Don't Fear A Nation at Risk

Twenty-five years ago, the seminal report on American education, A Nation at Risk, was issued by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. With the silver anniversary of that report coming on April 26, there will be much hand wringing and worries that we are not doing enough to change education. While I have, on regular occasion voiced such concerns, as I have delved deeper into the American Education system, I have abundant faith that we can make American Education great—greater than ever before.

Some of the concerns about specific educational issues are justified. For example, I do think our school year is too short to accomplish all that our policymakers and curriculum experts think appropriate--the solution being either a longer school year or an abbreviated curriculum. The latter choice is, at least politically, not an option. I do think we need to radically alter the methods of recruiting, retaining and compensating teachers. We need to professionalize teaching in ways big and small, even if it means including features that might not be so popular. I do think that we are short-changing the students on both ends of the bell curve, although for students on the lower end of the curve that is less so.

But I don't really share in the mass fears of a fundamental breakdown of American education. There are a number of specific reasons for my faith, but most of it boils down to two important and interlocking points.

1. The American public is no longer satisfied with the status quo. When a majority of Americans are so dissatisfied with an institution and are willing to invest their time, money and sweat into changing that institution, change will come and it will be dramatic. When that mind set becomes the norm, change is bound to occur. I am not sure we are at majority status yet, but we are getting there and change is already occurring.

Witness the explosive growth of charter schools. Twenty five years ago, charter schools may not even have been an idea in the head of Ray Budde. But by 1991, Minnesota passed the first charter school act. Today, 40 states and the District of Columbia have charter school operations. Once thought to be relegated to the worst of the inner city school districts, charters are now sprouting up in the suburbs. When charters become as common place a feature of the education landscape in the suburbs as you see in the inner city, the silent indictment of the traditional public school will become a massive death knell of education policy as we have known it.

While charters are making in-roads in the suburbs, other changes in the educational offerings have been occuring, even before charter schools became popular. Magnet schools are public schools with a specialized or focused criteria. Magnet schools have embraced specialization in science and technology, the performing arts, languages, etc. There are foreign language immersion schools, where classes are taught and conducted in Spanish, French, Japanese, German, and on and on. These options were once considered radical as well, yet today are very common place.

Another key indicator is the growth of homeschooling. Once the providence of the intensely religious, usually conservative Christians, it is now common place even among those who are less religiously devout, but devoted to their children. Without question, the ability for homeschoolers to communicate, collaborate and share via the Internet has made homeschooling practical and possible for average Americans who are not satisfied with the quality of schooling their children receive. That homeschoolers routinely and significantly outscore their public school peers indicates clearly that you don't have to be a Columbia Teachers College graduate to help educate your kids.

So as the public begins to move away from simply accepting the public school system you will see policies shift, slowly at first, but more and more rapidly. Keep an eye on Louisiana where Governor Bobby Jindal has a chance to really push through significant education reform in his state that could be a model for changes elsewhere.

2. Change agents are already at work. The second major reason for my faith is that there are many educational entrepreneurs who are challenging the status quo for all sorts of ideas, ranging from private enterprise, to charitable foundations, to public/private partnership advocates. Because change cannot happen as easily inside a system, the change must come from without. It is not just charter school advocates, but well-known groups like the Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, Teach for America, and Edison Schools and lesser known groups like DeHaviland Associates who are really making people sit up and consider that you don't have to be an ed-school graduate to be a good teacher and you don't have to be a lifelong educator to be an effective school leader. The only qualification to lead change is an idea and the courage to pursue it. As more and more of these educational entrepreneurs like Wendy Kopp, Chris Whittle, Michelle Rhee, Brett Pawlowski and others of their kind begin to draw in people from outside education to help them manage educational problems there will be more change and much of it for the better.

I know that change happens slowly in education, if for no other reason than institutional inertia. But one hundred years ago we had just begun manned, powered flight. Fifty years ago, only science fiction writers had conceived of manned space flight, let alone be on the cusp of practical, private space flight. Thirty years ago, most people could not conceive of a powerful computer that could fit in the palm of your hand, but a few imaginative souls probably did.

Despite all the work that has gone before, in comparison the next steps will be harder to take, but will be more transformative than any previous steps. What will come next? I am not sure. We will see changes in measurement, accountability and testing. We will soon likely see changes in curriculum. No doubt there will be changes in education delivery and pedagogy. We may soon see full choice with educational funding following the student directly, allowing parents the absolute right to choose the school for their children independent of where they live. There are certainly ideas out there that I haven't heard of, simply percolating in someone's head. Of this I have no doubt.

American does not suffer from a lack of ingenuity. Sometimes it takes a warning bell like A Nation at Risk to get us moving. But there is no need to fear A Nation at Risk and I don't for one second believe that our children are worse off now than they were twenty five years ago. There have been too many changes, too many advancements and there are too many ideas for this nation to fail at making our schools the best they have ever been, the best the world has ever seen.

Posted by Matt Johnston at April 23, 2008 8:49 AM
Comments
Comment #251262

While there is change coming in the public school systems it’s going to be a long slow process. The folks that where able to hijack it and turn it into the sham it is today aint gonna let go that easy. But progress is being made even though I sometimes wonder if my local school board is ever going to get with it. But for change to come the parents need to get more involved in their youngins education. And that means meeting with their teachers, going to school board meeting and demanding improvement.
I don’t really like the idea of year round schooling, I think kids need the break, but I can see where it’s getting to where it’s going to be necessary in order to teach everything kids need today to make it in tomorrow’s world.
If charter schools are being established in a school district it’s a good sign of something being bad wrong in that district. The voters in that district need to find out what it is and get it fixed. I’m actually surprised that we haven’t had one started here.
Magnet schools are a good idea if ya have the financial resources and enough students with in the county interested to make it worth the cost. At lot of counties just plain don’t have that kind of money laying around. Specially around here.
I’m trying to get enough interest up in our local school board to start talking with the counties that border us to see if we all can get at least one and maybe two magnet schools going within the next few years. So far it’s almost been like hitting a brick wall with a over cooked noodle.
Home schooling is becoming easier and more popular. Like ya said, with the Internet ya don’t really need to have a degree in education to teach your youngins. I actually prefer it over public education. But there still needs to be some over sight to make sure that the kids are getting the education they’ll need to make it when they enter the job market.
We would never have tried home education with our youngins because while my wife went to college her degree is in nursing and not education. And unless ya want to count 12 hours of night classes I haven’t gone to college. And it wasn’t all that easy to teach kids at home then and we didn’t have the what it took then to do it right.
With the private school our grandyoungins that were raising are attending lowering it’s standards next year in order to attract more student we’re gonna give home education a try.
With the help of the Internet, a good curriculum, and the help of the homeschooling counselor, a very well qualified woman, even a dummy like me just might could teach them something.

Posted by: Ron Brown at April 23, 2008 11:55 AM
Comment #251267

Yes, year-round education is a good idea, if we want to be competitive in a global economy.

Posted by: d.a.n at April 23, 2008 1:11 PM
Comment #251270
1. The American public is no longer satisfied with the status quo. When a majority of Americans are so dissatisfied with an institution and are willing to invest their time, money and sweat into changing that institution, change will come and it will be dramatic. When that mind set becomes the norm, change is bound to occur. I am not sure we are at majority status yet, but we are getting there and change is already occurring.
No, we’re not at majority status yet.

But yes, we are getting closer as the pain levels increase proportionately with the consequences of years and decades of irresponsibility.

Where logic and responsibility fail, pain and misery make up the difference to provide the motivation to do something to reduce that pain.

Unfortunately, there’s alreasdy a lot of unavoidable pain and misery in the pipeline, and it is going to take a whole lot of reform to remove the abuses that are causing the decay of numerous economic conditions that will be painful for most Americans for many years to come.

Especially since many politicians don’t want an educated electorate that’s capable of understanding the real level of their irresponsibility, incompetence, and malfeasance.

Education is the key (whether it is obtained the smart way or the hard and painful way).

  • Responsibility = Power + Conscience + Education + Transparency + Accountability

  • Corruption = Power - Conscience - Education - Transparency - Accountability
At any rate, the voters have the government that the voters elect, and deserve.

Posted by: d.a.n at April 23, 2008 1:28 PM
Comment #251271

Matt,
Good post.

Still, I am troubled by the shrinking percentage of U.S. citizens or permanent residents in science and engineering (S&E) graduate programs over the past 30 years. These are the folks that drive technology forward and help create many of the jobs in our society. While we are addressing the issues in our education system, will this decline continue? Obviously, there are a number of factors that come into play. Recent trends seems to indicate that the decline is slowing or stopped in some areas. Still as an engineering PhD student and U.S. citizen, I would like see our education system make the gains so that students like myself no longer fall into the minority. (Currently, only 46% of engineering graduate students are U.S citizens or permanent residents.) We are taking an unnecessary risk when we allow the country to increasingly depend on importing highly skilled workers. We welcome these workers, but shouldn’t we expect our education system to maximize the number of Americans filling these high pay and low unemployment jobs?

Posted by: Mr. Haney at April 23, 2008 1:49 PM
Comment #251272

Charter schools may just be working better because they are usually smaller than the schools they replaced, and it is easier for the adults to control the young people. During the baby boom, schools kept getting larger and larger. These type of schools are no longer as necessary, although they still work pretty well in the suburbs.

An abbreviated curriculum, concentrating on intensive repetition of the basics, could help more than extending the school year, which some people feel is necessary because the students forget too much over the summer. When I was in school, Illinois required 180 days, but in Chicago, it was 200 days.

Home schooling with the “help” of the internet could produce a generation of the most misinformed children in our history. The results touted are the same as would be achieved in a school with very small classroom size.

Posted by: ohrealy at April 23, 2008 1:54 PM
Comment #251276

Mr. Haney,
My brother, now pursuing his PhD. in Organic Chemistry in his late forties was astonished to find that the undergraduate degree he received in the same discipline from the same university didn’t fully prepare him for the rigor of the graduate program. His advisor told him it would be too expensive for the department to do this, since the undergraduate program was predominantly filled with American students.

We have a serious problem and it won’t get better until we in America understand how crucial real skills, as opposed to a sheet of vellum pretending to represent the accumulation of skills, really are.

By the way, my brother spends an inordinate amount of his time helping the more than two-thirds of his department’s students who are not native English speakers write their required papers.

Posted by: Lee Jamison at April 23, 2008 2:57 PM
Comment #251280

Science and Engineering jobs are paying less and less. I know a lot of engineers that have moved onto other things (or retired early).

Especially when the government is importing skilled labor that will work for much less, and Congress just granted greedy Bill Gates his request for hundreds of thousands of more skilled H-1B Visa workers.

And despite the millions of job ads looking for engineers, millions of them are fake job ads being used to clear the way for more skilled H-1B Visa workers, and avoid hiring American workers.

For some reason, about 30 years ago, many Americans started to start screwing each other over, and selling each other out, imports have been growing, unfair trade policies and trade imbalances are driving jobs out of the nation, exports have been falling, Americans are wondering why they are getting poorer, and the nation is swimming in $53 Trillion nation-wide of debt (never larger in size and as a percentage of the $13.9 Trillion GDP).

Well, they really only have themselves to thank for it, since they repeatedly reward the sell-out, FOR-SALE politicians in do-nothing Congress with 93%-to-99% re-election rates.

There are now more jobs in government than all manufacturing.

What will happen when we all work for the government?

At any rate, the voters have the government that they voters elect, and deserve.

Posted by: d.a.n at April 23, 2008 3:43 PM
Comment #251281

Matt,

Exellent, informative post. Thank You.

Posted by: googlumpugus at April 23, 2008 4:04 PM
Comment #251287

Wow! Look at the title bar! I’ve never noticed that before.

Posted by: Weary Willie at April 23, 2008 5:15 PM
Comment #251288

Good article.

Here is a link to a study that suggests that charter schools and private schools aren’t doing a better job than public schools are. In fact, despite the movement toward charter schools among Conservative Christians (also home schooling is popular) in this study their rankings were among the lowest:

Public schools equal or better in math than private or charter schools

ohrealy:

Home schooling with the “help” of the internet could produce a generation of the most misinformed children in our history.

I agree. While the internet can be a great tool to aid learning and information gathering, it’s definitely not anything close to an acceptable substitute for having a skilled teacher with a well thought out and presented curriculum.

Posted by: Veritas Vincit at April 23, 2008 5:25 PM
Comment #251289
a well thought out and presented curriculum.

Bravo! And patience, and able to recognize when someone is having a problem.

I taught myself the programming language, BASIC, on a VIC-20. That’s homeschooling.
I got my knowledge of problem solving, logic, and modular programming at IVTC. That’s priceless.

Posted by: Weary Willie at April 23, 2008 5:37 PM
Comment #251302

A friend homeschooled his children. His kids were more ready for college at 16 than 99% of their classmates who graduated from government-run schools (GRS). Yet my friend is not well educated. How can that be?

His solution to his own lack of education while teaching his children was that he didn’t let them cheat or slip through with just-OK work. He demanded the highest integrity and the highest achievement (two things that almost all GRS lack).

—-
My own experience with GRS for my son shows my conclusion from above. My adopted son was passed from grade to grade even though he clearly did substandard work (D’s and F’s), refused to turn in assignments, lied to teachers (and us) about doing his work. He flunked Algebra I and was advanced to Algebra II. The GRS refused our insistent requests that he re-take Algebra I. He’s an adult now, still cannot do the simplest math, can barely read, can’t get a decent job…

Talk about “studies” all you want. The truth is in the details. GRS wastes time (and they want to waste more of it). A nine-hour school day for children produces very little education. My friend found that his children could complete their assignments (by themselves once they had learned to read) before noon (about 3-4 hours), and have the remainder of the day to play, read, go on educational field-trips, etc. His children “graduated” at age 16 without studying in the summers.

GRS waste money (and they want to waste more money). My friend educated his children for less than $700 per child per year. A nearby private school (which runs one hour less than government school per day and 3 weeks less per year) educates its students for less than $7000 per year and does a better educational job than GRS (They also have sports, music and drama performance programs). But the GRS nearby needs nearly $13000 per year per student. (Of course, you may argue, they have to deal with the mentally challenged students… but a nearby private agency that teaches mentally challenged students has a cost factor of only $11,000 per student.)

Posted by: Don at April 23, 2008 8:47 PM
Comment #251307

Don said: My own experience with GRS for my son shows my conclusion from above. My adopted son was passed from grade to grade even though he clearly did substandard work (D’s and F’s), refused to turn in assignments, lied to teachers (and us) about doing his work. He flunked Algebra I and was advanced to Algebra II. The GRS refused our insistent requests that he re-take Algebra I. He’s an adult now, still cannot do the simplest math, can barely read, can’t get a decent job…

And unfortunately your step son aint the only one that’s happened to. I’ve lost count of the number of high school grads that’s come to my businesses wanting to put in applications and can barely spell their own names.
The public schools are under pressure to push kids to the next grade so the district can get the money for them. School districts can lose money for failing students so they put pressure on the schools not to fail anyone.
Then ya also have the parent factor. “How dare you flunk my little dear. Never mind he’s/she’s doing substandard work. If ya don’t want a discrimination suit you’d better pass her/him.”
And in the end it’s the kids (ya know, the ones that the schools are supposed to be serving) that are hurt.

Homeschooling does work better than public schools.
One of my daughters has been homeschooling her youngins sense they’ve been old enough to start school. The oldest one, age 13, doing 10th and 11th grade work. The second one, age 11, is doing 8th and 9th grade work. The third one, age 8 is doing 6th and 7th grade work. The youngest one, age 4, knows simple multiplication and reads at a 2nd grade level.
How many youngins do any of y’all know that attend public school that are doing school work 2 to 3 grades above their age? While I naturally think all my grandyoungins are the smartest kids in the world, the fact is none of these four have above average IQ.
I know of other youngins that’s being home schooled and are doing work 2 to 3 grade higher than kids their ages that go to public schools. So my grand youngins aint an exception. Seems to me they just might be the norm for home schooled youngins.

Posted by: Ron Brown at April 24, 2008 12:28 AM
Comment #251315

“Science and Engineering jobs are paying less and less. I know a lot of engineers that have moved onto other things (or retired early).”

The data I have seen hasn’t shown that these jobs are paying less and less. I will agree that engineers are moving into non-engineering positions, but this is largely a result of employers finding that an engineer’s skills are useful in other areas. I also agree that retirement before age 65 is very common, but the numbers can’t tell us if retirement was by force or by choice. I’m optimistic it is more often the latter.

Within the same NSF report, it states that roughly two-thirds of foreign students granted S&E doctoral degrees stay in the U.S. over the 5-10 year horizon, often becoming citizens or permanent residents. The kind of H1-B visa abuse you posted d.a.n. should be eliminated, but with a historical 2.5-4.0% unemployment rate and long term wage growth in S&E fields, I have trouble seeing how importing S&E workers has been damaging to our economy. There are numerous other policies which have been far more effective at that.

Posted by: Mr. Haney at April 24, 2008 2:44 AM
Comment #251326

Veritas Vincit wrote:

Here is a link to a study that suggests that charter schools and private schools aren’t doing a better job than public schools are. In fact, despite the movement toward charter schools among Conservative Christians (also home schooling is popular) in this study their rankings were among the lowest
.

I don’t suggest that charter schools, magnet schools, private schools or even homeschooling is necessarily better per se. But the fact that more and more parents are choosing these alternatives must be indicative of something, and my belief is that parents are not satisfied with the quality of the product that traditional public schools are offering. That conclusion, in an of itself, is indicative of a desire for altenratives or change.

I have no doubt that a skilled teacher with a well developed and presented curriculum is a wonderful asset, but the fact of the matter is that we don’t have enough highly skilled teachers to go around and current curricula are far from well thought out. Curricula are to a certain extent public, political documents. Consider for a moment who has the final say on curricular matters.

Finally, the pessimism of public school bashing that is going to occur over the next several weeks is draining and counter productive. Our children are better off today than they were 25 years ago. There are options and there are efforts to make the system better and that is progress.

Posted by: Matt Johnston at April 24, 2008 9:45 AM
Comment #251335

Don

You brought up a great point when you said that your friends parents demanded quality work.

Why is it that some students can go through public education prepared for college and the labor market, but others can’t? These students sit side by side in the classroom and have the same teachers. What is the missing variable here?

It is the PARENTS. Yes the ones that chose to create the child. The responsiblity is and always will be the parents. The school system is not some magic daycare center where we drop off a kid and get out a genius. It is my opinion that the parents are more responsible for their childs education than the teachers. If you know a teacher, go up to them and tell you it’s their fault that the kids in their class are learning. See what they say.

Parents who care to get involved at the school and demand to see quality from their children (not trust their kids blindly) produce children that are equipped with the knowledge neccesary to succeed in life.

To get a real idea of the situation, go volunteer at your local high school, or better yet take a day off from work and go be a substitute teacher. Please go see what teachers deal with every day.

Posted by: Jason Ziegler at April 24, 2008 11:27 AM
Comment #251358

To inject some real figures, this is the current Maine township budget for about 7000 students in 3 high schools, around $17,300 per student.

Salaries and Benefits 83,970,730
Purchased Services 10,232,965
Supplies 7,080,760
Capital Outlay 1,794,030
Due/Fees/Contingency 3,512,476
Tuition(outsourcing) 7,334,280
Pmts to Gov Units 63,500
Pmts on Behalf of 7,110,000
total 121,096,741
http://www.maine207.k12.il.us/

Posted by: ohrealy at April 24, 2008 7:07 PM
Post a comment