The failure of american public education, monday, february 1, 1993.
Many American critics believe that the major problem with public education today is a lack of focus on results. Students aren’t expected to meet high standards, the argument goes, and the process of education takes precedence over analyzing education results in policy-making circles.
This is a valid argument (as far as it goes). Indeed, it can be taken one important step further. We not only fail to hold individual students accountable for poor performance, we have also failed to hold the entire government-controlled school system accountable for its performance since at least World War II. Public education is itself a failure. Why shouldn’t individual students follow its example?
The history of reform efforts in American public education is replete with half-hearted measures, with almost comical misdiagnoses of education problems, with blame-shifting, and with humbug. Everyone is an expert (most have, of course, suffered through the very system they want to reform). At any one time during the course of school reform, an illusion of debate often obscures a surprising consensus on the heralded “magic bullet” of the decade—be it school centralization or progressive education or preschool education or computerizing the classroom—that will solve America’s education problems. These magic bullets always misfire. But instead of changing their weapon, policy-makers simply put another round in the chamber, foolishly believing that the newest fad will succeed despite the failures of its predecessors.
Some critics believe that public education reforms fail because they are compromised or sabotaged by the education lobbies—teacher associations, administrators, and the legislators in their pockets. There is certainly some truth to that explanation, as we shall see. But in many cases, attributing the failure of reform to subversion merely exonerates that reform. Most reform ideas are either irrelevant or destructive of education. They would fail whether organized political interests opposed them or not.
Many conservatives believe that American public education is in poor shape today because of cultural and social trends, most beginning in the 1960s, which destroyed classroom discipline, the moral basis for education, and a national consensus on what students should learn. Again, there is some truth in this proposition, but ultimately it fails to explain why American students do not possess the communication and computational skills they need today to succeed in college or in the working world.
Furthermore, many free-market thinkers believe that applying market competition to the public schools will solve many of America’s educational problems. I’m sympathetic to this argument, but it ignores the role of government policies other than student assignment to schools, which inhibit school success. When government policy continues to impose rigid personnel rules, bureaucracy, regulations, and a mandate to use education to engineer social or political outcomes, a school cannot successfully impart the needed skills, knowledge, and perspective to its students—whether these students choose to be there or not.
Lastly, the rhetoric of school reform often ignores the crucial role of individual decisions (by students, by parents, by business owners, by educators) in determining educational outcomes. You can lead a horse to water, the old adage goes, but you can’t make him drink. It’s a folksy way of imparting an important individualist truth. Providing students opportunities at school does not guarantee success if students watch television rather than do their homework—and parents let them. By assuming that any set of reform ideas can magically create a well-educated citizenry, we oversell the role of policy-making. Education requires initiative, a trait notoriously difficult to create or impose.
A Century of Reform
Public education and public-education reform share a common history. There is no past paradise when all students excelled. There is no perfect prototype for public education hidden in history, to be uncovered today and bestowed on a thankful nation. Rather, American public education is best thought of, historically, as mediocre. It was a serviceable system for preparing students for an agrarian or assembly-line world in which only an elite pursued higher education.
Public education in America really began in earnest after the Civil War, when government-funded and -controlled schools supplanted the earlier system of private education. According to the U.S. Department of Education, some 57 percent of the 12 million school-aged Americans in 1870 were enrolled in public elementary or secondary schools, though only about 60 percent of those enrolled attended school on any given day and the average school year was 132 days. By the turn of the century, the percentage of school-aged children attending public schools had risen to 72 percent, with almost 70 percent of enrollees attending on any one of the 150 days in the school year. Most public education still occurred in the early grades—only two percent of the student population were in ninth grade or higher.
By 1989 almost 90 percent of school-aged children attended public schools. Almost all attended class daily (with some important local or regional exceptions) and the average school year had grown to 180 days—still too short, say many modern critics, but a 40 percent increase since Reconstruction. Most students stay in school at least throughout the high-school grades, while a record number are pursuing higher education.
American policy-makers and educators began to create in earnest our centralized, monopolistic public education system at the turn of the century. For example, over a relatively brief period from 1890 to 1910, public schools increased their share of the high-school population from two-thirds to about 90 percent—a proportion of public to private schools which has persisted until the present day. There were a number of factors motivating this change. During the last few decades of the nineteenth century, public education had grown steadily as a primarily locally controlled phenomenon, often emulating or taking over ownership from private schools. Education was still basically focused on learning skills, such as reading or arithmetic, and schools often reflected their communities in very obvious ways.
But by the start of the twentieth century, a number of different groups began to believe that a comprehensive, centrally controlled (at least on the city or state level), and bureaucratic public education system was crucial to America’s future. The Progressive movement, for example, sought to replace haphazard government decision-making (such as that provided by political machines or community schools) with a more standardized, “predictable” approach. At the time, they viewed such change as necessary to eliminate corruption and graft. Similarly, the child welfare movement began to press for changes in family life—for replacing child labor and family neglect with public education.
Simultaneously, American business leaders began to see a decentralized, “patchwork” education system as a liability in international competition. U.S. manufacturers, especially, saw the rise of Germany as a significant economic threat and sought to imitate that country’s new system of state-run trade schools. In 1905, the National Association of Manufacturers editorialized that “the nation that wins success in competition with other nations must train its youths in the arts of production and distribution.” German education, it concluded, was “at once the admiration and fear of all countries.” American business, together with the growing labor movement, pressed Congress to dramatically expand federal spending on education, especially for vocational instruction. Also, business and education leaders began to apply new principles of industrial organization to education, such as top-down organization and a “factory-floor” model in which administrators, teachers, and students all had a place in producing a standardized “final product.” These leaders created professional bureau cracies to devise and implement policy.
Finally, perhaps the most important boosters of America’s new public education system were what we might today call “cultural conservatives.” The turn of the century, after all, was a time of tremendous immigration. As more and more immigrants arrived in America, bringing with them a plethora of languages, cultural traditions, and religious beliefs, American political leaders foresaw the potential dangers of Balkanization. The public education system, once designed primarily to impart skills and knowledge, took on a far more political and social role. It was to provide a common culture and a means of inculcating new Americans with democratic values. Public schools, in other words, were to be a high-pressure “melting pot” to help America avoid the dismal fate of other multi-national politics. American political leaders were all too familiar with the Balkan Wars of the early 1900s, and were intent on avoiding a similar fate.
The Expanding Role of Public Education
By now, you should be experiencing a heavy dose of déjà vu. These themes and concerns have continued to dominate American public education until the present day. “Do-gooders” throughout the twentieth century have sought to expand the role of public education in all aspects of what was once family life, such as instilling moral values, providing health and nutrition, fighting delinquency and crime, and protecting children from physical and psychological abuse. Today, they are the primary advocates of Head Start and other supplements to school that intervene in virtually every aspect of a student’s life.
Business groups, especially national organizations and corporate magnates, have frequently played a high-profile role in educational affairs during this century, constantly warning of the economic threats posed by international competitors (as in the Sputnik scare of the 1950s or the “competitiveness” debate today) and supporting a professional, centralized approach to public education (in stark contrast to what the same business leaders believed was appropriate in economic policy).
Finally, a host of groups across the political spectrum have looked to public schools as a key means of accomplishing what they consider to be important political or social objectives, such as racial integration, social tolerance, democratic participation, or environmental awareness.
The history of public education reform is a story in which these groups—sometimes in concert and sometimes in opposition to professional educators with their own designs—jockey for position to make their indelible mark on the school policies of the day. Reform efforts have reappeared regularly; in the 1940s, the watchword was “life adjustment education.” Educators, worried about a growing dropout rate and the seemingly frantic pace of post-War technological innovations, sought to help students adjust to a changing world. One example of a class introduced in public schools during this period was entitled “Basic Urges, Wants, and Needs and Making Friends and Keeping Them.” That’s the 1940s, not the 1960s.
This “promising” development fell victim to the education scare that began when the Soviet Union put its Sputnik satellite into space in 1957. The focus shifted back toward learning basic subjects, though in new and sometimes misguided ways. A flurry of activity followed the Sputnik scare, exemplified by such innovations as new math, open classrooms, programmed instruction, and ungraded schools (which are now making a comeback). During the 1960s, these ideas began to filter throughout the American public education system (all the more susceptible to fads and trends because of its increasingly centralized nature). Some of these notions worked in particular schools, while failing dismally in others—another common result of school reforms generally. In the 1970s, some new ideas were added to this increasingly unwieldy mix, such as the behavioralism craze, whole-language reading instruction, mastery learning, and the spread of standardized testing of both students and teachers.
Finally, during the 1980s the school reform bandwagon got a new set of tires and a fresh coat of paint. Following the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, governors instituted all sorts of teacher training and testing programs, curriculum changes, and higher performance standards for students. At the same time, states dramatically increased spending on all facets of public education. And President Ronald Reagan, promising to eliminate the U.S. Education Department during his campaign, actually helped administer a significant outflow of new federal money for public education, mostly directed toward specific programs for needy or minority students.
What Was Gained?
Despite the widespread public impression, felt every five years or so since World War II, that something “new” was happening in public school reform, education statistics tell a different story. They demonstrate very little change in student performance (and most measurable changes were downward). Here’s a brief report card on four decades of public education reform:
Many so-called education experts believe that class size—the ratio of students to teacher—must be reduced to improve learning. We’ve already tried it. From 1955 to 1991, the average pupil-teacher ratio in U.S. public schools dropped by 40 percent.
These experts also proclaim that lack of funding hamstrings reform, and that the 1980s were a particularly bad time for school finances. Wrong again. Annual expenditures per pupil in U.S. public schools exploded by about 350 percent in real dollars from 1950 ($1,189) to 1991 ($5,237). In only two years during this 40-year period did spending fall: 1980 and 1981. Spending grew by about a third in real terms from 1981 to 1991.
The average salary of public school teachers rose 45 percent in real terms from 1960 (the first year data are available) to 1991. This increase masks a more variable trend. Real salaries rose until 1974, when they began to level off and even decline. The average salary reached a trough of $27,436 in 1982, after which it rose to an all-time high of $33,015 in 1991. Instructional staff in public schools generally saw their earnings increase faster than the average full-time employee—from 1950 to 1989 the ratio of instructional-staff salary to the average full-time salary in the U.S. increased by 22 percent (although it sank from 1972 to 1980). Student performance has hardly kept pace with the dramatic increases in resources devoted to public education. While the percentage of students aged 17 at the beginning of the school year who graduated from high school rose 30 percent from 1950 to 1964, it has leveled off since then. In fact, the 1991 percentage is lower than the 1969 peak of 77.1 percent.
Evidence from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and other performance measures shows how poorly served America’s public school students really are. Just five percent of 17-year-old high school students in 1988 could read well enough to understand and use information found in technical materials, literary essays, historical documents, and college-level texts. This percentage has been falling since 1971.
Average Scholastic Aptitude Test scores fell 41 points between 1972 and 1991. Apologists for public education argue that such factors as the percentage of minority students taking the SAT can explain this drop. Not true. Scores for whites have dropped. And the number of kids scoring over 600 on the verbal part of the SAT has fallen by 37 percent since 1972, so the overall decline can’t be blamed merely on mediocre students “watering down” the results.
Only six percent of 11th graders in 1986 could solve multi-step math problems and use basic algebra. Sixty percent did not know why The Federalist was written, 75 percent didn’t know when Lincoln was president, and one in five knew what Reconstruction was.
Another measure of the failure of public education is that almost all institutions of higher education now provide remedial instruction to some of their students. The Southern Regional Education Board surveyed its members in 1986 and found that 60 percent said at least a third of their students needed remedial help. Surveying this evidence of failure among college-bound students, former Reagan administration official Chester E. Finn, Jr., wrote that “surely college ought to transport one’s intellect well beyond factual knowledge and cultural literacy. But it’s hard to add a second story to a house that lacks a solid foundation."
Why American Public Education Fails
There are several characteristics of government institutions which, common to virtually all American public schools, inhibit the successful operation of schools. These include:
Rigid personnel rules and regulations. Those schools with little to no interference from outside supervisors or regulators on hiring and firing decisions tend to be the most effective schools as measured by student performance. John Chubb of the Brookings Institution and Terry Moe of Stanford University provided a good explanation for this in their 1990 book Politics, Markets and America’s Schools:
Among the reasons why direct external control may interfere with the development of an effective school, perhaps the most important is the potentially debilitating influence of external control over personnel. If principals have little or no control over who teaches in their schools, they are likely to be saddled with a number of teachers, perhaps even many teachers, whom they regard as bad fits. In an organization that works best through shared decision-making and delegated authority, a staff that is in conflict with the leader and with itself is a serious problem . . . such conflict may be a school’s greatest organizational problem. Personnel policies that promote such conflict may be a school’s greatest burden.
Tenure is not the only barrier to successful school organization. School organizations that call for greater differentiation among teachers and pay some teachers more than others on the basis of performance or drawing power rather than seniority clash with government-mandated salary schedules. Positions and salary levels are decided by the state without any relationship to a particular school’s situation. To foster successful reorganization of schools and more effective and efficient use of teachers, school systems or even individual schools must be able to employ their teaching staff as they see fit and pay them accordingly. If a school has a hard time finding a good science teacher (not a hypothetical situation in many districts) it should be able to set the salary for that position at a level which will attract qualified persons.
Uniform salary schedules were originally enacted to address racial and social inequities among teachers, not as a “better way” of organizing the teaching force. These inequities have largely been addressed and can be prevented by other means. But like so many governmental policies, uniform salary schedules have outlived their usefulness. Reorganization might involve paying teachers of one subject more than teachers of another subject, or paying a good teacher with ten years’ experience more than a mediocre teacher with 15 years’ experience. As education researcher Denis Doyle of the Hudson Institute wrote: “There is no mystery as to how to find and retain qualified teachers of mathematics or the sciences. Pay them what the market demands, provide them with benefits that are competitive, and create a work environment in which they can derive genuine professional satisfaction. Pay differentials are the answer.”
And yet mediocre teachers, who dominate teacher unions and the education lobbyists in Washington and the state capitals, continue to resist this basic change.
A civil service system. A related set of problems for American public education stems from the early twentieth-century view that public services can and should be delivered by a regimented, compartmentalized civil service. All indications are that the teaching profession will best be organized in the future as firms providing specific services to schools, rather than as a unionized set of government employees with tenure and little performance-based accountability. They should, in other words, come to resemble law firms. In teaching firms, more senior partners would enjoy tremendous name recognition and respect, attracting clients for the firms while imparting their proven teaching strategies to junior partners and associates. Can you imagine such a system evolving within today’s public education system?
Monopoly. It’s not an attack on teachers to suggest that they, like all other workers, respond to incentives. When a school enjoys monopoly control over its students, the incentive to produce successful students is lacking. When student performance doesn’t correlate with reward on the school level, individual teachers see no need to go the extra mile to help students when the teacher next door receives the same rewards for merely babysitting. And without the pressures of competition in education, parents are bothersome nuisances rather than clients who might potentially go elsewhere if not satisfied.
Centralized decision-making. When decisions on such issues as the makeup of the history curriculum or the daily school schedule are mandated from above, school leaders lose initiative and school policies become disconnected with the students and teachers they supposedly exist to serve. At a time when American industry is abandoning the factory model and top-down management as hopelessly irrelevant to modern enterprises, so too must schools seek better lines of communication and a more effective way to make decisions about everyday problems.
Tinkering around the edges of the public school system might reduce the impact of one or two of these government characteristics, but they’ll never be eliminated without substantially limiting government interference in education.
There is much disagreement about whether these characteristics have become more pronounced over the last few decades. But the trend lines aren’t the point. In a world in which the returns on education dropped off fairly rapidly in the upper grades and college—in other words, when a junior-high school education was enough to obtain gainful employment and function in society—America could basically afford to have an inefficient, bureaucratized, and ineffective system of public education. When students fell through the cracks, they had a fairly soft landing. Today, however, technological innovation and a host of other factors have dramatically increased the returns on education. All students must be able to compute, communicate, and think to make their way in an increasingly complex and confusing world.
The Triumph of Politics
What has clearly been on the rise in recent decades is the use of America’s public schools for the purpose of engineering some social outcome deemed desirable by political leaders. This is an unavoidable, and perhaps insurmountable, failing of government-run education.
Both liberal do-gooders and conservative culture warriors look to public education to achieve public goods. In the 1950s and 1960s, a national focus on the problem of racial segregation helped steer education policy away from questions of excellence to questions of equity and access. In the 1970s, activists bent on such diverse causes as environmentalism, humanism, spiritualism, and even socialism began to target the school curriculum. They produced all sorts of programs, handbooks, textbooks, and other materials, and used political influence to have these adopted as part of the school day in many jurisdictions. Meanwhile, America’s developmental psychologists and early childhood experts, deep in their environmentalist (in the sense of non-genetic) phase, got the attention of educators and political leaders. They argued that formal education should be supplemented with special counseling and self-esteem programs, that formal education should be extended into the preschool years, and that the federal government should be involved in funding these early-intervention and compensatory education programs. Policy-makers believed them. So we now have Chapter 1, Head Start, in-school counselors, and other “innovations,” the usefulness of which is now in great doubt.
When every call for fundamental change in American education is rebutted not by arguments about student achievement but by arguments focusing on race, class, social mixing, and other social concerns, it is difficult to imagine real progress. When teachers spend much of their day filling out forms, teaching quasi-academic subjects mandated from above, and boosting student self-esteem (as contrasted with serf-respect, which is earned rather than worked up), learning is difficult if not impossible.
While government is wholly unsuited to teach America’s students because of all the characteristics listed above, private schools offer an example of what American education could be. After trending downward for decades, private school enrollment increased during the 1980s. This year, private schools accounted for about 12 percent of America’s students. The fastest-growing segment of the private school market is the non-religious school, but Catholic and other parochial schools continue to supply excellent education opportunities to poor children and minorities both in inner-cities and in rural areas. Studies show that private schools produce better students than public schools do, even when you take into account the selectivity of some private schools.
It’s true, as some public-education boosters charge, that even private school students have shown some declines in achievement over the past half-century—but that proves only that other influences in society besides schooling can have a significant impact on student performance. Private schools provide a better education than public schools even though American families generally do not sufficiently value education and students often lack initiative and concentration.
By any reasonable measure, America’s monopolistic, bureaucratic, over-regulated system of public schools is woefully unprepared to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. Political, business, and education leaders continue to talk about “reforming” the current public education system. They should, instead, be discussing how to replace it.
John Hood is a former president of the John Locke Foundation, a state policy think tank in North Carolina, and author of The Heroic Enterprise: Business and the Common Good (Free Press).
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The alarming state of the American student in 2022
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November 1, 2022
The pandemic was a wrecking ball for U.S. public education, bringing months of school closures, frantic moves to remote instruction, and trauma and isolation.
Kids may be back at school after three disrupted years, but a return to classrooms has not brought a return to normal. Recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed historic declines in American students’ knowledge and skills and widening gaps between the highest- and lowest-scoring students.
But even these sobering results do not tell us the whole story.
After nearly three years of tracking pandemic response by U.S. school systems and synthesizing knowledge about the impacts on students, we sought to establish a baseline understanding of the contours of the crisis: What happened and why, and where do we go from here?
This first annual “ State of the American Student ” report synthesizes nearly three years of research on the academic, mental health, and other impacts of the pandemic and school closures.
It outlines the contours of the crisis American students have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic and begins to chart a path to recovery and reinvention for all students—which includes building a new and better approach to public education that ensures an educational crisis of this magnitude cannot happen again.
The state of American students as we emerge from the pandemic is still coming into focus, but here’s what we’ve learned (and haven’t yet learned) about where COVID-19 left us:
1. Students lost critical opportunities to learn and thrive.
• The typical American student lost several months’ worth of learning in language arts and more in mathematics.
• Students suffered crushing increases in anxiety and depression. More than one in 360 U.S. children lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19.
• Students poorly served before the pandemic were profoundly left behind during it, including many with disabilities whose parents reported they were cut off from essential school and life services.
This deeply traumatic period threatens to reverberate for decades. The academic, social, and mental-health needs are real, they are measurable, and they must be addressed quickly to avoid long-term consequences to individual students, the future workforce, and society.
2. The average effects from COVID mask dire inequities and widely varied impact.
Some students are catching up, but time is running out for others. Every student experienced the pandemic differently, and there is tremendous variation from student to student, with certain populations—namely, Black, Hispanic, and low-income students, as well as other vulnerable populations—suffering the most severe impacts.
The effects were more severe where campuses stayed closed longer. American students are experiencing a K-shaped recovery, in which gaps between the highest- and lowest-scoring students, already growing before the pandemic, are widening into chasms. In the latest NAEP results released in September , national average scores fell five times as much in reading, and four times as much in math, for the lowest-scoring 10 percent of nine-year-olds as they had for the highest-scoring 10 percent.
At the pace of recovery we are seeing today, too many students of all races and income levels will graduate in the coming years without the skills and knowledge needed for college and careers.
3. What we know at this point is incomplete. The situation could be significantly worse than the early data suggest.
The data and stories we have to date are enough to warrant immediate action, but there are serious holes in our understanding of how the pandemic has affected various groups of students, especially those who are typically most likely to fall through the cracks in the American education system.
We know little about students with complex needs, such as those with disabilities and English learners. We still know too little about the learning impacts in non-tested subjects, such as science, civics, and foreign languages. And while psychologists , educators , and the federal government are sounding alarms about a youth mental health crisis, systematic measures of student wellbeing remain hard to come by.
We must acknowledge that what we know at this point is incomplete, since the pandemic closures and following recovery have been so unprecedented in recent times. It’s possible that as we continue to dig into the evidence on the pandemic’s impacts, some student groups or subjects may have not been so adversely affected. Alternatively, the situation could be significantly worse than the early data suggest. Some students are already bouncing back quickly. But for others, the impact could grow worse over time.
In subjects like math, where learning is cumulative, pandemic-related gaps in students’ learning that emerged during the pandemic could affect their ability to grasp future material. In some states, test scores fell dramatically for high schoolers nearing graduation. Shifts in these students’ academic trajectories could affect their college plans—and the rest of their lives. And elevated rates of chronic absenteeism suggest some students who disconnected from school during the pandemic have struggled to reconnect since.
4. The harms students experienced can be traced to a rigid and inequitable system that put adults, not students, first.
• Despite often heroic efforts by caring adults, students and families were cut off from essential support, offered radically diminished learning opportunities, and left to their own devices to support learning.
• Too often, partisan politics, not student needs , drove decision-making.
• Students with complexities and differences too often faced systems immobilized by fear and a commitment to sameness rather than prioritization and problem-solving.
So, what can we do to address the situation we’re in?
Diverse needs demand diverse solutions that are informed by pandemic experiences
Freed from the routines of rigid systems, some parents, communities, and educators found new ways to tailor learning experiences around students’ needs. They discovered learning can happen any time and anywhere. They discovered enriching activities outside class and troves of untapped adult talent.
Some of these breakthroughs happened in public schools—like virtual IEP meetings that leveled power dynamics between administrators and parents advocating for their children’s special education services. Others happened in learning pods or other new environments where families and community groups devised new ways to meet students’ needs. These were exceptions to an otherwise miserable rule, and they can inform the work ahead.
We must act quickly but we must also act differently. Important next steps include:
• Districts and states should immediately use their federal dollars to address the emergent needs of the COVID-19 generation of students via proven interventions, such as well-designed tutoring, extended learning time, credit recovery, additional mental health support, college and career guidance, and mentoring. The challenges ahead are too daunting for schools to shoulder alone. Partnerships and funding for families and community-driven solutions will be critical.
• By the end of the 2022–2023 academic year, states and districts must commit to an honest accounting of rebuilding efforts by defining, adopting, and reporting on their progress toward 5- and 10-year goals for long-term student recovery. States should invest in rigorous studies that document, analyze, and improve their approaches.
• Education leaders and researchers must adopt a national research and development agenda for school reinvention over the next five years. This effort must be anchored in the reality that the needs of students are so varied, so profound, and so multifaceted that a one-size-fits-all approach to education can’t possibly meet them all. Across the country, community organizations who previously operated summer or afterschool programs stepped up to support students during the school day. As they focus on recovery, school system leaders should look to these helpers not as peripheral players in education, but as critical contributors who can provide teaching , tutoring, or joyful learning environments for students and often have trusting relationships with their families.
• Recovery and rebuilding should ensure the system is more resilient and prepared for future crises. That means more thoughtful integration of online learning and stronger partnerships with organizations that support learning outside school walls. Every school system in America should have a plan to keep students safe and learning even when they can’t physically come to school, be equipped to deliver high-quality, individualized pathways for students, and build on practices that show promise.
Our “State of the American Student” report is the first in a series of annual reports the Center on Reinventing Public Education intends to produce through fall of 2027. We hope every state and community will produce similar, annual accounts and begin to define ambitious goals for recovery. The implications of these deeply traumatic years will reverberate for decades unless we find a path not only to normalcy but also to restitution for this generation and future generations of American students.
The road to recovery can lead somewhere new. In five years, we hope to report that out of the ashes of the pandemic, American public education emerged transformed: more flexible and resilient, more individualized and equitable, and—most of all— more joyful.
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Once upon a time, enthusiasts designed a formal education system to meet the economic demands of the industrial revolution. Fast forward to today and, with the current global economic climate, it seems apparent that the now established education system is unable to meet the needs of our hyper-connected society – a society that is in a constant state of evolution. Let’s examine 18 problems that prevent the US education system from regaining its former preeminence. Check out ExamSnap for all your exam needs.
Parents are not involved enough. Of all the things out of the control of teachers, this one is perhaps the most frustrating. Time spent in the classroom is simply not enough for teachers to instruct every student, to teach them what they need to know. There must, inevitably, be some interaction outside school hours. Of course, students at a socio-economic disadvantage often struggle in school, particularly if parents lack higher levels of education. But students from middle and upper class families aren’t off the hook, either. The demands of careers and an over-dependence on schools put higher-class kids at risk too when it comes to the lack of parental involvement in academics.
- Schools are closing left and right. It’s been a rough year for public schools. Many have found themselves on the chopping block. Parents, students and communities as a whole feel targeted, even if school board members are quick to cite unbiased numbers. There is no concrete way to declare a winner in these cases, either. Sometimes, a school closing is simply inevitable but communities should first look for other solutions. Instead of shutting down underutilized public schools – icons of the community – districts should consider other neighborhood uses, such as a community center or adult education classes. Closing public schools should not be a short-sighted procedure. The decision should focus on the only investment that really matters: a quality public education for all our nation’s children.
- Our schools are overcrowded. The smaller the class, the better the individual student experience. A study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 14 percent of U.S. schools exceed capacity. At a time where children need more attention than ever to succeed, overcrowded classrooms are making it even tougher to learn and tougher still for teachers to be effective.
- Technology comes with its downsides. I am an advocate for technology in the classroom. I think that ignoring the educational opportunities that technology has afforded us puts kids at a disadvantage. being said, screen culture overall has made the jobs of teachers much more difficult. Education has become synonymous with entertainment in many ways. Parents are quick to download educational games as soon as kids have the dexterity to operate a touch screen, and with the best of intentions. The quick-hit way that children are learning academics before and during their K-12 careers makes it even more difficult for teachers to keep up in the classroom setting, particularly since each student’s knowledge base and technological savvy varies.
- There is a lack of diversity in gifted education. The “talented and gifted” label is one bestowed upon the brightest and most advanced students. Beginning in early elementary grades, TAG programs separate student peers for the sake of individualized learning initiatives. Though the ideology is sound, the practice of it is often a monotone, unattractive look at contemporary American public schools. District schools need to find ways to better recognize different types of learning talent and look beyond the typical “gifted” student model. The national push to make talented and gifted programs better mirror the contemporary and ever-evolving student body is a step in the right direction. Real change happens on a smaller scale though – in individual districts, schools and TAG programs. That progress must start with understanding of the makeup of a particular student body and include innovative ways to include all students in TAG learning initiatives.
- School spending is stagnant, even in our improving economy. As the U.S. economy continues to improve, according to news headlines, one area is still feeling the squeeze from the recession years: K-12 public school spending. A report this month from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that 34 states are contributing less funding on a per student basis than they did prior to the recession years. Since states are responsible for 44 percent of total education funding in the U.S., these dismal numbers mean a continued crack down on school budgets despite an improving economy. If we cannot find the funding for our public schools, how can we expect things like the achievement gap to close or high school graduation rates to rise? It was understandable that budgets had to be slashed when the bottom dropped out of the economy. Now we are in a more stable place, though, it is time to get back to funding what matters most: the education of our K-12 students.
- We are still using the teacher training methods of yesterday. With respect to the students of the past, modern classrooms are full of sophisticated youngsters that show up with a detailed view of the world formed from more than home life experiences. Instant access to information from instant a child can press a touchscreen on a Smartphone and widespread socialization from as young as six weeks old in the form of childcare atmospheres – kids arrive at Kindergarten with less naivety than previous generations. Teachers don’t, in other words, get a clean slate. Instead, they get young minds cluttered with random information and ideas, all of which need fostering or remediating.
- There is a lack of teacher education innovation. It stands to reason that if students are changing, teachers must change too. More specifically, it is time to modify teacher education to reflect the demands of the modern K – 12 classrooms. There are policy and practice changes taking place all over the world – many driven by teachers – that address the cultural shifts in the classroom. Public education in America needs teachers who are better trained to meet the needs of specific student populations, understand the necessary role of distance learning, and are willing to speak up to facilitate classroom change. Without these teachers, effective reform to meet global demand is not possible.
- Some students are lost to the school-to-prison pipeline. Sadly, over half of black young men who attend urban high schools do not earn a diploma. Of these dropouts, too, nearly 60 percent will go to prison at some point. Perhaps there is no real connection between these two statistics, or the eerily similar ones associated with young Latino men. Are these young people bad apples, destined to fail academically and then to live a life of crime? If some of the theories of genetic predisposition are true, perhaps these young men never stood a chance at success and have simply accepted their lots in life. But what if those answers, all of them, are just cop-outs? What if scoffing at a connection between a strong education and a life lived on the straight and narrow is an easy way to bypass the real issues in K-12 learning? Students who are at risk of dropping out of high school or turning to crime need more than a good report card. They need alternative suggestions on living a life that rises above their current circumstances. For a young person to truly have a shot at an honest life, he or she has to believe in the value of an education and its impact on good citizenship. That belief system has to come from direct conversations about making smart choices with trusted adults and peers.
- There is a nationwide college-gender gap, and surprisingly, we are not focusing on it. If you have been following education hot button issues for any length of time, you’ve likely read about the nationwide push to better encourage girls in areas like science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The thought is that by showing young women that these topics are just as appropriate for them as their male peers, more women will find lasting careers in these traditionally male-dominated fields. I’m all for more women in the STEM workplace but with all this focus in one area, are educators neglecting an even larger gender gap issue? I wonder how much of this trend is based on practicality and how much is based on a lingering social convention that women need to “prove” themselves when it comes to the workforce. Do women simply need a degree to land a job in any field? If so, the opposite is certainly not true for men – at least not yet. Will the young men in our classrooms today have a worse quality of life if they do not attend college – or will it be about the same?
- We still do not know how to handle high school dropouts. It seems that every time the issue of high school dropouts is discussed, it all centers on money. U.S. Census Statistics tell us that 38 percent of high school dropouts fall below the poverty line, compared with 18 percent of total households in every demographic. Dropouts are also 40 percent more likely to rent their residences and spend $450 less per month on housing costs than the overall population. Only around 60 percent of dropouts own vehicles and they spend over $300 less on entertainment annually than average Americans. It’s clear that a high school diploma is in fact the ticket to higher earnings, at least on a collective level. The negative financial ramifications of dropping out of high school cannot be denied, but the way they are over-emphasized seems like a worn-out tactic to me. Instead of focusing on students as earners, we really need to value them as learners so that we can encourage them to finish their high school education.
- We have not achieved education equity. Equity in education has long been an ideal. It’s an ideal celebrated in a variety of contexts, too. Even the Founding Fathers celebrated education as an ideal – something to which every citizen ought to be entitled. Unfortunately, though, the practice of equity in education has been less than effective. Equity, in the end, is a difficult ideal to maintain and many strategies attempting to maintain it have fallen far short in the implementation. To achieve equity, school systems need to have an approach for analyzing findings about recommended shifts in learning approaches and objectives. These approaches should also help teachers and administrators understand not what they have to avoid but what it is that they can do to achieve optimal equity moving forward.
- Technology brings a whole new dimension to cheating. Academic dishonesty is nothing new. As long as there have been homework assignments and tests, there have been cheaters. The way that cheating looks has changed over time, though. Technology has made it easier than ever. Perhaps the most interesting caveat of modern-day cheating in U.S. classrooms is that students often do not think they have done anything wrong. Schools must develop anti-cheating policies that include technology and those policies must be updated consistently. Teachers must stay vigilant, too, when it comes to what their students are doing in classrooms and how technology could be playing a negative role in the learning process. Parents must also talk to their kids about the appropriate ways to find academic answers and alert them to unethical behaviors that may seem innocent in their own eyes.
- We still struggle with making teacher tenure benefit both students and teachers. One of the most contested points of teacher contracts is the issue of tenure. Hardline education reformers argue that tenure protects underperforming teachers, which ends up punishing the students. Teachers unions challenge (among other reasons) that with the ever-changing landscape of K-12 education, including evaluation systems, tenure is necessary to protect the jobs of excellent teachers who could otherwise be ousted unfairly. It can often be a sticking point – and one that can lead to costly time out of classrooms, as recently seen in large school systems like New York City and Chicago. Now, I’m not suggesting that teachers just “give up” but I would support adjusting the expectations for tenure. It seems an appropriate step in the right direction for teachers in all types of schools. That energy then can be redirected towards realistic and helpful stipulations in teachers’ contracts that benefit the entire industry.
- More of our schools need to consider year-round schooling. Does it work? The traditional school year, with roughly three months of vacation days every summer, was first implemented when America was an agricultural society. The time off was not implemented to accommodate contemporary concerns, like children needing “down time” to decompress and “be kids.” The system was born out of economic necessity. In fact, the first schools that went against the summers-off version of the academic calendar were in urban areas that did not revolve around the agricultural calendar, like Chicago and New York, as early as the mid-1800s. It was much later, however, that the idea as a whole gained momentum. Overall, year-round schooling seems to show a slight advantage academically to students enrolled, but the numbers of students are not high enough to really get a good read on it at this point. What does seem clear, however, is that at-risk students do far better without a long summer break, and other students are not harmed by the year-round schedule.
- We are still wrestling the achievement gap. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Education released student performance data in its National Assessment for Educational Progress report. The data is compiled every two years and it assesses reading and math achievements for fourth and eighth graders. This particular report also outlines differences between students based on racial and socioeconomic demographics. The data points to the places in the U.S. that still struggle with inequality in student opportunity and performance, otherwise known as the achievement gap. The achievement gap will likely always exist in some capacity, in much the same way that the U.S. high school dropout rate will likely never make it down to zero. This doesn’t mean it is a lost cause, of course. Every student who succeeds, from any demographic, is another victory in K-12 education and it benefits society as a whole. Better recognition by every educator, parent and citizen of the true problem that exists is a start; actionable programs are the next step.
- We need to consider how school security measures affect students. In theory, parents and educators would do anything to keep students safe, whether those students are pre-Kindergartners or wrapping up a college career. Nothing is too outlandish or over-the-top when it comes to protecting our kids and young adults. Metal detectors, security cameras, more police presence in school hallways, gated campuses – they all work toward the end goal of sheltering students and their educators, protecting some of the most vulnerable of our citizens. Emotions aside, though, how much does school security really increase actual safety? Do school security efforts actually hinder the learning experience? It sounds good to taut the virtues of tighter policies on school campuses but is it all just empty rhetoric? Given the fact that state spending per student is lower than at the start of the recession, how much should schools shell out on security costs? Perhaps the best investment we can make to safeguard our students and educators is in personal vigilance. Perhaps less reliance on so-called safety measures would lead to higher alertness.
- We need to make assistive technology more available for students with disabilities. A key to improving the educational experience for students with disabilities is better accommodations in schools and continued improvements in assistive technology. Assistive technology in K-12 classrooms, by definition, is designed to “improve the functional capabilities of a child with a disability.” While the word “technology” automatically conjures up images of cutting-edge electronics, some assistive technology is possible with just simple accommodations. Whether high-tech or simple in design, assistive technology has the ability to transform the learning experiences for the children who benefit. Assistive technology is important for providing a sound education for K-12 students with disabilities but benefits the greater good of the country, too. Nearly one-fourth of a specific student population is not being properly served and with so many technological advances, that is a number I believe can drop. Assistive technology in simple and complex platforms has the ability to lift the entire educational experience and provide a better life foundation for K-12 students with disabilities.
Some of these reasons are well-known and long-standing issues. However, others—such as the emergence of a screen culture—are new and even somewhat unexpected challenges. However, the nature of each issue does not matter. All of them are standing in the way of our becoming globally competitive.
Can you think of any reasons the U.S. educational systems are failing?
Click here to read all our posts concerning the Achievement Gap.
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The 15 Biggest Failures of the American Public Education System
Decades ago, the American formal education system was designed to meet the changing needs of the industrial revolution. What was once a time of growth has changed over the years and, with the current economic climate, that system is no longer able to meet modern needs. But what are the biggest failures of the American public education system, and how can they be remedied?
In this article, we’ll explore fifteen of the biggest failures affecting the American public education system today. We’ll also explore five of the biggest emerging trends in American education.
The Top 15 Failures in American Public Education
Policymakers are constantly fighting to make changes to the American public education system, and not all of them are beneficial. Over the years, there has been a great deal of back-and-forth that has left the public education system in shambles. Some of these problems are easy to identify and have been long-standing issues while others are new, brought about by advances in technology, changes in policy, and general change that happens with time.
Every story has two sides, and for every policy or program put into place, there are going to be proponents and critics. Below you’ll find an overview of some of the biggest issues facing the American public system as well as arguments from people on both sides of the issue.
This video examines the question of why public education is failing parents and students.
Here are the top 15 failures affecting the American public education system:
1. Deficits in government funding for schools.
Funding is always an issue for schools and is, in fact, one of the biggest issues facing the American public education system today. For more than 90% of K-12 schools, funding comes from state and local governments, largely generated by sales and income taxes. Research shows, however, that funding has not increased with need – many states are still issuing funding that is lower than it was before the Great Recession. Lower funding means fewer teachers, fewer programs, and diminished resources.
2. Decline in school safety.
There has been a string of high-profile mass shootings in American schools, resulting not only in dozens of deaths but many debates about school safety. In one poll , over 50% of teenagers said they were worried about the possibility of gun violence in school. Teachers all across the country are faced with the problem of figuring out how to prevent attacks and protect the lives of students and personnel. Some suggest special straining for teachers and concealed weapons might make schools safer while critics argue that more guns in schools could lead to more accidents and injuries.
3. Challenges with technology in education.
Today’s students have grown up using technology and have come to expect it in the classroom, but there are arguments about how large a role technology should play in education. Supporters suggest that technology creates the potential for more active student engagement and provides instant access to up-to-date resources while critics say it could be a distraction. While technology in the classroom certainly has its benefits, certain aspects of technology are challenging. For example, smartphones and easy access to technology have made it easier for students to cheat and can negatively impact learning.
This video discusses the worsening school funding crisis.
4. Controversy over charter schools and voucher programs.
Another hot topic in education today is school choice. Charter schools and school vouchers allow parents to choose options other than traditional public schools for their children. Charter schools are funded by a combination of private and public funds and operate outside the public school system. School vouchers allow parents to use public funds to send their child to a school of choice, including private schools. Critics of these schools suggest that charter schools and voucher programs siphon funds away from public schools that are already struggling financially.
5. Problems with the common core curriculum.
The Common Core State Standards were developed to specify exactly what students should know before graduating high school. It was developed in 2009 to promote educational equity across the country, holding all students to the same standardized testing requirements. Some see the problem as a federal intrusion into the state control of education and others say that it doesn’t allow for teacher innovation and flexibility with the learning process. Most states adopted the standards when they were introduced but more than a dozen have since repealed or revised them.
6. Decreased teacher salaries.
Teacher salaries are by no means impressive and, in most states, they have decreased steadily over the past few years. In fact, research shows that the average salary for public elementary and secondary school teachers dropped by nearly 5% between the 2009/10 school year and now. States like Oklahoma and Colorado experienced a 17% and 16% decrease – these states also saw massive teacher walkouts in 2018. There are, of course, some states where teacher salaries increased, and some teachers received a growth in benefits that may or may not be enough to balance out wages that are low overall.
7. Emphasis on standardized testing.
Along with Common Core, there has been an increased focus on standardized testing, especially during the No Child Left Behind years. Schools and teachers are judged based on student test scores which, many argue, is not a fair or accurate measure of efficacy. Many critics argue that standardized testing is one of the biggest problems in American education, suggesting that the pressure to produce high test scores leads to a teach-to-the-test approach and reduced focus on non-tested subjects like art.
8. Arguments about teacher tenure.
Tenure is designed to protect teachers from being fired for personal or political reasons – the school district must demonstrate just cause. In many states, tenure is granted to public school teachers who have consistently received satisfactory evaluations, though some states don’t award it at all. Supporters suggest that tenured teachers can advocate for students without having fears of reprisal while critics say that it makes it harder for school districts to dismiss ineffectual teachers. Some also suggest that tenure may encourage complacency, allowing teachers to put forth the minimal effort.
9. Bullying in schools.
Violence in schools is a rising issue and bullying is a key contributor. According to the National Center for Education Statistics , over 20% of students in grades 6 through 12 have been bullied either in school or on their way to/from school. This figure is actually down from 32% in 2007 but is still much too high. The challenge with these statistics is that many students who are bullied do NOT report it. Bullied students experience a wide range of physical, behavioral, and emotional problems that can impact not only their education but also their lives.
10. Growing problems with student poverty.
According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 50% of the public-school population in the United States was made up of low-income students. This is a significant increase from 38% in 2001. This is a nationwide problem with 40% of public-school students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches in 40 states. In 18 of those states, student poverty rates were over 50%. Studies have shown that low-income students tend to perform lower than affluent students and family income shows a strong correlation with student achievement measured by standardized tests.
11. Schools are overcrowded.
In the 2011/12 school year, the average class size in American public schools was about 21 students in elementary school and almost 27 students in secondary school. Anecdotal reports, however, suggest that classrooms today have closer to 30, and in some cases, 40 students. Teachers and other proponents of smaller class sizes suggest that class size influences the quality of instruction with smaller class sizes have improved student outcomes. Critics say that the cost of limiting class sizes is a limiting factor and that it may not be worth it. In Florida, class sizes were capped in 2002 but a 2010 study showed no significant impact on test scores for students in grades 4 through 8.
12. Student mental health challenges.
Mental health is a growing concern in the United States and one that even affects school students. A 2018 study showed that nearly two-thirds of college students experienced overwhelming anxiety and anxiety has been reported in younger students as well. Even schools that are trying to make a difference face challenges. For example, the recommended ratio of students to counselors is one counselor for every 1,000 to 1,500 students but the U.S. college campus average is 1,737 to 1. Awareness of mental health issues is increasing, but there is still a stigma that prevents many students from seeking care.
13. Parents are not involved enough.
Teachers in public schools can only do so much to support their students. When the students go home for the day, the state of their home life can impact their development both personally and academically. In cases where parents lack higher education, they may not be able to provide the assistance students need to learn and to complete homework. Students in low-income families face additional challenges at home, though even middle- and upper-class families aren’t off the hook. In many families, parents are too career-focused and have little time to spend supporting their child’s education.
14. Too many schools are being closed.
Schools all over the country are closing their doors in numbers that are quite alarming. This only leads to an increase in issues with large class sizes and poor access to resources. It is easy for parents, teachers, and communities that are affected by closures to feel targeted even when school board members provide unbiased data. In some cases, closures cannot be prevented but they can be delayed and communities should consider other solutions or alternative uses for the school such as a community center or adult education center.
15. Lack of teacher innovation and outdated teaching methods.
The teaching methods used decades ago simply do not work for the modern student. One of the biggest things holding back the American public education system is a lack of teacher innovation, partially created by the enforcement of standardized testing and the Common Core curriculum. Unfortunately, the problem really needs to be addressed at the federal level with changes to policies that will result in a change within the public education system. America needs teachers who are better trained to meet the needs of their students and who are willing to speak up and facilitate change. Teachers are on the front lines and, without them speaking up, change is not possible.
Problems abound in the American education system, but growth and change are possible. Keep reading to learn about the top emerging trends in the nation’s public education.
The Top 5 Emerging Trends in Education
Though the American public education system certainly has its issues, it is by no means a lost cause. The only thing anyone can do is change with the times and there are a number of emerging trends in education that could be a step toward resolving some of the issues above.
Here is an overview of the top 5 emerging trends in American education:
- Increase in maker learning initiatives.
- Moving away from a letter grade system.
- Changing classroom approaches like flipped learning.
- The institution of micro-credentials.
- Growing concern for social and emotional development.
Now, let’s take a quick look at each of these trends.
1. Increase in maker learning initiatives.
In many schools, teaching is the focus when education should really be focused on student learning. Maker education allows students to follow their own interests and to test their own solutions for problems in a do-it-yourself approach to education. Students learn in collaborative spaces where they identify problems, create inventions, make prototypes, and keep working until they have the final result that works. There is little hard evidence on the trend as of yet, but it is growing quickly.
2. Moving away from a letter grade system.
Student assessment is necessary to test the efficacy of teaching strategies and curriculum – it is also a good way to measure individual student growth and success. For many years, letter grades have been the primary method of student assessment but that is changing. Leaders in education currently feel that the traditional letter grade model is not a sufficient measure of the skills most highly valued in the modern workforce – skills like creativity and problem-solving.
In 2017, the Mastery Transcript Consortium was formed and includes over 150 private high schools. These schools have adopted a digital system that provides qualitative descriptions of student learning and samples of work instead of the grade-based transcript system. Public schools are quickly adopting the trend as well in a nationwide shift toward mastery-based or competency-based learning.
3. Changing classroom approaches like flipped learning.
The traditional model of teaching places the teacher in front of the class giving a lecture, followed by students working at home on assignments to enhance their understanding of the subject. Flipped learning involves students watching videos or relevant coursework prior to class, and using class time to expand on the material through group discussions or collaborative projects. Flipped learning allows students to control their learning pace and encourages students to learn from each other, exploring subjects more deeply than they otherwise might.
4. The institution of micro-credentials.
This trend in higher education is a departure from traditional college degrees that require years of study over a multi-year span. Micro-credentials, rather, are also known as digital badges or nano degrees that demonstrate knowledge or skill in a given area and are earned through short, targeted educational offerings. About 20% of higher education institutions offer some kind of alternative credentialing system, often partnering with third-party learning providers.
5. Growing concern for social and emotional development.
Traditional education is focused on academics but there is a movement toward nurturing the whole study called social-emotional learning (SEL). This movement is based on the growing consensus that schools have a responsibility to protect and develop students’ social and emotional development in addition to their cognitive skills. SEL focuses on helping students manage their emotions, show empathy, set goals, identify their strengths and make responsible decisions. Research on SEL shows a reduction in anti-social behavior and an improvement in academic achievement and long-term health.
The United States is a giant country with a huge population, making it difficult to standardize education or make improvements across the board. Though there are many problems with the American public education system, there are also many people (including legislators) who are dedicated to making positive changes that could benefit the future students of this country.
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Better Schools Won’t Fix America
Like many rich Americans, I used to think educational investment could heal the country’s ills—but I was wrong. Fighting inequality must come first.
Long ago, I was captivated by a seductively intuitive idea, one many of my wealthy friends still subscribe to: that both poverty and rising inequality are largely consequences of America’s failing education system. Fix that, I believed, and we could cure much of what ails America.
This belief system, which I have come to think of as “educationism,” is grounded in a familiar story about cause and effect: Once upon a time, America created a public-education system that was the envy of the modern world. No nation produced more or better-educated high-school and college graduates, and thus the great American middle class was built. But then, sometime around the 1970s, America lost its way. We allowed our schools to crumble, and our test scores and graduation rates to fall. School systems that once churned out well-paid factory workers failed to keep pace with the rising educational demands of the new knowledge economy. As America’s public-school systems foundered, so did the earning power of the American middle class. And as inequality increased, so did political polarization, cynicism, and anger, threatening to undermine American democracy itself.
Taken with this story line, I embraced education as both a philanthropic cause and a civic mission. I co-founded the League of Education Voters, a nonprofit dedicated to improving public education. I joined Bill Gates, Alice Walton, and Paul Allen in giving more than $1 million each to an effort to pass a ballot measure that established Washington State’s first charter schools. All told, I have devoted countless hours and millions of dollars to the simple idea that if we improved our schools—if we modernized our curricula and our teaching methods, substantially increased school funding, rooted out bad teachers, and opened enough charter schools—American children, especially those in low-income and working-class communities, would start learning again. Graduation rates and wages would increase, poverty and inequality would decrease, and public commitment to democracy would be restored.
But after decades of organizing and giving, I have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that I was wrong. And I hate being wrong.
Read: Education reform and the failure to fix inequality in America
What I’ve realized, decades late, is that educationism is tragically misguided. American workers are struggling in large part because they are underpaid—and they are underpaid because 40 years of trickle-down policies have rigged the economy in favor of wealthy people like me. Americans are more highly educated than ever before, but despite that, and despite nearly record-low unemployment, most American workers—at all levels of educational attainment—have seen little if any wage growth since 2000.
To be clear: We should do everything we can to improve our public schools. But our education system can’t compensate for the ways our economic system is failing Americans. Even the most thoughtful and well-intentioned school-reform program can’t improve educational outcomes if it ignores the single greatest driver of student achievement: household income.
For all the genuine flaws of the American education system, the nation still has many high-achieving public-school districts. Nearly all of them are united by a thriving community of economically secure middle-class families with sufficient political power to demand great schools, the time and resources to participate in those schools, and the tax money to amply fund them. In short, great public schools are the product of a thriving middle class, not the other way around. Pay people enough to afford dignified middle-class lives, and high-quality public schools will follow. But allow economic inequality to grow, and educational inequality will inevitably grow with it.
By distracting us from these truths, educationism is part of the problem.
W henever I talk with my wealthy friends about the dangers of rising economic inequality, those who don’t stare down at their shoes invariably push back with something about the woeful state of our public schools. This belief is so entrenched among the philanthropic elite that of America’s 50 largest family foundations—a clique that manages $144 billion in tax-exempt charitable assets—40 declare education as a key issue. Only one mentions anything about the plight of working people, economic inequality, or wages. And because the richest Americans are so politically powerful, the consequences of their beliefs go far beyond philanthropy.
A major theme in the educationist narrative involves the “ skills gap ”—the notion that decades of wage stagnation are largely a consequence of workers not having the education and skills to fill new high-wage jobs. If we improve our public schools, the thinking goes, and we increase the percentage of students attaining higher levels of education, particularly in the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering, and math—the skills gap will shrink, wages will rise, and income inequality will fall.
Annie Lowrey: Wages are low and workers are scarce. Wait, what?
The real story is more complicated, and more troubling. Yes, there is a mismatch between the skills of the present and the jobs of the future. In a fast-changing, technologically advanced economy, how could there not be? But this mismatch doesn’t begin to explain the widening inequality of the past 40 years.
In 1970, when the golden age of the American middle class was nearing its peak and inequality was at its nadir, only about half of Americans ages 25 and older had a high-school diploma or the equivalent. Today, 90 percent do. Meanwhile, the proportion of Americans attaining a college degree has more than tripled since 1970. But while the American people have never been more highly educated, only the wealthiest have seen large gains in real wages. From 1979 to 2017, as the average real annual wages of the top 1 percent of Americans rose 156 percent (and the top .01 percent’s wages rose by a stunning 343 percent), the purchasing power of the average American’s paycheck did not increase.
Some educationists might argue that the recent gains in educational attainment simply haven’t been enough to keep up with the changing economy—but here, yet again, the truth appears more complicated. While 34 percent of Americans ages 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher, only 26 percent of jobs currently require one. The job categories that are growing fastest, moreover, don’t generally require a college diploma, let alone a STEM degree. According to federal estimates, four of the five occupational categories projected to add the most jobs to the economy over the next five years are among the lowest-paying jobs: “food preparation and serving” ($19,130 in average annual earnings), “personal care and service” ($21,260), “sales and related” ($25,360), and “health-care support” ($26,440). And while the number of jobs that require a postsecondary education is expected to increase slightly faster than the number that don’t, the latter group is expected to dominate the job market for decades to come. In October 2018 there were 1 million more job openings than job seekers in the U.S. Even if all of these unfilled jobs were in STEM professions at the top of the pay scale, they would be little help to most of the 141 million American workers in the bottom nine income deciles.
It’s worth noting that workers with a college degree enjoy a significant wage premium over those without. (Among people over age 25, those with a bachelor’s degree had median annual earnings of $53,882 in 2017, compared with $32,320 for those with only a high-school education.) But even with that advantage, adjusted for inflation, average hourly wages for recent college graduates have barely budged since 2000 , while the bottom 60 percent of college graduates earn less than that group did in 2000. A college diploma is no longer a guaranteed passport into the middle class.
Meanwhile, nearly all the benefits of economic growth have been captured by large corporations and their shareholders. After-tax corporate profits have doubled from about 5 percent of GDP in 1970 to about 10 percent, even as wages as a share of GDP have fallen by roughly 8 percent. And the wealthiest 1 percent’s share of pre-tax income has more than doubled, from 9 percent in 1973 to 21 percent today. Taken together, these two trends amount to a shift of more than $2 trillion a year from the middle class to corporations and the super-rich.
The state of the labor market provides further evidence that low-wage workers’ declining fortunes aren’t explained by supply and demand. With the unemployment rate near a 50-year floor, low-wage industries such as accommodations, food service, and retail are struggling to cope with a shortage of job applicants—leading The Wall Street Journal to lament that “low-skilled jobs are becoming increasingly difficult for employers to fill.” If wages were actually set the way our Econ 101 textbooks suggested, workers would be profiting from this dynamic. Yet outside the cities and states that have recently imposed a substantially higher local minimum wage, low-wage workers have seen their real incomes barely budge.
All of which suggests that income inequality has exploded not because of our country’s educational failings but despite its educational progress. Make no mistake: Education is an unalloyed good. We should advocate for more of it, so long as it’s of high quality. But the longer we pretend that education is the answer to economic inequality, the harder it will be to escape our new Gilded Age.
Read: The 9.9 percent is the new American aristocracy
H owever justifiable their focus on curricula and innovation and institutional reform, people who see education as a cure-all have largely ignored the metric most predictive of a child’s educational success: household income.
The scientific literature on this subject is robust, and the consensus overwhelming. The lower your parents’ income, the lower your likely level of educational attainment. Period. But instead of focusing on ways to increase household income, educationists in both political parties talk about extending ladders of opportunity to poor children, most recently in the form of charter schools. For many children, though—especially those raised in the racially segregated poverty endemic to much of the United States—the opportunity to attend a good public school isn’t nearly enough to overcome the effects of limited family income.
As Lawrence Mishel, an economist at the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute, notes, poverty creates obstacles that would trip up even the most naturally gifted student. He points to the plight of “children who frequently change schools due to poor housing; have little help with homework; have few role models of success; have more exposure to lead and asbestos; have untreated vision, ear, dental, or other health problems; … and live in a chaotic and frequently unsafe environment.”
Indeed, multiple studies have found that only about 20 percent of student outcomes can be attributed to schooling, whereas about 60 percent are explained by family circumstances—most significantly, income. Now consider that, nationwide, just over half of today’s public-school students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches , up from 38 percent in 2000. Surely if American students are lagging in the literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills our modern economy demands, household income deserves most of the blame—not teachers or their unions.
If we really want to give every American child an honest and equal opportunity to succeed, we must do much more than extend a ladder of opportunity—we must also narrow the distance between the ladder’s rungs. We must invest not only in our children, but in their families and their communities. We must provide high-quality public education, sure, but also high-quality housing, health care, child care, and all the other prerequisites of a secure middle-class life. And most important, if we want to build the sort of prosperous middle-class communities in which great public schools have always thrived, we must pay all our workers, not just software engineers and financiers, a dignified middle-class wage.
Today, after wealthy elites gobble up our outsize share of national income, the median American family is left with $76,000 a year. Had hourly compensation grown with productivity since 1973—as it did over the preceding quarter century, according to the Economic Policy Institute—that family would now be earning more than $105,000 a year. Just imagine, education reforms aside, how much larger and stronger and better educated our middle class would be if the median American family enjoyed a $29,000-a-year raise.
In fact, the most direct way to address rising economic inequality is to simply pay ordinary workers more, by increasing the minimum wage and the salary threshold for overtime exemption; by restoring bargaining power for labor; and by instating higher taxes—much higher taxes—on rich people like me and on our estates.
Educationism appeals to the wealthy and powerful because it tells us what we want to hear: that we can help restore shared prosperity without sharing our wealth or power. As Anand Giridharadas explains in his book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World , narratives like this one let the wealthy feel good about ourselves. By distracting from the true causes of economic inequality, they also defend America’s grossly unequal status quo.
We have confused a symptom—educational inequality—with the underlying disease: economic inequality. Schooling may boost the prospects of individual workers, but it doesn’t change the core problem, which is that the bottom 90 percent is divvying up a shrinking share of the national wealth. Fixing that problem will require wealthy people to not merely give more, but take less.
This article appears in the July 2019 print edition with the headline “Education Isn’t Enough.”
Education System in the United States
Ideally, education should continually prepare an individual for life so that they may live it to the fullest while aiming at an experience of the greater good for all and sundry. Nurturing of the human capacity for creativity requires a fertile environment for growth. Thus, education can be acquired from home, where the educative process is informal. It can also be appropriated from an institutionalized setting in the form of a public school or a privately owned school. In the United States, each of these environments is well represented as a source of education. The extent to which each of them has been instrumental in the drive for the greater good has, however, not yet been established.
Also, it would be an interesting engagement to try and determine how much each of the three entities have contributed towards this goal in the American context. This article shall explore education in the United States based on the aforementioned sources of enlightenment. According to the National Catholic Educational Association, no database extant in the American continent provides data regarding public schools. Furthermore, no database collects the same; also, no database compares findings concerning private and public schools (NCEA, 2010). This treatise shall attempt to make such comparisons. Findings of privately run schools and home-based learning centers shall be considered in mutual exclusivity, and comparisons made of the same regarding various parameters of interest. The author shall then endeavor to draw logical conclusions from the comparisons thus made.
General Structure of the Education System in the United States
In the United States, education can be seen from two perspectives. There is a level at which education is considered not to be compulsory, and there is compulsory education. The non-compulsory level of education is below kindergarten. Different states have different ages at which children may enter compulsory education. This is usually six years of age. However, the range is usually between five and seven years (USAEducation, 2011). This level of education is also known as pre-higher education, and it lasts for ten years on average. For example, a child who joins compulsory education classes at the age of six years shall be expected to graduate at the age of sixteen, approximately ten years later. Within this level, one starts with pre-schooling, which commences from age three to six. The types of schools that provide pre-primary education include nursery schools, kindergarten, and daycare centers. A child in kindergarten spends two years in school (EuroEducation, 2011). In some cases, certificates are awarded as proof that a child indeed attended pre-primary classes. These certificates make the children eligible for admission into Elementary school.
Elementary school lasts four years, and the age of entry is usually six years, immediately after completion of Kindergarten. There are four grades at this level, but that also depends on the state and local practice. At ten years of age, one is likely to graduate with a certificate or a diploma that is awarded by the State or District. The student is then eligible to join Middle School. Sometimes, however, the issuance of awards may not be necessary (EuroEducation, 2011). For example, when a student is to maintain their residency within the same school, there will be no need for proof of graduation to the next level since the student is already known.
From ten to fourteen years of age, a student attends Middle School. This is from grade four to grade six but in some cases, it may go up to grade seven, or grade eight. On average the level takes three years to be completed. High school is from grade seven (or eight) to twelve and lasts six years; from thirteen to eighteen years of age. Some schools offer a level known as the Junior Secondary, which typically runs from thirteen to fifteen years of age and lasts an average of three years. The representative grades in this level are grade seven to eight, seven to nine, or eight to nine. It is a level followed immediately by the Upper secondary. The latter takes five years, is composed of grades nine or ten to twelve, and involves children who are between fifteen and eighteen years of age. Twelfth grade is the level for graduation from secondary school in all states. When one graduate, they are awarded a High School Diploma together with a transcript which details the marks that the student obtained and the curriculum in which he or she was involved (USAEducation, 2011).
Beyond secondary school education, there are two branches of education that one may opt for. They may get vocational education and training. This does not culminate in one being awarded a degree, but under certain circumstances, there may be transferable credits that lead to the award of a degree. On the other hand, a high school graduate can opt for the pursuance of a degree in any field that interests him or her (USAEducation, 2011). Higher education, also called post-secondary education can last an entire lifetime. It might also last for only three years after which the student decides to seek employment either in a field relevant to the acquired knowledge or an entirely different field. The transmutability of knowledge gained from higher education places the scholar at an advantage in that they are not confined to their area of expertise. The open-minded graduate will find gainful employment in whichever field they opt for. The essence of education is not to end up having a job, but to live life fully. Therefore, one who gets a job after they have acquired their degrees is fortunate
Subjects Taught at Various School Levels
Much of what children are introduced to while they are in Kindergarten is repeated through the course of their elementary school life. Numbers, language, and social science are taught using computers, film, and books. These lists are, however, not exhaustive. Teachers have the responsibility of shaping the way children will think at this level and what the children learn shall be important determinants of whether or not the students shall be successful in the future. The teacher encourages them to play so that they may develop language and social skills. At Elementary School, one or two teachers are usually held responsible for a group of children whom they instruct in one of several special subjects. These subjects include science, music, and art (United States Bureau of Labour, 2002).
The private education system in the United States
Behind every decision for one to embrace either the public school system or private school system, there is a motive. The rationale behind American people opting for private education is multi-faceted. However, there seems to be one underlying reason (opines the author) that traverses all others and that is, a collectively disgruntled group of people who have lost faith in the education that the public sector provides. What are some of the reasons for opting to go private? If the 2004 publication on private schooling is anything to go by, private schools are a reserve of the financially capable. The same publication gives the impression that the majority of rich people prefer having their children attend private schools that have no religious affiliations (Education Week, 2004). It would also so appear as if this group of people detests the idea of their progeny being indoctrinated with religious dogma; that not being relevant to their realization of the good life. Moreover, it depicts the definition of “the good life” as something subjective, arguable depending on personal perspectives of what comprises the good in life. If the observations on religious dogma were true, then a paltry 10% of the school-age population would still be an overestimation of the proportion of people who do not view success in life as a function of one’s religiousness or lack thereof.
According to the Council of American Private Education, one of the reasons the American populace opts for private educational institutions is the provision of quality education that they appropriate (CAPE, 2011). The implication of this is that, for the parents of school-going children who attend private school, the delivery of quality is better experienced away from public institutions. Other reasons cited for preferring private to public schools are supportive communities, safety and orderliness in private environments, and the impartation of morals and ethical values. When each of these factors is taken in isolation and regarded as a polarizing factor, it does not appear to hold much water, if any at all. About the quality of education, for example, it would be expected that public schools would offer better quality. This is because the federal government has the backing of the whole American population, albeit begrudgingly for some, in form of income tax returns. Therefore, the acquisition of quality personnel and educative amenities would/should not be an unbearable burden.
The National Centre for Education Statistics (NCES) defines a private school as one that does not obtain its financial support primarily from public funds. Besides, such schools use classrooms to deliver educative material from kindergarten up to grade 12. Other levels that compare to K-12 but as yet ungraded are also considered, for example, some Montessori schools assign institutions to “primary” or “intermediate” levels rather than giving specific grades. The said schools should also employ one teacher or more, for them to snugly fit within this criterion. The NCES does not consider a private school an institution or organization that does not use a classroom set-up to deliver instruction. It has been running the private school survey since 1997, with data derived from administrative personnel in the same institutions (NCES, 2011).
According to NCESs 2009-2010 survey, some private schools had religious orientations and these formed the majority of private schools (Broughman, Swaim and Hryczaniuk, 2011). The religious leanings notwithstanding, an interesting fancy that comes to mind is a look at the reasons behind these proclivities. It would also be of sensual appeal to study the various religious interests represented in the various school, to find out which is the most represented and why.
From the same survey mentioned above, it was evident that the majority of private schools around the United States had no religious affiliations at all. That is, not one religion had several schools that exceeded that of schools devoid of religious inclinations. These “unspiritual” (read non-sectarian) schools were closely followed in number by private schools that are predominantly Roman Catholic (Broughman, Swaim, and Hryczaniuk, 2011). According to the National Catholic Educational Association, when a single year is considered, examining test scores to determine student achievement, and to compare the quality of education between public and private schools avails very little relevant information (NCEA, 2006). This statement has been construed to engender the lack of comparison of other relevant data within any single academic or survey year.
For example, based on the 2009-2010 NCEA report, one may easily compare the enrolment of students in Roman Catholic schools and those in the Baptist church, thereby concluding that the higher the number of schools, the higher the number of students who enroll in them. This conclusion, however, is flawed, especially when one goes a step further and makes the same comparisons with, say, Jewish schools. The conclusion would imply direct proportionality between the number of schools and the number of enrollees. Nevertheless, the Jewish schools number less than half of the Baptist schools, but students enrolled in Jewish schools are more than half the number of those in Baptist schools. Similarly, it would be expected that since the number of Greek orthodox schools are exactly half the number of schools of the Church of God in Christ, the enrollees in the latter institution would be, ideally, half the number in the former give or take a few thousand students. A stark contrast is observed in this case, when the number of Greek orthodox enrolees exceeds the number of enrollees in schools considered to be affiliated with the Church of God in Christ (Broughman, Swaim and Hryczaniuk, 2011). With such discrepancies, it is highly unlikely that comparisons within different years would avail anything different.
From the survey carried out by the NCEA, several questions are likely to arise in the curious-minded. One would ask, for instance, how religious affiliations affect examination scores or how the religiously inclined to turn out in life after attending school. Furthermore, one would be interested in knowing the drop-out rate per grade of the religiously inclined vis a vis the non-sectarian. This, followed by an exploration of the reasons why would be a worthwhile engagement leading to a keener understanding of the school demographics. It would also enlighten one who needs to make decisions regarding which school his or her children ought to attend. However, the report provided addresses none of these concerns. Where one would probably get the answers to these questions, the data is not as detailed as to be of much relevance. A document by the Council for American Private Education, in mentioning the scores by students doing science, states that in 2009, 44% of the students in private schools “scored at or above the ‘proficient level’ in science”. The same publication further states that, for students in the fourth grade, 48% were deemed proficient according to NAEP (CAPE, 2011). It is thus evident that one might need to investigate to arrive at the answers to the queries above.
Apart from the meager statistical information from the well-established institutions like NAEP and the NCEA, several studies have been carried out whose objectives are congruous with the raised questions. Some studies have concluded that students from private schools perform better than their public school counterparts. However, other studies find conflicting results. Those whose results are in the affirmative invariably find out also that the best performers are students from catholic schools (Figlio & Stone, 2011).
According to Figlio and Stone, these studies did not employ robust instruments for the adjustment of non-random selection. They, therefore, proposed the implementation of a system of study that would improve system power prediction by about three times compared to studies done before theirs. They, like the aforementioned National Catholic Educational Association, did their studies while considering high schools in three categories: religious private high schools, nonreligious private high schools, and public high schools. Having made these modifications, they found out that nonreligious schools have a significant superiority to the religious schools in as far as science and mathematics subjects are concerned (Figlio and Stone, 2011).
There exists a debate about the benefits (if any at all) that private schools bring to the American schooling system. Those who criticize the private schools say that parents decide to opt for them being driven by the desire to appear socially elite or simply to separate themselves. It is the collective points of view of these critics that parents do not necessarily choose private schools because of better academic performance. They contend that these parents are hell-bent on keeping their children separate and untainted from those who come from other races and backgrounds. Furthermore, they say that for these parents, their children’s attending private schools is an attractive status symbol. The critical punch line they put forward is that private schools propagate segregation by class and race (Education Week, 2004).
On the other hand, there exist proponents for private education. In support of the system, they say that the monopoly extant with many public schools is not competitive. They add that a competitive system that opens up the opportunity for people to choose the schools to which they shall take their children is required. To support this point, they say that private school students are superior academies to their public school counterparts. They contend that schools need to be autonomous, and such a system would promote this autonomy; also adding that due to autonomy, student performance would improve. The proponents say that there is bias in the private school system. They propose an opening up of the system by the introduction of children from low-income families and those whose affiliate groups are underrepresented. This would mean that a means of supporting these students’ education be established. They, therefore, propose the use of vouchers as well as school choice programs (Education Week, 2004).
The proposal regarding the use of vouchers and increased school choice was given a counter-offer by the group called Americans United. On their website, they gave several reasons why people ought not to support this emerging trend. Among the reasons was the fact that the First Amendment gave a guarantee of freedom of religion from state influences. That is, they invoke the unending debate of the separation of church and state. They contended that this law would be broken when Americans agreed to support the issuance of vouchers for schooling. Citing the fact that a majority of private schools have religious affiliations and that these institutions have the mandate to indoctrinate the students and to educate them as well, the Americans United felt that Americans would be inadvertently supporting religion against their free wills. Americans would be paying for their children to be indoctrinated with religious dogma with which they did not agree (Americans United, 2011).
Ostensibly, the issuance of the voucher would be a tad more acceptable if it appreciably led to an improvement in the academic performance of students in their academics. That not being the case, however, the Americans United group is vehemently opposed to the idea. They contended that students in public schools performed much better in mathematics and reading than students in private schools. Furthermore, they would have expected the program to cause several changes in the students who participated in it. For example, participants were expected to have positive aspirations concerning their schooling in the future and to improve in the frequency with which they did their homework. However, the program never did bring such changes. On the contrary, student participants’ likelihood of absenteeism from class increased significantly (Americans United, 2011).
The report by the NCES never detailed graduation statistics for the year 2009-2010. Instead, it had data for the previous year. Whereas the reason for missing this data remains unknown, the NCES reported that of the twelfth graders who were enrolled in October 2008, ninety-eight percent graduated in 2009 (NCES, 2011). That was a very high success rate for graduates in private schools, which would have been taken as indicative of the quality of education that private institutions have to offer. Furthermore, 64% of the high school graduates from private schools later enrolled in 4-year colleges. This was representative of 308,813 high school graduates, who enrolled by the fall of the same year as they did graduate (NCES, 2011).
Using multiple sources of data, Heckman and LaFontaine made estimations of trends of graduation rates in the United States high schools. They noted that previous calculations were rife with biases and corrections had to be made for their study to be acceptable. Eventually, they found out that the rates provided by the National Centre for Educational Statistics were substantially high and thus misleading. They also found out that for forty-odd years, there had been a decline in the rate of graduation. Furthermore, they observed that even though the number of immigrants and minorities was on the increase in American society, this was not the cause of declining high school graduation rates among native populations. Therefore, they were able to explain why college attendance was also on the decline. Findings concerning gender differences in graduation from high schools were also useful in deciphering the reasons behind the gaps extant in male-female college attendance, and why those gaps were gradually increasing (Heckman and LaFontaine, 2011). These findings were not specifically for high school graduates from private high schools, but a traversal of all high schools regardless of their administrative leanings. In an appeal to the part being a representative of the whole, one would comfortably suggest that these findings could be transmuted to the private school population with similar implications.
The sizes of private schools might affect the effective transmission of knowledge and its receptivity among students. Here, the paper explores what other people have said regarding this, and the recommendations that they put forth towards improving the education system in the United States. Taken from an economic perspective, larger school sizes are better than smaller ones because of economies of scale benefits realized in the former. According to Ferris and Leung though, this is a consensus that requires revision because the benefits accrued from one side are outweighed by the disadvantages from other fronts. They cite the fact that more and more students are growing frustrated by the system, and coupled with the escalation of violence in the same schools, the drop-out rates are also on the rise (Leung and Ferris, 2008).
Since class sizes in most private schools are small, the student to teacher ratio critical for individual attention is easily achieved. This ratio stands at 15:1, but smaller ratios are more advantageous both to the teachers and students alike. With smaller ratios, teachers have fewer students to deal with and can divide their time well among the few students demanding their attention. Each student benefits by having more time spent with the teacher. Therefore, each student in a private school classroom has the opportunity to be personally aided by the teacher when the need calls for it (Kennedy, 2011).
A Summary of Some of the Benefits of Private School System
According to the United States Department of education, when private school students and their public school counterparts are compared, the former generally outperform the latter on standardized achievement tests. Also, for the former to graduate, they pass through requirements that are more demanding than for their counterparts. Completion of advanced-level courses is more likely for private school graduates than for their public school counterparts when they take three academic subject areas. National Assessment of Educational Progress results showed that private student scores were above average nationally. Experts recommend students to take up challenging subjects that push them into striving for excellence. Private schools make provisions for this by making it a requirement for students to take difficult courses like calculus before they graduate. When it was assessed who between the two was more likely to attain a bachelor’s degree by their mid-twenties, those who had gone to private schools in their eighth grade scored 52% compared to 26% for the public school attendees (CAPE, 2011b).
Depending on a school’s financial resources, compensation for private school teachers might be higher than that for public school teachers. On the whole, however, they are usually comparably lower. The teachers usually benefit from getting free housing and meals as opposed to the public school teachers who do not get such benefits. Also, teachers in private schools have widely variable pension schemes. They are required by private schools to be credentialed. That is, a teacher has to have a teaching certificate backed with a degree in the relevant subject. Armed with these two documents, a teacher stands a greater chance of being hired than one who does not have them. However, concerning budgetary costs, public schools stand a better chance of raising significantly large amounts of money. They do so by making annual appeals, cultivating alumni, and soliciting grants from corporations. Private schools nurture strong bonds with their alumni. Therefore, they also have high rates of fund-raising success. They also have a management structure that is considered to be lean. This means that a critical decision does not have to pass through several authorities to get approval. Rarely, if ever, will a private school have to contend with a union of teachers (Kennedy, 2011).
Some observed discrepancies to the generalizations regarding private school superiority
Rothstein, Carnoy, and Benveniste filed a report regarding the accountability of private schools to students’ parents, the outcomes parents expected of their children, and policies for retention and selection of teachers. They found out that in elementary school accountability to students’ parents does not differ significantly from the same in public schools. There was also no clearly defined school outcome expectation in private schools, and that was in no way different from the situation in public schools. Neither type of school did mentor teachers nor evaluate them formally to assess variation in their performance and delivery of instruction. They also found that where there was a competition between private and public schools, innovations by private schools never made their competitor public schools improve in any way whatsoever. Therefore, they made a point to the proponents for choice in public education, that to improve academic achievement, choice of public versus private institutions held very little weight (Benveniste, Carnoy and Rothste, 1999).
Private schooling also has its disadvantages. Some things are not implicitly taught in private schools. For example, a graduate from a private school would find it difficult to strike a conversation with any other person, who is essentially different from them. Unless it was a fellow graduate who came from the same institution, or a school with a similar status, building meaningful rapport would not be easy. Indoctrination also occurs in private schools albeit of a different kind than the commonplace religious dogma inculcation. That indoctrination goes a long way to assure students of private schools that they are better than those who never succeeded in attending similar schools.
The latter is seen as inferior people who are not even worth spending time with. The effect of this influence upon the indoctrinated was made evident in the Democratic presidential nominee, Al Gore, who could not speak to the populace. Thus, such students remain ignorant of some facts like there being other smart people apart from those who attend similar schools to theirs. They remain unaware that some highly adept people never see the inside of classrooms. Also, they realize rather belatedly that some of the so-called smart people are not smart at all. School is lacking in the instruction on social intelligence, the ability to be creative, and it does not teach emotional intelligence (Deresiewicz, 2008). Deresiewicz does not, however, give the way through which one may be educated in these latter aspects, pertinent through the acquisition of this knowledge might be.
The private school system achieves the creation of analytically biased minds, thereby developing lopsided intelligence that may not be entirely beneficial in seeing and appreciating the value inherent in other people. Such people are more adept at dealing with machines or analyzing books than interacting with other members of the human race. The system of private schooling essentially alienates one from that which is human in the sense that it creates a block to interpersonal interactions that are every bit human. Besides, a person develops a misguided sense of how worthy they are to receive certain rights and privileges. The unbearable truth in all of this is the fact that all through the life of a student who has been in private school, they have been graded using numerical rankings. Such students end up equating their grades to their identity and value. Absolute excellence, they forget, does not imply academic excellence or vice versa (Deresiewicz, 2008).
Whether it is a private school or a public school, one would contend that both have a common disadvantage. This is about the type of interaction a school-going child is exposed to. They can only interact with their age-mates while in school. Bigger children invariably bully the smaller ones, who in turn do the same to yet smaller ones. Among these children, none appreciates how to interact with grownups. The fear that is inculcated into them by the bullies they meet in school becomes the same fear that they show towards their parents back at home. Fear is a monster that feeds upon itself, however. Therefore, the fear engenders a reciprocal propensity for abuse from parents who do not know better. It is not a seldom occurrence to find children who’ve been abused by otherwise well-meaning parents.
The vicious cycle started with their being taken to school, which alienated them from their parents. They then picked up bits and pieces of strange behavior from their peers, which they came home with, much to the chagrin of their unprepared parents. Thus, there is a growing concern that home-schooling would be the only best option for a growing child (Oeser, 2011). Furthermore, time taken out to quietly reflect on one’s own is an alien concept to school-going students, who are more inclined to be rowdy, loud, and disorderly. Also, since they learn to pass their examinations, school-goers eventually lack long-standing applicable knowledge. Most of what they learn is quickly forgotten with the passing of the examination. Their understanding of concepts is not adequate as the knowledge they have does not correlate well with real-life issues.
American Education in Public Schools: A Brief History
A majority of people in the United States who come from low-income backgrounds take their children to public schools. Currently, the parents whose children attend private schools are rather similar in characteristics. For one, they are from affluent backgrounds. The fact that school fees charges in private schools are high shields this elitist group of people from other influences. However, if the restrictive costs of financing education in private schools were to be revised downwards, up to 59% of parents would opt for private education. This would be aided by vouchers which would, ideally, be catering for the whole tuition fees. Besides, parents with low income show greater enthusiasm for private school enrolment, but money continues to be their major hurdle. It is opined that there would be a greater diversity of parents and the group would inevitably be larger if the price of private education were reduced (Education Week, 2004).
For some people, the public education system is the ideal system of instruction. However, it faces a lot of criticism, and many times it has had to be revised so that it may continue playing a pivotal role in the shaping of public opinion regarding solidarity with the government. Having developed in the nineteenth century, its inception was the result of a suggestion by the then President Jefferson. Public school education is under the management of states and school districts. Whereas education in the United States began with puritans and Congregationalists, a purely Christian group of people, the introduction of the public school system came much later. With the coming of people from different countries, there was a foreign influence upon the natives. The entrant people did not all embrace the Christian faith, they have been of different inclinations. For this reason, private education began and thrived in the mid-eighteenth century (Thattai, 2011).
Disadvantages of Public Schools
In public schools, teachers generally get better remuneration. However, starter salaries are usually very low. This leads to very few teachers being retained in the public sector. Too much bureaucracy in the public sector implies that decisions take very long to be made even when those decisions are critical. Public schools are usually bogged down with political influences and union contracts. The rules that they adhere to while at work are also antique (Kennedy, 2011). Some courses are considered to be more challenging than others. It is less likely for a student in a public school to be required to take such courses as calculus before they graduate (CAPE, 2011b). This has the effect of developing an individual who shall not strive to excel in real life. It also relegates such an individual to a life of relative ease or one that is not well equipped to face challenges. Such an individual ends up having difficulties solving personal problems. Suicidal tendencies and drug-related escape mechanisms are rife among these people who will under most circumstances seek the easiest way out of any rut. The ways that appear easy, however, are illusions and present the individuals with a false sense of comfort or repose from the hardships they experience.
Of Co-Educational Schools versus Single-Sex Schools
Both private and public schools can be regarded as single-sex institutions or co-educational. In the latter case, a school trains students of both sexes, while in the former the school is exclusively for girls or boys. A debate continues regarding whether the genders should be separated in the school set-up. Those who oppose the idea are the conservative types who feel that there is the looseness of morals that comes into play when members of the two genders are nearby for extended periods. For the feminists, a separation of the sexes is the ideal environment for women to achieve success in life. Historically, it has been normal to separate girls and boys, giving them unequal status to each other based on their acquired societal roles in later life. Literacy was, therefore, more prevalent among males than among females. The former was trained in subjects that would be relevant in their workplaces, politics, and war. Girls, on the other hand, were trained on how to be better performers in the home arena. Thus, the inception of co-education was a threat to the widely accepted status quo, where men were regarded in higher esteem than women (Rury, 2008).
Controversies in the Adoption of Coeducation
In 2006, Title IX regulations of the US department of education were amended. This allowed single-sex school enrolment, but with reservations. It contended that the enrolments ought o be voluntary. Also, an equal school for the opposite gender should have been present or catered for. While endeavoring to convert to single-sex institutions, some schools have been met with challenges like meager finances and political pressures. Enrolment in such schools has also been a problem for some of the administrators (Rury, 2008).
It would have been thrift for the United States to have learned a thing or two from her European contemporaries. Europe’s experience with coeducation has been anything but rosy. They have documented disadvantages that they have observed against female students in such schools. They state that contrary to their expectation that coeducation would bring about a keen appreciation of either gender by the other, the opposite remains true. Girls have invariably been the sufferers while boys (and teachers) have been the perpetrators of a myriad of atrocities. In a literal sense, girls lack adequate space in these schools. They are the objects of boys’ desires, and often battered with lewd suggestive remarks. Male teachers also tend to get romantically attached to girl students. Girls do not get as much appropriate attention from teachers as the boys do, and they are also taken as social workers to be strategically seated next to ill-mannered boys. This is done to cause the boys to learn some good manners from the better-behaved girls. The missing point in all this is that the bad behavior of the boys seated next to the girls might (and does) rub off on the girls, whose behavior will then be all the worse (Anon., 2004).
In coeducational institutions, inequity exists in the meting out of punishments for wrongdoing. Girls get punished more severely than boys even when their misdeeds are essential of similar magnitude. It is understood, in a discriminatory manner, that girls are more diligent than boys, but that boys are more intelligent than girls. Therefore, when a girl performs well in class, it is attributed to her diligence, while if a boy does the same, it is said that he passed or excelled because he is intelligent. Boys are encouraged to be competitive while girls are frowned upon if they act similarly. The latter is expected to conform. They are also given less time for verbal expression than boys are given in class (Anon., 2004).
Other issues that have arisen through the years after the introduction of coeducational institutions include the argument by some doctors that women would suffer from overexertion and get harmed. It was argued that the overexertion would come from the girls’ competition with boys. Indulgence in sexual impropriety was also pointed out as being highly likely when the two sexes were left to interact for extended periods (Rury, 2008).
Outcomes of education that are of most interests to parents and students include academic achievement test scores, an appropriately delineated concept of self, and long-term success indicators. These are more evident in single-sex schools than in coeducational schools, and they give leverage for the proponents for single-sex schools. In comparison, single-sex schools perform academically better than coeducational schools.
Current Trends of Education in the United States
In the late twentieth century, there arose a drive for the reformation of elementary education in the United States. Its purpose was to indiscriminately improve the academic performance of students. Children were left accountable to the schools, districts, and ultimately the states for their academic achievement. However, concerns have been raised that the United States students perform relatively poorly in their academics compared to students of other countries. They blame this on an educational system that they deem not to be enabling the students to perform as it should be. Elementary education in the United States is constantly being reformed and refined. The United States is democratizing its education so that it does not support systems that are representations of goals and expectations, and are industrial or social. It is drawn toward an education system that is open and universal (Howey and Post, 2011).
When students perform poorly, the education system is seen as being a failure. It thus behooves the government to ensure that a running system strikes the right balance. One that places a lot of demands on the students is sure to cause them to perform poorly. A very lax system, on the other hand, will produce individuals who are ill-equipped for their roles in society. Thus, the government has put in place measures to ensure that all children have equal access to quality education. These measures include the creation of a welcoming environment, which embodies the prevention of bullying and harassment, and the outlining of the responsibilities that education providers have towards this goal. The onus rests on education providers to ensure that harassment does not occur. Such harassment might be from the education providers themselves, or other sources. Education providers should take the measures necessary to remedy harassment when they know that students are being harassed. Otherwise, they (education providers) face imminent sanctions, since their laxity (or presumed indifference) allows the education system to be poisoned. Harassment is seen as one of the impediments to the ease of access to educational services. When one is harassed, they may not “participate fully in the educational experience” (OHRC, 2011).
An education provider helps reduce instances of bullying and harassment by being non-tolerant to the act of bullying and being unequivocal about the consequences a student has to face for being a bully. The educator further communicates this by educating students concerning disabilities; he or she then encourages them to appreciate diversity. Appreciating diversity will imply that the students do not taunt their peers who may be disabled in one way or another. They will respect their disabled peers, and even protect them from further harm if necessary. The education provider may also get involved in role-playing to cultivate compassion and awareness of the impact that bullying has on other people. They may act like the ones upon whose taunts are being thrown or being big, act as the bullies. In either case, the students will see the folly behind bullying as a front. Bullies are essentially weak people who hide their weaknesses by attacking others. Finally, the educator protects students who report bullying by maintaining confidence regarding their report (OHRC, 2011). The educator does not let other students know the one who reports instances of bullying to the authorities.
The Role of Universities in the United States Education System
There was a decline in American education as was documented in 1983 by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. This brought about a change that saw the inception of standardized testing and accountability (Heckman & LaFontaine, 2011). A 2001 Act called the No Child Left Behind Act sets out requirements for each state to identify low-performing schools. Another of its requirements is for the annual assessment of students in reading and mathematics. Declining standards in the secondary school level of education imply that very few students get enrolled in universities around the country. America boasts of the largest number of institutions of higher learning throughout the world, but if these institutions cannot enroll Native Americans due to mediocre performance in their secondary schools, one is left to marvel at what the future holds for university education within the country.
Scientific research in universities thrives on funding from various sources. Research is important to the advancement of knowledge since it creates new perspectives to what is already known. Much of what results from research can be applied in areas such as pharmaceuticals for the production of new drugs. The current trend tends towards genetic science, which has brought about a lot of controversies. When universities lack students to carry out research then there is a paucity of funds from donors who fund the research projects. This brings a complication to the universities, which rely much on donor funding. The case of Berkeley and Novartis appears to have been instigated by such a state of affairs as has been described above. Berkeley signed an agreement with Novartis in November 1998 and rescinded about one-third of its patent rights to Novartis in exchange for a $25 million grant towards research (Washburn, 2005). The said company had vested interests in the outcome of the research and, thus, was in a way investing in it. That movie had a lot of ethical connotations.
Another issue that was highlighted in Washburn’s book is the notion that universities have gradually been shifting from their academic role to institutions that run businesses. This is a pithy subject since the university ought to be an institution of higher learning and not drawn into the rigmarole of generating income. Universities ought to set the pace for industry to follow, by making breakthroughs in research projects that will enhance the human experience of living within the planet earth. That notwithstanding, universities have become embroiled in the shaping of individuals to prepare them for employment within the industries. One may contend that they are responding to the dire needs of the economy by providing the market with the best brains the country has to offer. However, the country appears to stand no gain, especially when such patents as were aforementioned are left in the hands of foreign companies (Washburn, 2005).
A reversal of roles is readily observable in that the industry now makes the demands and the universities dance to her tune. For example, when the industry demands chemical analysts, the universities respond by giving their analysts to the industries. Due to the lack of employment in the country, an analyst who finishes their course at university and immediately finds a source of income sees herself as being very fortunate. This, however, results in a dilution of the high standards of excellence that are expected of all public institutions of higher learning. Universities need to maintain an autonomous stance that is neither swayed by the government nor by the industry as these two entities seek to push their agenda (Washburn, 2005). On one side is an entity with political ideals while on the other is one that seeks financial gains. Both the government and the industrial entities stand in opposition to the universities’ values of serving the common good of all humankind.
The involvement of outside forces in university affairs has made even students forget their primary agenda at having joined the universities. Like Reynolds in the Washburn (2005) book, many a scientist ends up being a politician due to these disruptions in the curriculum. If even the students should get derailed from their “calling” in such a manner, in all probability, the future of the universities is painted in bleak colors. It is necessary to redefine the role of the university and give the students clear guidelines as to the parts they ought to play therein. Not only are grades falling within secondary schools, but also those who end up in university, having attempted and succeeded at a difficult feat, may get disillusioned at what they find.
Hirsch (2006) appears to have the answer to one of the woes so far when he says that students have to read and comprehend. Any student can read, given the time to do so. But their understanding of what they have read is the most crucial part of their acquisition of knowledge. Comprehension is the difficult bone that students need to chew while at school to enable them to sit their examinations and pass with flying colors. Since they are not taught to comprehend, it follows that their performance in class also suffers. They are not even prepared within their extant grades for the grades which they shall be facing in the future. Hirsch says that a broad range of knowledge is required for students to be able to comprehend what they read (Hirsch, 2006). One may question at this point from whence that a “broad range of knowledge” shall be obtained.
Hitherto, it has been observed the diverse challenges that the American child faces as he or she pursues an education. The challenges start right from kindergarten through to university. The American child is also exposed to a lot of information that buffets them from all types of sources: the internet, television, radio, movies et cetera. These sources of information together with the students’ own experiences (however few and apart those experiences might be) ought to be sufficient to give the background knowledge that Hirsch craves for them. If these sources are not enough to give the American child the vast knowledge that Hirsch talks about, then it remains an enigma where else the knowledge shall come from. The school has synthesized the knowledge for the students to acquire, not in its raw form, but in a form that has been more purified; akin to the sugar that one gets on the table compared to the sugar from the cane.
According to Hirsch (2006), knowledge is all around us, but it is taken for granted. In essence, he says that even the modern student has a lot to learn from his or her surroundings. As they walk along the streets, go sightseeing or listen to music on the radio, all these areas hold a bit of knowledge here and a bit there that may stand the observer in good stead when they are faced with the problem of comprehending written material in class. It may be added that comprehension is context-dependent but knowledge garnered from one source can be transmuted to an application that is far much different than its source. Therefore, as students learn to be more in touch with their environments, they shall be better equipped to face the future challenges that they are bound to meet. They shall be able, when in university, to stand for what they know is right, disallowing the interference of other institutions whose missions stand at variance with the mission of the academia.
Reforms in education in the United States are bound to be a collective effort involving, not only the government but also all other stakeholders. America was founded as a nation on solid Christian principles, and these guiding principles worked well for the founding generation as well as the few generations that stood by them thereafter. The encumbrances that America faces are as a result of her generosity toward all nations. These nations have brought with them influences that have diluted the American spirit of democracy and freedom; for even the freedom that the founding father fought for has been misinterpreted. It is time that America went back to her first principles; for there lays the answer to most of the problems she faces nowadays. Democracy per se is a boon that the American people can never take for granted. Nevertheless, it only speaks of good things that have not been counterbalanced by the “bad”. A bit of non-democratization may be required to create the critical balance that America requires. The government needs to step up its authority to ensure that things happen in the correct way that they should, but that ought to be done with discretion as there still is an extant law that governs the land. It is a law that the people have put forth by themselves, and it is in the power of the people to repeal the same and come up with better laws.
The breaches in the education system in America are not irreparable. Since the United States has shined in glory in the past, she still can do the same but only if the people are willing to rise together and make that dream a reality. Right from elementary school to the university level, students have the latent ability to excel, for America does have the mental capacity to read and understand books. She is well endowed with comprehensive skills.
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clock This article was published more than 2 years ago
Public education is facing a crisis of epic proportions
How politics and the pandemic put schools in the line of fire.
A previous version of this story incorrectly said that 39 percent of American children were on track in math. That is the percentage performing below grade level.
Test scores are down, and violence is up . Parents are screaming at school boards , and children are crying on the couches of social workers. Anger is rising. Patience is falling.
For public schools, the numbers are all going in the wrong direction. Enrollment is down. Absenteeism is up. There aren’t enough teachers, substitutes or bus drivers. Each phase of the pandemic brings new logistics to manage, and Republicans are planning political campaigns this year aimed squarely at failings of public schools.
Public education is facing a crisis unlike anything in decades, and it reaches into almost everything that educators do: from teaching math, to counseling anxious children, to managing the building.
Political battles are now a central feature of education, leaving school boards, educators and students in the crosshairs of culture warriors. Schools are on the defensive about their pandemic decision-making, their curriculums, their policies regarding race and racial equity and even the contents of their libraries. Republicans — who see education as a winning political issue — are pressing their case for more “parental control,” or the right to second-guess educators’ choices. Meanwhile, an energized school choice movement has capitalized on the pandemic to promote alternatives to traditional public schools.
“The temperature is way up to a boiling point,” said Nat Malkus, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank. “If it isn’t a crisis now, you never get to crisis.”
Experts reach for comparisons. The best they can find is the earthquake following Brown v. Board of Education , when the Supreme Court ordered districts to desegregate and White parents fled from their cities’ schools. That was decades ago.
Today, the cascading problems are felt acutely by the administrators, teachers and students who walk the hallways of public schools across the country. Many say they feel unprecedented levels of stress in their daily lives.
Remote learning, the toll of illness and death, and disruptions to a dependable routine have left students academically behind — particularly students of color and those from poor families. Behavior problems ranging from inability to focus in class all the way to deadly gun violence have gripped campuses. Many students and teachers say they are emotionally drained, and experts predict schools will be struggling with the fallout for years to come.
Teresa Rennie, an eighth-grade math and science teacher in Philadelphia, said in 11 years of teaching, she has never referred this many children to counseling.
“So many students are needy. They have deficits academically. They have deficits socially,” she said. Rennie said that she’s drained, too. “I get 45 minutes of a prep most days, and a lot of times during that time I’m helping a student with an assignment, or a child is crying and I need to comfort them and get them the help they need. Or there’s a problem between two students that I need to work with. There’s just not enough time.”
Many wonder: How deep is the damage?
At the start of the pandemic, experts predicted that students forced into remote school would pay an academic price. They were right.
“The learning losses have been significant thus far and frankly I’m worried that we haven’t stopped sinking,” said Dan Goldhaber, an education researcher at the American Institutes for Research.
Some of the best data come from the nationally administered assessment called i-Ready, which tests students three times a year in reading and math, allowing researchers to compare performance of millions of students against what would be expected absent the pandemic. It found significant declines, especially among the youngest students and particularly in math.
The low point was fall 2020, when all students were coming off a spring of chaotic, universal remote classes. By fall 2021 there were some improvements, but even then, academic performance remained below historic norms.
Take third grade, a pivotal year for learning and one that predicts success going forward. In fall 2021, 38 percent of third-graders were below grade level in reading, compared with 31 percent historically. In math, 39 percent of students were below grade level, vs. 29 percent historically.
Damage was most severe for students from the lowest-income families, who were already performing at lower levels.
A McKinsey & Co. study found schools with majority-Black populations were five months behind pre-pandemic levels, compared with majority-White schools, which were two months behind. Emma Dorn, a researcher at McKinsey, describes a “K-shaped” recovery, where kids from wealthier families are rebounding and those in low-income homes continue to decline.
“Some students are recovering and doing just fine. Other people are not,” she said. “I’m particularly worried there may be a whole cohort of students who are disengaged altogether from the education system.”
A hunt for teachers, and bus drivers
Schools, short-staffed on a good day, had little margin for error as the omicron variant of the coronavirus swept over the country this winter and sidelined many teachers. With a severe shortage of substitutes, teachers had to cover other classes during their planning periods, pushing prep work to the evenings. San Francisco schools were so strapped that the superintendent returned to the classroom on four days this school year to cover middle school math and science classes. Classes were sometimes left unmonitored or combined with others into large groups of unglorified study halls.
“The pandemic made an already dire reality even more devastating,” said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, referring to the shortages.
In 2016, there were 1.06 people hired for every job listing. That figure has steadily dropped, reaching 0.59 hires for each opening last year, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show. In 2013, there were 557,320 substitute teachers, the BLS reported. In 2020, the number had fallen to 415,510. Virtually every district cites a need for more subs.
It’s led to burnout as teachers try to fill in the gaps.
“The overall feelings of teachers right now are ones of just being exhausted, beaten down and defeated, and just out of gas. Expectations have been piled on educators, even before the pandemic, but nothing is ever removed,” said Jennifer Schlicht, a high school teacher in Olathe, Kan., outside Kansas City.
Research shows the gaps in the number of available educators are most acute in areas including special education and educators who teach English language learners, as well as substitutes. And all school year, districts have been short on bus drivers , who have been doubling up routes, and forcing late school starts and sometimes cancellations for lack of transportation.
Many educators predict that fed-up teachers will probably quit, exacerbating the problem. And they say political attacks add to the burnout. Teachers are under scrutiny over lesson plans, and critics have gone after teachers unions, which for much of the pandemic demanded remote learning.
“It’s just created an environment that people don’t want to be part of anymore,” said Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association. “People want to take care of kids, not to be accused and punished and criticized.”
Traditional public schools educate the vast majority of American children, but enrollment has fallen, a worrisome trend that could have lasting repercussions. Enrollment in traditional public schools fell to less than 49.4 million students in fall 2020 , a 2.7 percent drop from a year earlier .
National data for the current school year is not yet available. But if the trend continues, that will mean less money for public schools as federal and state funding are both contingent on the number of students enrolled. For now, schools have an infusion of federal rescue money that must be spent by 2024.
Some students have shifted to private or charter schools. A rising number , especially Black families , opted for home schooling. And many young children who should have been enrolling in kindergarten delayed school altogether. The question has been: will these students come back?
Some may not. Preliminary data for 19 states compiled by Nat Malkus, of the American Enterprise Institute, found seven states where enrollment dropped in fall 2020 and then dropped even further in 2021. His data show 12 states that saw declines in 2020 but some rebounding in 2021 — though not one of them was back to 2019 enrollment levels.
Joshua Goodman, associate professor of education and economics at Boston University, studied enrollment in Michigan schools and found high-income, White families moved to private schools to get in-person school. Far more common, though, were lower-income Black families shifting to home schooling or other remote options because they were uncomfortable with the health risks of in person.
“Schools were damned if they did, and damned if they didn’t,” Goodman said.
At the same time, charter schools, which are privately run but publicly funded, saw enrollment increase by 7 percent, or nearly 240,000 students, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. There’s also been a surge in home schooling. Private schools saw enrollment drop slightly in 2020-21 but then rebound this academic year, for a net growth of 1.7 percent over two years, according to the National Association of Independent Schools, which represents 1,600 U.S. schools.
Absenteeism on the rise
Even if students are enrolled, they won’t get much schooling if they don’t show up.
Last school year, the number of students who were chronically absent — meaning they have missed more than 10 percent of school days — nearly doubled from before the pandemic, according to data from a variety of states and districts studied by EveryDay Labs, a company that works with districts to improve attendance.
This school year, the numbers got even worse.
In Connecticut, for instance, the number of chronically absent students soared from 12 percent in 2019-20 to 20 percent the next year to 24 percent this year, said Emily Bailard, chief executive of the company. In Oakland, Calif., they went from 17.3 percent pre-pandemic to 19.8 percent last school year to 43 percent this year. In Pittsburgh, chronic absences stayed where they were last school year at about 25 percent, then shot up to 45 percent this year.
“We all expected that this year would look much better,” Bailard said. One explanation for the rise may be that schools did not keep careful track of remote attendance last year and the numbers understated the absences then, she said.
The numbers were the worst for the most vulnerable students. This school year in Connecticut, for instance, 24 percent of all students were chronically absent, but the figure topped 30 percent for English-learners, students with disabilities and those poor enough to qualify for free lunch. Among students experiencing homelessness, 56 percent were chronically absent.
Fights and guns
Schools are open for in-person learning almost everywhere, but students returned emotionally unsettled and unable to conform to normally accepted behavior. At its most benign, teachers are seeing kids who cannot focus in class, can’t stop looking at their phones, and can’t figure out how to interact with other students in all the normal ways. Many teachers say they seem younger than normal.
Amy Johnson, a veteran teacher in rural Randolph, Vt., said her fifth-graders had so much trouble being together that the school brought in a behavioral specialist to work with them three hours each week.
“My students are not acclimated to being in the same room together,” she said. “They don’t listen to each other. They cannot interact with each other in productive ways. When I’m teaching I might have three or five kids yelling at me all at the same time.”
That loss of interpersonal skills has also led to more fighting in hallways and after school. Teachers and principals say many incidents escalate from small disputes because students lack the habit of remaining calm. Many say the social isolation wrought during remote school left them with lower capacity to manage human conflict.
Just last week, a high-schooler in Los Angeles was accused of stabbing another student in a school hallway, police on the big island of Hawaii arrested seven students after an argument escalated into a fight, and a Baltimore County, Md., school resource officer was injured after intervening in a fight during the transition between classes.
There’s also been a steep rise in gun violence. In 2021, there were at least 42 acts of gun violence on K-12 campuses during regular hours, the most during any year since at least 1999, according to a Washington Post database . The most striking of 2021 incidents was the shooting in Oxford, Mich., that killed four. There have been already at least three shootings in 2022.
Back to school has brought guns, fighting and acting out
The Center for Homeland Defense and Security, which maintains its own database of K-12 school shootings using a different methodology, totaled nine active shooter incidents in schools in 2021, in addition to 240 other incidents of gunfire on school grounds. So far in 2022, it has recorded 12 incidents. The previous high, in 2019, was 119 total incidents.
David Riedman, lead researcher on the K-12 School Shooting Database, points to four shootings on Jan. 19 alone, including at Anacostia High School in D.C., where gunshots struck the front door of the school as a teen sprinted onto the campus, fleeing a gunman.
Fueling the pressure on public schools is an ascendant school-choice movement that promotes taxpayer subsidies for students to attend private and religious schools, as well as publicly funded charter schools, which are privately run. Advocates of these programs have seen the public system’s woes as an excellent opportunity to push their priorities.
EdChoice, a group that promotes these programs, tallies seven states that created new school choice programs last year. Some are voucher-type programs where students take some of their tax dollars with them to private schools. Others offer tax credits for donating to nonprofit organizations, which give scholarships for school expenses. Another 15 states expanded existing programs, EdChoice says.
The troubles traditional schools have had managing the pandemic has been key to the lobbying, said Michael McShane, director of national research for EdChoice. “That is absolutely an argument that school choice advocates make, for sure.”
If those new programs wind up moving more students from public to private systems, that could further weaken traditional schools, even as they continue to educate the vast majority of students.
Kevin G. Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, who opposes school choice programs, sees the surge of interest as the culmination of years of work to undermine public education. He is both impressed by the organization and horrified by the results.
“I wish that organizations supporting public education had the level of funding and coordination that I’ve seen in these groups dedicated to its privatization,” he said.
A final complication: Politics
Rarely has education been such a polarizing political topic.
Republicans, fresh off Glenn Youngkin’s victory in the Virginia governor’s race, have concluded that key to victory is a push for parental control and “parents rights.” That’s a nod to two separate topics.
First, they are capitalizing on parent frustrations over pandemic policies, including school closures and mandatory mask policies. The mask debate, which raged at the start of the school year, got new life this month after Youngkin ordered Virginia schools to allow students to attend without face coverings.
The notion of parental control also extends to race, and objections over how American history is taught. Many Republicans also object to school districts’ work aimed at racial equity in their systems, a basket of policies they have dubbed critical race theory. Critics have balked at changes in admissions to elite school in the name of racial diversity, as was done in Fairfax, Va. , and San Francisco ; discussion of White privilege in class ; and use of the New York Times’s “1619 Project,” which suggests slavery and racism are at the core of American history.
“Everything has been politicized,” said Domenech, of AASA. “You’re beside yourself saying, ‘How did we ever get to this point?’”
Part of the challenge going forward is that the pandemic is not over. Each time it seems to be easing, it returns with a variant vengeance, forcing schools to make politically and educationally sensitive decisions about the balance between safety and normalcy all over again.
At the same time, many of the problems facing public schools feed on one another. Students who are absent will probably fall behind in learning, and those who fall behind are likely to act out.
A similar backlash exists regarding race. For years, schools have been under pressure to address racism in their systems and to teach it in their curriculums, pressure that intensified after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Many districts responded, and that opened them up to countervailing pressures from those who find schools overly focused on race.
Some high-profile boosters of public education are optimistic that schools can move past this moment. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona last week promised, “It will get better.” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said, “If we can rebuild community-education relations, if we can rebuild trust, public education will not only survive but has a real chance to thrive.”
But the path back is steep, and if history is a guide, the wealthiest schools will come through reasonably well, while those serving low-income communities will struggle. Steve Matthews, superintendent of the 6,900-student Novi Community School District in Michigan, just northwest of Detroit, said his district will probably face a tougher road back than wealthier nearby districts that are, for instance, able to pay teachers more.
“Resource issues. Trust issues. De-professionalization of teaching is making it harder to recruit teachers,” he said. “A big part of me believes schools are in a long-term crisis.”
Valerie Strauss contributed to this report.
The pandemic’s impact on education
The latest: Updated coronavirus booster shots are now available for children as young as 5 . To date, more than 10.5 million children have lost one or both parents or caregivers during the coronavirus pandemic.
In the classroom: Amid a teacher shortage, states desperate to fill teaching jobs have relaxed job requirements as staffing crises rise in many schools . American students’ test scores have even plummeted to levels unseen for decades. One D.C. school is using COVID relief funds to target students on the verge of failure .
Higher education: College and university enrollment is nowhere near pandemic level, experts worry. ACT and SAT testing have rebounded modestly since the massive disruptions early in the coronavirus pandemic, and many colleges are also easing mask rules .
DMV news: Most of Prince George’s students are scoring below grade level on district tests. D.C. Public School’s new reading curriculum is designed to help improve literacy among the city’s youngest readers.
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The growing discontent with american education.
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A tidal wave of discontent is beginning to wash over American education.
There is a growing discontent with American education. You can sense it swelling like a big wave, evidenced in a mix of troubling stats and trends from waning public perceptions of education to significant declines in enrollment and attendance. Students aren’t just talking about their discontent with education but walking it, too.
Enrollment in U.S. colleges and universities peaked in 2010 and has been on a steady decline since and more than a quarter of students in K-12 schools are now chronically absent . Certainly, many factors are at play here ranging from mental health issues and a pandemic hangover to technological disruption and a series of education policy debacles. But the ultimate culprit of our discontent may be the hardest of all to acknowledge and address. The brutal reality is that education isn’t exciting, engaging or relevant for far too many students.
It sounds harsh to say and even more difficult to write, but ‘exciting,’ ‘engaging’ and ‘relevant’ are not words often used to describe education. When asking students, parents or employers, we are more likely to hear descriptors such as ‘boring,’ ‘outdated,’ and ‘disconnected from the real world.’ Indeed, only 26% of U.S. adults who have experienced higher education strongly agree their coursework is relevant to their work and day-to-day life . And a mere 13% of K-12 students give their school an “A” grade on “making them excited about learning.”
One of the many outcomes of students who find little excitement or relevance in what they are learning is not just declining attendance but also employers of all shapes and sizes who say they can’t find the talent they are looking for. With nearly 10 million open jobs in the U.S. and a mere 11% of business leaders strongly agreeing graduates are well-prepared for work , we cannot afford to have an education discontent crisis.
While we have spent the better part of the last three decades focused on improving students’ standardized test scores, we’ve made effectively zero progress against this goal . The most heralded solution in recent memory for improving schools was ‘Common Core’ - which took a decade to roll-out and then faced repeal and backlash leading to no measurable result. And as we put more emphasis on ‘academic standards,’ we let students’ real world work experience atrophy as the least-working generation in U.S. history . At the higher ed level, less than a third of our graduates complete a work-integrated learning experience (such as an internship or a semester-long project) as part of their degree.
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How does school remain relevant when it provides such little exposure to the real world of work? How does school compete with the engaging and addictive content found in modern-day media, video games and bite-size-length mediums such as X, TikTok, and YouTube shorts? How does school remain up to date amidst the fastest-moving technological and social changes in history? Unfortunately, there are no easy fixes to the great discontent with education. But we can start by establishing a new, fundamental goal for education.
Our aim should be to make education more engaging and relevant. This sounds so simplistic. Yet this has never been a stated goal of any education policy reform in the past half century. If we were to make this our driving goal, we would need to put much more emphasis on the art and science of teaching and learning and on the integration of learning and work. And we would need new ‘north stars’ or metrics for which to aim.
We have national institutes for all sorts of important national priorities. But we don’t have one for teaching and learning. We have a U.S. Department of Education and a Department of Labor as wholly separate entities - yet nothing that aims to integrate learning and work. The average U.S. student takes 112 mandatory standardized tests across their K-12 education, yet we have no national measures of student engagement, exposure to experiential education or work-integrated learning.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. And the will is developing in the rising swell of discontent with American education.
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How technology is reinventing education
Stanford Graduate School of Education Dean Dan Schwartz and other education scholars weigh in on what's next for some of the technology trends taking center stage in the classroom.
Image credit: Claire Scully
New advances in technology are upending education, from the recent debut of new artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots like ChatGPT to the growing accessibility of virtual-reality tools that expand the boundaries of the classroom. For educators, at the heart of it all is the hope that every learner gets an equal chance to develop the skills they need to succeed. But that promise is not without its pitfalls.
“Technology is a game-changer for education – it offers the prospect of universal access to high-quality learning experiences, and it creates fundamentally new ways of teaching,” said Dan Schwartz, dean of Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE), who is also a professor of educational technology at the GSE and faculty director of the Stanford Accelerator for Learning . “But there are a lot of ways we teach that aren’t great, and a big fear with AI in particular is that we just get more efficient at teaching badly. This is a moment to pay attention, to do things differently.”
For K-12 schools, this year also marks the end of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding program, which has provided pandemic recovery funds that many districts used to invest in educational software and systems. With these funds running out in September 2024, schools are trying to determine their best use of technology as they face the prospect of diminishing resources.
Here, Schwartz and other Stanford education scholars weigh in on some of the technology trends taking center stage in the classroom this year.
AI in the classroom
In 2023, the big story in technology and education was generative AI, following the introduction of ChatGPT and other chatbots that produce text seemingly written by a human in response to a question or prompt. Educators immediately worried that students would use the chatbot to cheat by trying to pass its writing off as their own. As schools move to adopt policies around students’ use of the tool, many are also beginning to explore potential opportunities – for example, to generate reading assignments or coach students during the writing process.
AI can also help automate tasks like grading and lesson planning, freeing teachers to do the human work that drew them into the profession in the first place, said Victor Lee, an associate professor at the GSE and faculty lead for the AI + Education initiative at the Stanford Accelerator for Learning. “I’m heartened to see some movement toward creating AI tools that make teachers’ lives better – not to replace them, but to give them the time to do the work that only teachers are able to do,” he said. “I hope to see more on that front.”
He also emphasized the need to teach students now to begin questioning and critiquing the development and use of AI. “AI is not going away,” said Lee, who is also director of CRAFT (Classroom-Ready Resources about AI for Teaching), which provides free resources to help teach AI literacy to high school students across subject areas. “We need to teach students how to understand and think critically about this technology.”
The use of immersive technologies like augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality is also expected to surge in the classroom, especially as new high-profile devices integrating these realities hit the marketplace in 2024.
The educational possibilities now go beyond putting on a headset and experiencing life in a distant location. With new technologies, students can create their own local interactive 360-degree scenarios, using just a cell phone or inexpensive camera and simple online tools.
“This is an area that’s really going to explode over the next couple of years,” said Kristen Pilner Blair, director of research for the Digital Learning initiative at the Stanford Accelerator for Learning, which runs a program exploring the use of virtual field trips to promote learning. “Students can learn about the effects of climate change, say, by virtually experiencing the impact on a particular environment. But they can also become creators, documenting and sharing immersive media that shows the effects where they live.”
Integrating AI into virtual simulations could also soon take the experience to another level, Schwartz said. “If your VR experience brings me to a redwood tree, you could have a window pop up that allows me to ask questions about the tree, and AI can deliver the answers.”
Another trend expected to intensify this year is the gamification of learning activities, often featuring dynamic videos with interactive elements to engage and hold students’ attention.
“Gamification is a good motivator, because one key aspect is reward, which is very powerful,” said Schwartz. The downside? Rewards are specific to the activity at hand, which may not extend to learning more generally. “If I get rewarded for doing math in a space-age video game, it doesn’t mean I’m going to be motivated to do math anywhere else.”
Gamification sometimes tries to make “chocolate-covered broccoli,” Schwartz said, by adding art and rewards to make speeded response tasks involving single-answer, factual questions more fun. He hopes to see more creative play patterns that give students points for rethinking an approach or adapting their strategy, rather than only rewarding them for quickly producing a correct response.
Data-gathering and analysis
The growing use of technology in schools is producing massive amounts of data on students’ activities in the classroom and online. “We’re now able to capture moment-to-moment data, every keystroke a kid makes,” said Schwartz – data that can reveal areas of struggle and different learning opportunities, from solving a math problem to approaching a writing assignment.
But outside of research settings, he said, that type of granular data – now owned by tech companies – is more likely used to refine the design of the software than to provide teachers with actionable information.
The promise of personalized learning is being able to generate content aligned with students’ interests and skill levels, and making lessons more accessible for multilingual learners and students with disabilities. Realizing that promise requires that educators can make sense of the data that’s being collected, said Schwartz – and while advances in AI are making it easier to identify patterns and findings, the data also needs to be in a system and form educators can access and analyze for decision-making. Developing a usable infrastructure for that data, Schwartz said, is an important next step.
With the accumulation of student data comes privacy concerns: How is the data being collected? Are there regulations or guidelines around its use in decision-making? What steps are being taken to prevent unauthorized access? In 2023 K-12 schools experienced a rise in cyberattacks, underscoring the need to implement strong systems to safeguard student data.
Technology is “requiring people to check their assumptions about education,” said Schwartz, noting that AI in particular is very efficient at replicating biases and automating the way things have been done in the past, including poor models of instruction. “But it’s also opening up new possibilities for students producing material, and for being able to identify children who are not average so we can customize toward them. It’s an opportunity to think of entirely new ways of teaching – this is the path I hope to see.”
Numerical Modelling and Simulation of Anti-lock Braking System for Two-wheeler Electric bike using Scilab Xcos 2023-01-5139
Disc brakes are the most popular type of brakes used in the two-wheeler segment and are easily available in the market. The improper brakes result in serious problems in vehicles. The main idea of this paper is to design a braking system for a two-wheeler application. The paper discusses the design, analysis, and simulation of disc brakes. The disc is first selected using the standard brake disc calculation. To verify the selection of disk, torque at wheel and torque at the disc are compared. Thermomechanical (Transient) analysis is done on ANSYS 2021 to check for the effect of braking force applied by the disc on the rotor disc. The mathematical model of the ABS model is done on Scilab Xcos. The main aim of studying the system using a mathematical model is to verify if the selected disc brakes are safe enough to be installed on a two-wheeler. The mathematical model also has stopping distance and the stopping time as the output which validates the selection of the disc. Hence best-suited brakes are selected based on the performance and the analysis.
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A Legal Showdown on the Border Between the U.S. and Texas: What to Know
A court in Austin heard oral arguments in the federal government’s bid to block Texas from imposing a wide-ranging new immigration law.
By J. David Goodman
Reporting from Austin
The Biden administration is suing the State of Texas over a new state law that would empower state and local police officers to arrest migrants who cross from Mexico without authorization.
On Thursday, a federal court in Austin heard three hours of arguments over whether to halt the implementation of the law, which is set to go into effect on March 5.
The case has far-reaching implications for the future of immigration law and border enforcement and has been closely watched across the country. It comes amid fierce political fighting between the parties — and within them — over how to handle illegal immigration and follows the impeachment by House Republicans of the secretary of homeland security , and the failure of a bipartisan Senate deal to bolster security at the border.
Texas has argued that its law is necessary to deter migrants from crossing illegally, as has happened in record numbers over the past year. The Biden administration argues that the law conflicts with federal law and violates the U.S. Constitution, which gives the federal government authority over immigration matters.
The judge hearing the case, David A. Ezra of the Western District of Texas, was appointed to the bench by President Ronald Reagan. He had frequent questions, particularly when the lawyer representing the Texas attorney general was speaking, and appeared skeptical of the law.
“Let’s say for the purpose of argument that I agree with you,” Judge Ezra told the state’s lawyer, Ryan Walters. California might then want to pass its own immigration and deportation law, he said. Maybe then Maine would follow, he added, and then other states.
“That turns us from the United States of America into a confederation of states,” Judge Ezra said. “What a nightmare.”
What does the Texas law say?
The law passed by the Texas Legislature, known as Senate Bill 4 , makes it a crime to cross into Texas from a foreign country anywhere other than a legal port of entry, usually the international bridges from Mexico.
Under the law, known as S.B. 4, any migrant seen by the police wading across the Rio Grande could be arrested and charged in state court with a misdemeanor on the first offense. A second offense would be a felony. After being arrested, migrants could be ordered during the court process to return to Mexico or face prosecution if they don’t agree to go.
Texas lawmakers said they had designed S.B. 4 to closely follow federal law, which already bars illegal entry. The new law effectively allows state law enforcement officers all over Texas to conduct what until now has been the U.S. Border Patrol’s work.
It allows for migrants to be prosecuted for the new offense up to two years after they cross into Texas.
How does it challenge federal immigration authority?
Lawyers for the Biden administration argue that the Texas law conflicts with numerous federal laws passed by Congress that provide for a process for handling immigration proceedings and deportations.
The administration says the law interferes with the federal government’s foreign diplomacy role, pointing to complaints already lodged against Texas’ border actions by the government of Mexico. The Mexican authorities said they “rejected” any legislation that would allow the state or local authorities to send migrants, most of whom are not Mexican, back over the border to Mexico.
The fight over the law is likely to end up before the U.S. Supreme Court, legal experts have said . If so, it will give the 6-to-3 conservative majority a chance to revisit a 2012 case stemming from Arizona’s attempt to take on immigration enforcement responsibilities. That case, Arizona v United States, was narrowly decided in favor of the power of the federal government to set immigration policy.
Immigrant organizations, civil rights advocates and some Texas Democrats have criticized the law because it could make it more difficult for migrants being persecuted in their home countries to seek asylum, and it does not protect legitimate asylum seekers from prosecution in state courts.
Critics have also said that the law could lead to racial profiling because it allows law enforcement officers even far from the border to arrest anyone they suspect of having entered illegally in the previous two years. The result, they warn, could lead to improper traffic stops and arrests of anyone who looks Hispanic.
Wait, didn’t the Supreme Court already rule against Texas?
Not in this case.
Texas and the Biden administration have been battling for months over immigration enforcement on several legal fronts.
One case involves the placement by Texas of a 1,000-foot barrier of buoys in the middle of the Rio Grande, which Gov. Greg Abbott said would deter crossings. The federal government sued, arguing that the barrier violated a federal law over navigable rivers. In December, a federal appeals court sided with the Biden administration, ordering Texas to remove the barrier from the middle of the river while the case moved forward.
A second case involves Border Patrol agents’ cutting or removing of concertina wire — installed by the Texas authorities on the banks of the Rio Grande — in cases where agents need to assist migrants in the river or detain people who have crossed the border. The Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton, filed a lawsuit claiming that Border Patrol agents who removed the wire were destroying state property.
It was a fight over an injunction in that case that reached the Supreme Court on an emergency application. The justices, without giving their reasons, sided with the Biden administration , allowing border agents to cut or remove the wire when they need to while further arguments are heard in the case at the lower court level.
Why the stakes are higher now
Unlike the other cases, the battle over S.B. 4 involves a direct challenge by Texas to what courts and legal experts have said has been the federal government’s unique role: arresting, detaining and possibly deporting migrants at the nation’s borders.
“This will be a momentous decision,” said Fatma E. Marouf, a law professor and director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the Texas A&M University School of Law. “If they uphold this law, it will be a whole new world. It’s hard to imagine what Texas couldn’t do, if this were allowed.”
The federal government is seeking an injunction to prevent the law from going into effect next month.
“S.B. 4 is clearly invalid under settled precedent,” said Brian Boynton, who presented the Justice Department’s case.
“There is nothing in S.B. 4 that affords people the rights they have under federal law,” he said, later adding that the law would interfere with foreign affairs and the actions of the Department of Homeland Security.
Lawyers for Texas argued that the new law would not conflict with existing federal law. “This is complementary legislation,” said Mr. Walters, a lawyer for the state.
But Judge Ezra expressed concern that the law did not allow a judge to pause a prosecution for illegally entering Texas in the case of someone applying for asylum, calling that provision of the Texas law “troublesome” and “very problematic.”
“It just slaps the federal immigration law in the face,” he said.
Texas argued that the record number of migrant arrivals at the Texas border constituted an “invasion” that Texas had the power to defend itself against under Article I, Section 10 of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits states from engaging in war on their own “unless actually invaded.”
The state has cited the same constitutional provision in the other pending cases between Texas and the federal government. But legal experts said the argument was a novel one.
And Judge Ezra appeared unconvinced on Thursday, as he had been when the same argument was presented last year in the buoy barrier case, which he decided in favor of the federal government .
“I do not see any evidence that Texas is at war,” he said on Thursday.
Before adjourning, the judge turned to Mr. Walters, the Texas lawyer, and said that he would work quickly to issue his decision so that if the state wanted to appeal before March 5, “you can.” He then turned to the federal government’s lawyers and added: “Either of you.”
J. David Goodman is the Houston bureau chief for The Times, reporting on Texas and Oklahoma. More about J. David Goodman