Hoping for a Stronger Focus on Public Education in 2021 and Beyond

We need a Secretary of Education who has classroom teaching experience beyond grade 5 and has administered a middle or high school for at least a couple of years or so.  This experience gives teaching faculty a chance to understand and tell us a little bit about a candidate’s supervisory style. No need for a particular ethnicity or race or gender.  We’ve tried using all these sociocultural criteria, especially in our major cities.  But no criterion has worked for most kids.  

Are recent nation-wide riots, looting, and arson all in large part expressions of our frustration with and rage at seemingly failed or ineffective educational institutions?  We haven’t tried yet to make other institutions or agencies for public health or safety responsible for educating the nation’s children.  We need to try, because it is clear that public educational facilities are no longer capable of educating our young or producing productive citizens.

There are several questions we should ask ourselves to try to understand the basis for the many waves of rioting in our major cities in recent years, most recently Portland, Oregon.  

  1. Why haven’t our educational institutions found effective remedial strategies for low-achieving students by now—over 50 years after the first federal grants to low-income schools and communities in ESEA in 1965?
  2. Do schools in undeveloped or under-developed countries produce similar or lower levels of performance on the TIMSS, PIRLS, and PISA tests given to comparable children of low-income parents in this country on these tests? These have been the chief international tests available for our states to participate in.     
  3. What are the average scores for each demographic group in countries with many non-dominant population groups as in the USA, Australia, Canada, and Singapore?

Maybe education researchers have looked at the wrong things or not asked the right questions, such as:

  1. How much reading or other homework have teachers assigned their students in K-12?
  2. How many parents check the time their children go to bed every night and how much they read or practice every day?
  3. Why have pre-schools on average, or after-school programs extending school teaching hours, failed to create equity among demographic groups in the K-12 school population? 
  4. Why has the use of literary texts and curriculum-aligned textbooks whose subject matter and vocabulary have been reduced in difficulty (such as in recent Afrocentric curricula like 1619 ) failed to boost minority scores?

Who could be recommended for Secretary of Education?  Perhaps all parents would agree that such a person needs classroom teaching experience, knows well at least one of the subjects typically taught in K-12, and has read a lot and writes well.  All parents might also agree that it would be useful to have a Secretary of Education who knows beginning reading research as well as research on beginning arithmetic education. 

It is partially Congress’s fault that a regularly increasing amount of federal and state money in over fifty years hasn’t helped low-income minorities in education.  Congress hasn’t targeted the areas of influence on school achievement noted in the 1966 Coleman Report and the 1965 Moynihan Report.  The two most comprehensive reports on differences in academic achievement in this country found family background more influential than schools and teachers. In other words, social factors were more important than educational interventions.  The Coleman Report also noted, based on a test its authors devised, that the teachers of non-black students had greater knowledge and verbal skills than did the teachers of black children.  It made no specific recommendations, but it is not difficult to infer that low-achieving students would benefit from academically stronger teachers.  Recent information can be found here. It is clear that whatever our public schools have done since WWII hasn’t increased achievement in low-achieving students.

In recent years, many educators have promoted school choice, especially via charter schools, as ways to strengthen low-achieving students.  But school choice may be useful to promote only if curriculum choices and the portability of funds for individual students are allowed.  Letting public money be used for children in schools their parents want them to attend (whether private religious or secular schools), without a mandate to use Common Core-aligned standards, tests, textbooks, and teachers trained in Common Core-aligned material may finally enable school choice to be the motivational mechanism its supporters envisioned.  The benefits of school choice are unlikely to emerge within the context of a Common Cored curriculum.

To ensure civic equity, it is likely we need to nationalize civic education—the major subject where common historical and contemporary knowledge across schools would make sense such as the basic principles in the US Constitution.  Some educators have strongly supported the use of some of the questions on our naturalization quiz as the basis for a high school graduation test.  But to ensure diverse voices in history and geography at the classroom level, teachers could invite each parent of students in their grades 3-8 classes to recommend a good ethnic story/poem to discuss in class, with close relatives invited to attend and participate.

The road to effective education is paved with local financial control and parent choice.  No federal funding or programs.  We should acknowledge that high schools cannot prepare all kids for college and that all students do not want to go to college. High schools should establish several sets of standards rather than a single set of academic standards and let students take programs or course sequences that appeal to them. 

For a discussion of effective standards and K-12 curricula and tests, listen to Ingrid Centurion’s interview with me about education.