Can Public Education Be Fixed?

lausd studentsCan Public Education Be Fixed In America? No, But It Can Be Reinvented

A massive public debate has ensued around education. From the White House and Congress down to every state, every city, the discussion is not “how do we reinvest in education” but “if we should reinvent public education.” It’s an asinine question given the investment our global competitors are making, but Americans today seem not to want to reinvest in anything beyond their own pockets.

Past generations modified society to fit the needs of the times. This generation modifies its needs to fit society. It’s a sign of the times, an antiquated, anti-intellectual approach to the future. At some point, this generation is going to have to pay (invest). We either invest in ourselves now, or pay later as a less competitive society. We need to fix ourselves before we nix ourselves. We generally acknowledge that public education is an inefficient output where failure (dropouts) often outnumbers success (graduation). Some might even call that broken.

The emotionalism tied to education oftentimes doesn’t allow for exacting critique. We focus on the success, ignore the failures and dismiss critical analysis that connects teaching to learning. Because public education still works for some, particularly in suburbia, it is difficult to dismantle the now 60-year-old paradigm of the 1950s classroom teaching model that dominates most urban and rural classrooms.

Our current school-year model is based on a 19th Century construction that allowed children to help with farm work (work in the fields) after school, and we still let our children out for the summer harvest — even though we shifted from an agricultural to an industrial society nearly 100 years ago.

Now 30 years into our next industrial shift from automation to technology, we’re still doing the same old thing in our schools. Learning has changed, and teaching has changed. Unfortunately, reality hasn’t changed, which causes us to ask the question, can public education be fixed in America? Not if it’s not reinvented.

It’s time to raise the noise on this, right now. I’ve attended two public education forums over the past month. One, I hosted to look at why success models in education are so difficult to embrace. The other was an educational summit (hosted by the United Way), looking at creating pathways out of poverty through education.

Both were well attended. People are interested in the issue of education, namely why it doesn’t work. The stakeholders are combative and well entrenched. Government versus schools. Public Schools versus Alternative Schools. Teachers Unions versus School Board. Administrators versus Superintendents. Parents and Teachers blaming each other more than working with each other.

The output, the children, are marginalized in the district. More dropout than graduate, in urban cities. No one accepts blame, and all claim there’s no one to blame. I beg to differ. Our refusal to change our educational paradigm is the reason for our decline.

  • Schools receive funding based on attendance, not performance. Antiquated.
  • Teachers retain their jobs based on seniority, not proficiency. Unions refuse to allow teachers to be tested in their disciplines. Antiquated.
  • State government divested in education and invested in prisons. Antiquated.
  • School administrations and School Districts score on how students test, not on what they know. Antiquated.
  • Parents refuse to consider all options for their children to make public education compete for their children and the funding that follows them. Antiquated.

There is a breakdown in the whole system and all self-interested parties are protecting one thing, their own interest.

The last two Presidents, Bush and Obama, have sought to bring accountability to education. One brought exit testing to end social promotion (Bush), the other brought innovation incentives to make public education compete (Obama). Both have had difficulties breaking the old public education mold.

The federal government has been watching public education for the past two administrations, concerned that the investment is not worth the return…and it’s not. But if the federal government withdraws funding from education, the whole system collapses.

But it’s collapsing anyway because it refuses to change.

If testing is the measure, teachers simply teach to the test to keep their jobs. If innovation is the measure, the teachers most likely to innovative are most likely to have the least seniority and end up laid off (as was the case this week, with a young LAUSD teacher, that actually won a teacher of the year award for her classroom innovation, but received a pink slip as 400 other teachers did as a budget cutting measure — if you want more info e-mail me).

If successful alternative models are introduced, the traditional school models undermine them to keep the success models from being replicated. The point here is the system eats its young and becomes self-defeating at the crucial change points. Change ends up being no change at all. Now this is not for ALL students…just the ones who need it most, our students. Black children, who represent the low end of the achievement gap. How does the worst case scenario continue to be ignored? Nobody seems to know.

Anthony SamadFor as long as nobody seems to know, and the critical school stakeholders continue to defend the indefensible, I will continue to ask the question, can public education be fixed, and will black children be included. — particularly black boys, who represent the pipeline to the prison industrial complex. It’s a pipeline we must break. We can invent a model that works for them. It’s already been invented, it just has to be replicated.

So, I’m waiting for the answer. One that we all know. NO, public education CAN’T be fixed.

It can be reinvented though. In that vein, one day, somebody’s gonna have an answer for me.

Anthony Samad

Published by the LA Progressive on April 2, 2011
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About Anthony Asadullah Samad

Dr. Anthony Asadullah Samad is an author, scholar and the co-founder, Managing Director and host of the Urban Issues Forum. Dr. Samad's most recent book is entitled "Saving The Race: Empowerment Through Wisdom". His national column can be read in newspapers and cyber-sites nationwide. His weekly writings can be read at www.blackcommentator.com. For more information about Dr. Samad, go to www.AnthonySamad.com.