I Thought This Was America! | Volume 3: Education

James Sasso, Associate Editor


For those of you who are familiar with South Park (especially you religious watchers like me who can quote many of the show’s lines from its 14 seasons), the title of this editorial series, concerning the numerous hypocrisies of American politics, should be familiar. For those who don’t get the reference, don’t worry. Just take it as is; read, and you will understand.

In this hotly contested election year, one would think that education–a major pillar of governmental responsibility–would be one of the main focal points of potential politicians and incumbents alike who strive to win on November 2, but education reform has not received much attention. Only with the release of the documentary Waiting for Superman did the longstanding, and long unsolved, debate about how to fix America’s failing schools finally fully enter political discussion.

America has always prided itself as being the most innovative country in the world. We are its leaders, its developers, its pioneers, its scientists and its refuge for the brightest minds in the world, yet at the same time America has consistently maintained an anti-intellectual attitude that has prevented it from accurately pursuing a system of public education that would allow America to retain its place at the forefront of the world in every regard. There is arguably nothing as important, as education in the development of the new generation of Americans, except perhaps parenting, which is out of the control of the government. Since every American politician, and hopeful politician, proclaims his or her desire to improve America’s status in the world and preserve its deteriorating premier status in the world, it would seem appropriate that they all would want to improve education in America. Largely, this is true. Most politicians genuinely want to improve education. The problem, though, is that none of them are willing to work together, even though improving education is a bipartisan issue, which can stall much well-minded reform in its tracks. Even an issue that should increase bipartisanship has seemed to decrease it.

Perhaps America should only hire teachers of his caliber

Arguably the most important of Obama’s reforms in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the new initiative to invest heavily into the education of America’s youth, has gone largely unnoticed.  The most significant aspect of this reform was Obama’s and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s decision to institute a “race to the top” where states competed to receive an extra five billion dollars in federal aid for the state that shows the best educational system. The race to the top encourages a system where teachers are held accountable for their students and even could receive bonuses for their students’ collective improvement. While this sounds like an intelligent initiative to motivate teachers to improve their methods and, hopefully, to weed out the scores of ineffective teachers in America, there still lies a glaring problem in the reform of the Obama Administration: they still rely mainly on standardized test scores to identify the best and worst teachers and schools.

This reliance on test scores, in tandem with a teacher payment system geared to the success of these test scores, does not, and cannot, lead to an effective reform and improvement of America’s education debacle. In recent months there have been stories where administrators altered test scores of their students in order to receive more funding, such as in Atlanta, or stories, such as in New York, where scores went up, but standards were lowered deplorably, meaning that little real progress in student achievement was reached. In either case the problem lies mostly in schools’ desperate attempts to appear successful and, therefore, to receive much needed federal aid. In both cases the tests were created by the state, regulated by the state and proctored by the state. The federal government, though asking for all of these reforms, provides little federal oversight of how its money is spent, giving states the leeway to lower standards and make tests easier in order to pass more students. The object of education systems has changed from educating its students to receiving money in aid.

Obama, when attempting to pass his education reform in March, felt that he needed to include Republicans, who want as little government oversight as possible. As such, he laid out an education reform that satisfies the liberal demands for a new system while allowing conservative calls for state independence to remain fixed. This contradiction cannot last. If the Federal Government continues to fund states’ education systems (and it will), then it has come time for Washington to step in and establish national standards for tests and other benchmarks that decide how much funding is provided to each state. States cannot be relied upon to regulate themselves when there is a mass of federal money enticing them to  raise scores artificially. If tests remain the benchmark sign of how well a school is performing, then the national government needs to develop a national testing system that accurately tests the intelligence and education of America’s students. Likely an alternative yardstick for performance should be developed that does not entirely rely on test scores.

This reliance on test scores puts teachers between a rock and a hard place. They, most of them at least, want to teach well, but they know that their students must do well on these standardized tests. As such, much education time is wasted “teaching to the test” instead of providing a quality education to their students. At the same time, most of the time the performance of students on test scores has little to do with the teachers. It can be unfair to determine a teacher’s value on only these scores.

Students labor over exams

This is not to say that teachers are free from blame. They certainly are not, and it is laudable that the Obama Administration has publicly encouraged the firing of poor teachers and the revamping of failing schools. Too many sub-par teachers are protected by powerful teachers’ unions, which sometimes prevent even the worst of teachers to be fired. Washington’s attempt to shock the system of education into functionality by jolting its worst members and installing a system of pay-for-performance deserves praise for its attempt to improve the quality of the teachers who play a large role in structuring the development of the next generation of American leaders. Unfortunately, though, there is no simple answer to the education question.

America’s failing education system cannot be blamed on one entity, but one thing is certain: the system needs to be fixed. This is not a topic over which politicians should quarrel; it should be one over which they unite. Politicians have no problem signing billions of tax money over to the army, but it takes a true struggle even to agree to provide emergency funding to school systems so that they can retain enough teachers to stay functional.

Providing proper education for America’s youth is arguably the most important function of government. How can it be that America fails so horribly at doing it? There certainly are cultural factors contributing to failing schools and students, but the truth is that for too many years America’s government has not done enough to establish the magnificent public education system of which it is capable. The states have too much power to regulate themselves and the funding provided by Washington is mismanaged. How can America claim to be the most modern country in the world, yet have one of the worst public education systems out of the modernized countries?  I don’t mean to complain, but I’m sorry, I thought this was America.

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