The Failure Within American Public Education
COMM 205 - 502 | Group 4
“The History of American Public Education”
America’s public school education is suffering, and with a falling global rank and stagnant student scores, we must look to our past in order to understand the trends. This article will analyze the historic trends surrounding federal expenditure, student scores, and student-teacher relations.
There are two major components of the American school system which has been present since the first schools in America: teachers and students. We must address the ways in which education and federal spending has affected American public school pupils, and secondly, how the increasing number of teachers, as well as their pay, affects students.
Problem solving skills and intelligence are directly proportional to the number of years educated. According to the National Center of Education Statistics, students who acquire higher education degrees earn more than their peers who do not. This is incredibly important as it shows that there is a trend that students who only finish high school earn not only less, but at a decreasing rate. This systemic failure only hurts our progeny when we fail to provide the best education and training they could receive. However, it is not enough to simply increase expenditure on education. An article written by Bill Gates in the Huffington Post writes how the U.S. has maintained a trend of increasing expenditure per pupil since the beginning of the 20th century. The article also notes that despite this trend, students scores have stagnated. This means that our education system fails to provide students with the skills and knowledge to be successful in an ever-growing competitive world.
To further analyze this problem, we must look at how students receive their education. Clearly, teachers are the conduits of knowledge for students, and therefore, as the stewards of our progeny, we look to teachers in their role in educational failure. According to The National Center of Education Statistics on their data regarding teacher salary, teachers’ pay has increased over the years and according to Catherine Rampell from New York Times, the U.S. is in the middle of the flock in terms of teacher salaries compared to the rest of the world. It seems the U.S. does not value teachers as much as other countries, which begs the question of “Is part of the problem teacher treatment?” Surprisingly, as you can see from a graph by the National Center of Education Statistics over student per teacher ratio, the number of students per teacher has decreased over years. While this initially appears to be good news, it means that while students are able to receive more one on one time with the teacher, they are still unable to rise beyond scores that have stagnated.
From our teachers to our students, the past shows that though education has made great strides, the United States is still far from where we should be. We need to learn from our mistakes and our history, and use those experiences to fix this dire problem.
U.S. Expenditure per Student and Student Scores
Number of Pupils per Teachers
U.S. Expenditure per Student and Student Scores
Number of Pupils per Teachers
Private Vs. Public Education
There are two major types of education in the US - public and private - but which is better? In order to better understand the differences, benefits, and drawbacks, it is necessary to qualitatively and quantitatively compare the two. Each has their pros and cons, which can be seen below during the analysis and comparison of the systems.
Public Education Pros
- All teachers are state certified, ensuring they are equipped with the skills necessary to teach students from diverse backgrounds and various learning styles.
- Schools are required to follow state mandated guidelines in order for students to learn material that prepares them for success in college or the workforce. This includes having learned algebra and geometry before college and being prepared for more advanced mathematics such as calculus.
- Schools are state funded. All tuition and transportation is covered, giving students the opportunity to ride the bus to and from school every day. Additionally, classes are paid for and only lunch and school supplies are left to the students.
- Public schools offer a variety of specialized courses ranging from agriculture, cosmetology, JROTC, culinary arts, machine shop, automotive, theater, and music. This allows students to better decide which career field is right for them early in their educational careers.
- Public schools have more money for athletics and band programs, meaning they can compete in district and state competitions in many sports and musical organizations. The school covers coaches, instructors, athletic equipment, and access to instruments.
- Pubic schools are required to offer special education programs to special needs students.
- Pubic schools often have many students from diverse backgrounds: race, religion, and socio-economic status. This is good because it prepares students for life in the work force.
Pubic Education Cons
- Due to the constant state required assessments, there is often a “teach to test” mentality.
- Pubic schools usually have a large students to teacher ratio.
- English programs often do not prepare students for college level course work.
- There is a norm of disengagement.
- Some students, especially in poorer areas, struggle with problems at home. Drugs and alcohol problems are more frequent in public schools.
Private Education Pros
- There is no state mandated curriculum so schools have much more freedom, allowing them to teach a more in-depth and advanced curriculum.
- Schools and classrooms are smaller, providing a greater sense of community and student-to-teacher interaction.
- Private schools have a unique opportunity to create environments were students are self-motivated to learn.
- Private schools can have an application processes to ensure they get motivated students.
Private Education Cons
- Private education is not free.
- Because of the small environment, joining later makes it harder to gain social acceptance.
- There are fewer opportunities for extracurricular activities due to a lack of apportioned funding for athletics or music programs.
- Teachers are not required to be state certified but most have a subject related degree or expertise.
Part of the problem with our education is that wealthy schools are among the best in the world, a distinct contrast from poor schools. While wealthy schools have access to the best teachers and teaching resources, poor districts may not have the same benefits.
Education is often heralded as the number one best way to escape from poverty, and while this is true, the reality is much more complex. Depending on your income, or the income of your family, the quality of your education can vary from abysmal to world-class.
Exactly how is our education? The PISA, or Programme for International Student Assessment, is a study across 65 different nations measuring the problem-solving and thinking skills of 15 year-olds often used to evaluate public education in a country. According to a report published by Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, in 2012, the United States was ranked 36th in mathematics, 28th in science, and 24th in reading.
Not only does the United States have poor education when compared to other developed countries, but according to an article in NEA today, we also have much higher rates of income inequality. When American scores are looked at relative to income levels, there is a direct correlation between wealth and test score. According to simplystats.org, if we divided up The United States into five different sections based on wealth (by the number of reduced-price lunches provided), the results are very spread out. The wealthiest section easily ranks first in the world, while the poorest section is behind countries like Turkey and Chile, and only slightly above Mexico.
Further increasing the gap in education quality between rich and poor is the prevalence of expensive private schools. Many wealthy families are now sending their children to expensive private schools, which have a plethora of resources for making sure their students succeed. In suburban Detroit, on a campus of 319 acres, Cranbrook School is a private school for grades k-12. It costs $40,000 annually to attend, even more than a year’s tuition at A&M, and includes alumni such as Mitt Romney. According to an article by NPR, counselors are professionals, and will reach out to underachieving students, write detailed letters of recommendation, and even ensure acceptance into Ivy Leagues.
Less than 20 miles from Cranbrook, in a crime-ridden area of Detroit, is Osborn Collegiate Academy of Math, Science, and Technology. According to NPR, Osborn is almost entirely composed of low-income students, and has a graduation rate of 54%. The graduation rate at Cranbrook is 100%. While the average private school counselor manages 50-100 students, the lone counselor at Osborn manages all 400 students, which is a typical workload for a public school counselor.
But expensive prep schools aren’t the only advantage afforded to those who can afford it. While wealthy public schools are still offering a vastly different education from those who are not as wealthy. Upper and middle class public school students have advantages they can pursue outside to get ahead, such as taking AP courses or taking courses for college credit at local community colleges. In comparison, many low-income students have to work outside of class to supplement their family income, and poor schools have less money for good teachers and up-to-date textbooks.
It is clear that the state of our public education is closely related to the issue of income inequality in the United States. There is a huge gap in the quality of education for the rich and the poor. This is especially troubling since education is often seen as the best escape from poverty. The wealthy will continue to be well-educated and wealthy, and the poor will remain under-educated, creating a vicious cycle of poverty.
America vs. the World
Though as Americans we like to think we reside in the best country in the world, the brutal truth is that compared to other international leaders and powers, the United States' educational system is below average. We spend the most money on education out of all of the countries in the world yet the problem persists. Could it be that the solution does not reside in increased funding? To analyze this problem, it is essential to compare what countries with successful education systems are doing to excel.
I say the United States’ education system is being outperformed by other countries’ systems but what does this mean and how is it measured? Every three years, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tries to answer, “What is important for citizens to know and be able to do?” To approach the question, hundreds of thousands of fifteen year-olds from around the world complete the assessment to measure their skills in reading, mathematics, science, and problem-solving. Listed in the table below are the 65 countries that participated in PISA 2012, all 34 of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation members who are committed to democracy, and 31 partner countries and economies. Compare the results of the United States with those of other countries and you can see that the comparative scores are abysmal, being below the OECD average in two of the three subjects.
Take a look at Singapore and Finland on the other hand. Both countries are significantly higher than both the OECD averages and those of the United States. What why? Could it be that these countries are spending more on education? As we saw earlier, this is certainly not the case. The University of Southern California compiled an infographic (shown below) based on PISA results that outlines how a country’s subject scores relate to their spending on education. It is interesting to visualize that increased spending does not correlate with increased scores, in the cases of the United States and the United Kingdom, while Finland, which has the lowest total spending for education out of the countries in the infographic, actually tops the list for almost all of the categories.
With this, let us discuss exactly what Finland and Singapore do to perform so well. Though the two countries have vastly different approaches to teaching, there is one specific thing that makes them successful. In an article on The Conversation, David Hogan writes that Singapore’s instructional regime is highly scripted and uniform across all levels. Teachers rely heavily on textbooks and worksheets, and emphasize mastery of particular skills. As a result, there is very little communication between the students with classroom discussions being dominated by the teachers. In contrast, Finland’s schools are interactive, conversational, and adaptive to each student’s needs. Smithsonian Magazine writes that teachers have a “whatever it takes” attitude and offer special help to any child who needs it. Additionally, only the top ten percent of graduates are selected to earn the required Master’s degree to teach, ensuring that all teachers are highly qualified. Essentially, though the two countries teach differently, the material and methodology is uniform nationwide.
The United States fails in this regard. Here, curricula differ by states, districts, and even schools. This non-uniformity in teaching and the lack of qualified teachers is the fundamental problem. As stated by the Economic Policy Institute, the reason for this inequality is largely due to greater social inequality in the United States that typically drives test scores down.
As you’ve seen, compared to other countries, the education system in the United States lacks proper and uniform infrastructure and extensive research proves it. Though education is a complex problem that must be addressed in parts, the solutions may not be difficult to implement.
Improving our K-12 Education System
Despite the fact that the United States is considered an economic and political superpower, it is unable to in the top of the list of best education systems. Our public education is failing, and we need better solutions to prevent it from ruining our reputation as the best country in the world.
An average student spends six hours a day at school and the rest at home; therefore educating and involving parents is vital to our education system. As reported in education week “an over-dependence on schools puts students at risk when it comes to the lack of parental involvement in academics”. Some parents depend solely on the school for their child’s education, which puts a student at risk of getting off-track. Unfortunately, most of the students are from middle and lower class households meaning their parents lack higher level of education care a lot about their child’s education. Therefore, to improve our education system, we need to start at home. Mandatory parent meetings every month needs to be implemented all over the country. These meetings will allow parents to be aware of their children’s education and teachers can guide each parent on how to improve each student.
Secondly, let us shift our focus from parents to teachers, who are also very crucial in the academics of a student. Providing every student with an opportunity for a world-class education is essential for the success of our nation, but that depends heavily on excellent teachers. According to U.S department of education “Teachers in the top 20% of performance generate 5-6 more months of student learning each year than low-performing teachers. Many researchers also confirm that the most important factor in a student’s success is an excellent teacher. Unfortunately, even today, many teachers report they are unprepared when they first enter the classroom, and schools lack the ability to identify these problems. Additionally, some teachers lack the knowledge of the subject they are assigned to teach and some simply neglect the class because the school is in a bad condition. Therefore, to avoid the unpreparedness and negligence of some teachers, we need to propose regulations to improve these problems.
Furthermore, our standardized testing is simply not functioning well. Due to the fear of being labeled as an academically unaccepted school, teachers are forced to teach to pass the test and learn about the potential questions to prepare for such tests. Brooke Berger from U.S. News states, “we're doing way too much of this testing, and it is changing the way in which we educate our children,” and as a result 45,000 of our schools are failing. Kimberly Hefling reports in PBS news hour that a student spends on average 1.6% of instructional time for taking the test, which in average per student are 113 standardized tests between Pre-K and 12th. Some of the most successful nations like Singapore and Finland have a strict curriculum and they follow it nationwide. In order to reform our testing system, we needs to eliminate all this unnecessary testing and follow one curriculum nationwide, which has been proven by other countries to be a successful way of teaching.
Finally let's discuss the most controversial topic of all: the usage of technology at school. The allowance of cellphones and other recent technologies has been a major cause for distraction. According to Linda Matchan from Boston globe “Ninety-two percent of teens report going online daily, with more than half saying they’re online several times a day. Twenty-four percent say they do so almost constantly”. Teachers are frustrated with students and often they quit their jobs due to frustration with students and their cellphone activity during class time. In order to avoid the distractions in teaching-learning environment, cellphones needs to be prohibited in the classrooms. One way to approach this it is to store phones at the office, disallowing students to carry them inside the classroom. This strict regulation will allow the United States to eliminate the distraction to learning and will also prevent some cyber-bullying, a common occurrence among with teens.
In conclusion, there needs to be more parental involvement, to be achieved by monthly mandatory parent meetings, creation of more qualified teachers through sufficient training, and reformation of our testing system. In an extreme circumstance, the use of cellphones inside the classrooms may also be restricted. Ultimately, if these solutions are implemented, according to vast amounts of data, the United States' poor eduaction system will improve, allowing the country to catch up to its successful neighbors.
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