They gathered in the living room again as they often did, my son and a few of his friends: all of them high school drop outs. As I listened to their chatter my thoughts drifted back to my own teenage years. I had finally badgered my mother long enough that she had agreed to let me drop out of high school. I was seventeen and a junior. I had a job promised working for a local dairy farmer at $200 a month plus room and board. It was good money for a teenager in 1959, and the room and board would get me out of the house.
As it turned out, I didn’t quit, though I had mentally quit long before. Not dropping out is one of the few regrets I have in life as I was little more than a nuisance for the next year and a half to my teachers and fellow students who actually wanted to learn.
As I watched and listened to my son and his friends, I begin to wonder about our public educational system and why nearly thirty per cent of our students drop out. What is or is not being done to create this crisis, or is it even really a crisis? One evening, back in the late 1980’s, I was channel surfing and came across a panel discussion on PBS of leading educational experts. There were a couple of teachers of the year, a couple of professors from colleges of education, and other assorted, noted educators. I don’t remember much about the discussion, but I do remember being astonished by two things that were said: One panelist said that we know what is wrong with public education, but it will never be fixed because there is too much money and territory (political) involved in things the way they are. The moderator, surprised, asked each panelist in turn if that were true. Each agreed that it was. The second surprising comment was that teacher certification should be done away with.
Though much is often made in the media about the problems with American public education, it is usually by people on the outside looking in. Even the PBS panel only had a couple of teachers who were actually working in a public school setting. So, what would it look like from the inside looking out? This looked like a case for immersion journalism.
Since I had a college degree in journalism rather than education, I finagled my way into the classroom through the Arkansas alternative program for certifying teachers. After fifteen years in the public education system, I now have an answer to my question, though maybe not one very many Americans will accept.
An apt analogy of the problem might be the fellow who takes his car to the garage because he hears some ominous noises coming from deep down in the engine. It is apparent to the mechanic that the connecting rods are knocking and that the engine could fly apart at any time. Yet, the mechanic tries to solve the problem by adjusting the carburetor and the timing of the distributor. There is really only one thing to do: Overhaul the engine.
Our system of public education is faltering because of three false premises on which it has come to operate: People can be compelled to learn, education should be provided at absolutely no cost to the beneficiary, and education best takes place in a school setting. It’s not that these premises are written down or were even planned out in someway. They have just evolved over the years and are implied by the way we do school. So, today, when we have more research into how people learn and behave and better trained teachers, the bulk of our students are not nearly as well educated by grade twelve as their great grandparents were by the eighth grade, if their great grandparents went to school.
The system is broken way down deep and most of what we are doing (technology, more teacher training, more stringent curricula, more testing, more central control, etc.) simply amounts to adjusting the carburetor. If we spend enough, we might get a few years when test scores will rise a little, but until we are ready to overhaul the system, not much is going to change.