morning. I fully expected to hear that schools in our district had been closed. Instead, the radio announced that all schools were open with one stipulation: school busses would not be running west of a certain point in the district. I was working at a local high school and more than half of our students came from west of that point. Students would be on their own to make their way to school. And worse yet, they would be doing so on roads that were deemed too dangerous for the busses.

I was incensed. I was furious. Most of all, I was completely dumb-founded. How could the district administration expect students to drive in conditions that they felt were too dangerous for bus drivers? At that time I was working on a PhD and there were several administrators in my group, so I asked them, and others that were connected with the district offices, “WHY?”. If I was dumb-founded before, I was left completely speechless by their answers. Ultimately, I was told that the district could not close schools because of the number of working parents that would not have any place for their children.

This experience forced me to realize that unless something changes, and fast, our public education system has ZERO chance of succeeding in the long term. I mean that! ZERO CHANCE OF SUCCESS! Ever since that February, I have wrestled with the question: What is the role of public education in the American culture in the twenty-first century? I understand that this is a single experience, but my research suggests that it is not singular.

Many school districts have allowed their teachers take on the role of free day care. I don’t believe this is the role that teachers want–in fact, many of the teachers that I have talked to loathe the expectation that parents and administrators have pushed on them.

On days like that snowy Valentine’s, teachers typically put on movies–or some other mindless activity that is not associated with the course. Why? Because of the number of students that simply did not come to school. Teachers could not move forward with the subject matter on account of those that would fall behind because of the weather.

There are those in government, and in the community, that see the problem with public education as simply a money problem. Give the schools more money and they will perform better, they say. That myth has been blown apart by researchers. Money is not the issue. Money cannot fix the issue. No matter how much more money you throw at the schools, they will not get better. How else can you explain how states that spend far less on their students still achieve similar graduation rates as those that spend much, much more on education? Take New York, for example. In 2011-2012, the cost per student for pubic education in that state was over $18,000 (highest in the country) compared to Arizona and Utah that spent just over $6,000 per student. Yet the graduation rate in New York for that year was only 77%. Arizona and Utah achieved 78% and 76% respectively. Certainly money is not the problem or the answer.

So what is it that keeps public schools from succeeding? Well, that is a tricky question. Perhaps the biggest reason that schools cannot be fixed without major renovation, is the fact that teachers have too many different expectations placed upon them. Oliver DeMille, in A Thomas Jefferson Education wrote, “Education is so many things to so many people: for some, education means job training, for others it means fixing social problems, still others see education as job security or a source of political clout” (12). What I understand from his words is that we all want something different from our schools and because of that multiplicity of goals, only the lesser goals get accomplished. Take, for example, the school district I mentioned earlier. Certainly there are students, parents, teachers, and administrators that want their schools to provide an environment where students can educate themselves. The day after the snow storm it was obvious to me, and the rest of the parents in the district, that there were many in our neighborhoods that expected the schools to babysit their children while they went to work. When those expectations collide, only the lesser of the two can be accomplished. It is not the teachers’ fault. We have handcuffed them with a multiplicity of expectations and responsibilities, and as a result, they cannot do the one thing they want to do: help young people succeed. And it is our own fault.

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