What is Wrong with Public Education in America?

Oh boy, have I picked a fun topic for today’s blog about misconception and ideology. I must be feeling a bit risky too as the number of people that are close to me that I could possibly offend is a little higher than I would prefer. With that said, lets just remember that this is an opinion blog and yours is welcome. Also, as always, with comments about the medical system or even the FAA, and certainly education, my comments are about the system and specifically my personal experience with it. This is not about any individual doing their very best to operate within it while making a living.

I am also making somewhat of an effort to make these blogs a little shorter, although ultimately, I am sure not short enough for most. I guess the people that will not get my points would not get them even if they were smirked by a drunken women from the 1950’s holding a glass of wine in the form of a social media “eCard”. So be it.

Ok, now that I got the disclaimers out of the way, … What is Wrong with the Public Education in America?

Everyone loves to point the finger at standardized tests, teachers, unions, principals, parents, TV, video games, and occasionally, even the dumbass kids themselves, but I really think we need to look at the problem first from the very top. How do we determine what our kids need to know and what methods are used to teach them? Of course the educators that devote their lives to the field of education and that are experts in their field have a large say in the teaching methods, right? What about industry and societal experts that will ultimately be relying on the crop of educated juveniles to fill the countries demand for a skilled and employable workforce. I am sure they are heavily involved in shaping the education curriculum in this country, right? The unfortunate reality is that, in spite of the complicated and ever advancing needs of a modern skilled workforce, and in spite of ever increasing breakthroughs in the field of brain based learning, technology advances, and in spite of the potential positive societal impact that could actually be made with large scale educational reform, the public system is still primarily dictated and controlled by the largely uneducated and ignorant general population of citizen that inexplicably prefer that their children receive the exact same, cookie cutter form of education that they got as kids. Oh, and by the way, they also still seem to believe that a child’s overall future worth to society should be largely determined by how well they stack up against others in a largely arbitrary and biased ABCDF grading system. In other words, if you can’t determine that your spawn is at least better than XX.XX% of other kids then whats the point of procreating, or for that matter, working your ass off day and night so you kid can get into the best possible school.

Another big problem is that, unlike my field of electrical engineering, everyone in this country somehow believes they are an expert on education and every citizen also thinks they should have an actual say in the methods, materials and even the fundamental core objective of our public education system. I guess after writing this blog I will not exactly be the exception, but regardless, maybe this is something we should all at least consider. Almost everyone in this country has been through the primary education process and therefore everyone has at least some direct experience even if only on a very, very, basic level as a child-student or a child-student parent. Regardless, based on this alone, a tremendous number of people truly believe that they poses an awful lot of knowledge about both what our kids need to know, and about what techniques the teachers should be using to deliver the info and teach critical skills and concepts.

My wife and I both have college degrees in our respective fields and my wife in fact has an advanced degree in her chosen field of education. We have both spent our entire career working in the same fields. My wife was a teacher’s assistant, a teacher, an assistant principal, a head principal and has since worked in various capacities in educational consulting; all with the ultimate goal of improving the way we educate our youth and prepare our teachers for the challenges of the job. She is dedicated, driven, passionate (far more so than me with my career) and I have never known a harder working person driven towards this one non-monetary pursuit. She has devoted her life to her craft and the depth of her knowledge and the skills she has developed and polished as a lifelong learner, educator, listener, motivator, and coach are, and have been, something for me to marvel at from a distance for as long as I have known her.

As one might expect, with a skill set and background so different, her expertise above mine is strikingly obvious in even the shortest of debates on the subject of public education. However, true to her fundamental belief, I usually come to this realization not by her telling me, but by her subtly teaching me to teach myself. Maybe a seemingly minor distinction but in the reality of a devoted and skilled educator and in a world full of powerful, fixed and limiting beliefs, the difference is about as subtle as an electrical system that works and one that never even powers up. One way works and one way doesn’t, regardless of how painful or laborious the process can be for the educator. It is exactly the same as programming and using the new universal television remote control. Unfortunately for my wife, I am nowhere near as good of an educator as she is.

For some reason, I can not tell you how many times, after learning that my wife is a lifelong public educator, people happily pipe up and explain to her, “I will tell you what is wrong with public education in America”. Then my wife gets to sit there smiling while she gets an earful from someone that has no educational background or experience whatsoever and definitely not someone that has spent the last 25 years of their life learning and working professionally in the field. She gets to listen to all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds make very choreographed and painfully simplistic statements like:

“All we really need to do is get back to teaching the basics and fundamentals in schools.”

Or

“We don’t need computers in school to teach math.”

Or

“Its really just a matter of the parents making their kids turn off the TV and do their homework.”

Or

“We don’t trust the government to teach our kids, we need to educate our kids in the home.”

Or

“Schools need to quit passing kids that don’t learn anything.”

Or

“If teachers want to strike, then just fire them. We can hire new teachers from the community.”

Or

“If a teacher is making $80,000 working part of the year babysitting 3rd graders, then something is really wrong with the system.”

Or

“All this coaching and motivation stuff is hokus-pokus. Teachers and parents just need to raise their expectations.”

Or

“If we want kids to learn then we need to start by putting God back into schools.”

How my wife maintains her composure, at times, is beyond me. I can only imagine if when I told someone that I was an electrical engineer I got to hear statements like:

“The problem with electrical engineering is that we are focusing too much on electrons and not enough on the neutrons”

Or,

“Engineers need to stop wasting time and money with computers, my dad was an engineer an all he needed was a slide-rule and drafting board.”

Or,

“All we really need to do is put God back into physics education”.

Then if these same morons got to vote on how I do my job as an electrical engineer, well, I hope you get my point. More often than not, when people find out I am electrical engineer they instead assume I am some sort of wizard with skills completely beyond anything I ever got at school or learned in my jobs and certainly not someone that needs their advice on basic electronics. They immediately ask me if I can fix their old broken computer or TV as if I carry around an oscilloscope everywhere I go or as if that is even remotely what an electrical engineer does or knows.

If you want an answer to “What is wrong with public education in America?”, this problem is the top of the list. The general public simply does not understand or appreciate what a GOOD professional educator does, or is worth; but for whatever reason, they absolutely think they do.

Sure we can have debate about state vs. federal control of public schools, but ultimately that debate should be about how we go about putting the correct required experts into the correct position, not about ensuring that ideology and mythology remains a staple of our kids education.  Like many other things, education is just too important and complicated to leave up to the direct control of the non-expert voting public.

Can you imagine if the public voted on national defense and had control of those expenditures and issues the way we do for national public education expenditures and issues? What if the voting population of Texas was allowed to launch their own nuclear weapons and they got to decide directly about when and how they were launched and at whom? Well, in my opinion, that is a pretty good analogy of exactly what is happening in our national public education system and with disastrous overall results for so many kids and in so many communities.

What we actually need to do (my turn to provide an oversimplified solution!) is to stop recruiting the middle-bottom of our students into education and instead start recruiting our best and brightest.  Of course, in order to do this, we need to pay them according to the immense level of importance and the difficulty of their objective and student base. Maybe we could pay them at least close to what they could instead make as a middle manager at a giant sugar Corporation instead of a fraction of what that sugar manager actually makes in reality.  In other words, wouldn’t it make more sense to pay our best and brightest minds to teach kids instead of paying them six figures to figure out ways to addict and kill them? Next, we need to treat professional educators like the experts they are, and give them the respect, admiration, accountability and ultimately control of their profession so that they can effectively do their job in accordance with their professional judgement, and expertise.

Amazingly, at this point it seems that the public still heavily prefers and even demands a system that instead trains low paid robots to deliver ideological information in a fixed format. Guess what? It is not working and turning the clock backwards in an effort to “get back to the basics” is definitely not the answer, and neither is slashing teacher pay and redirecting what little resources are left toward private schools. This may seem shocking since the exact opposite plan is reported as “news” pretty much daily on Fox.

We need to knock over the apple cart and start over with public education. Not until we start relying on experts and critical thinking instead of our own fixed and unchangeable belief will we start to see real education opportunity and advancement for children of all levels of society and not just our perfect little upper middle class angels.

(I have a feeling that this blog may have a part two or three parts associated with it, but I am going to make an effort to keep these things a little more manageable in length and cut it off here. Stay tuned)