Most Americans are unaware of the poor showing of the American educational system when compared to other nations in the world marketplace, but there does appear to be clear evidence that our children are performing poorly when compared to the children of other nations. This is particularly true of American children in our urban communities. As a result, our public schools are facing scathing criticism as are the educators who struggle to make the system work for our children. The cry goes out that our public schools are failing us and that teachers are to blame. Such claims are, at a minimum, misguided, at their worst a travesty.
In response to mounting pressure from federal and state officials, some school districts have resorted to major housecleaning; terminating teachers and administrators in groups both large and small. In other communities, state departments of public education are placing failing schools on probation and, in some cases, are threatening to take the schools over in an attempt to improve lagging test scores. In Fort Wayne Community Schools, the system to which we will often refer throughout this book, the district gave notices to more than 300 teachers and administrators at the end of the 2010/2011 school year and required them to reapply for their jobs as part of the district’s strategy for an academic shake up.
Such actions are tantamount to blaming soldiers for a war they were asked to fight. These efforts make an insignificant impact on the problem, especially when these schools rehire the same teachers and administrators and then move them to a different building. It does not work because teachers and administrators are only a small part of the problem and, in many cases, are themselves victims of an educational system that is both misdirected and poorly designed to do what we desperately need it to do in this ever-more complicated world.
So, what is the problem with public education in the United States of America? In response to what was meant as a rhetorical question, “What is the matter with these kids?” a middle school teacher with whom I shared a table in a faculty lounge summed up the problem with public education in the United States elegantly and concisely, if not kindly, in six words: “They just don’t give a shit!” And, he spat the words out.
My first response was to laugh. After ten years of substitute teaching, it has become glaringly obvious to me that there was more than a nugget of truth in the observations of this teacher, whose name and school I cannot recall. It is anything but a laughing matter, however.
There are, indeed, students who do care and parents who do support the educational process. The reality, however, is that an alarming percentage of those parents are pulling their children out of our urban public schools and placing them in a variety of private alternatives from parochial, charter schools, or other private schools to home schooling. In many places, state governments are encouraging such transfers through the use of voucher programs that allow the use of tax dollars to subsidize such transfers. Other parents are moving their families out of cities and into suburban and rural public school districts where they believe their children will receive a better education. The sad but compelling fact is that these suburban and rural public schools, and parochial and private alternatives, are out-performing their urban public counterparts on test scores to such a degree that it is difficult to be critical of parents who make such choices. The subsequent consequences with which our urban public school students and teachers must deal as a result of such departures are scary. We will return to this subject later in this chapter. Scarier, still, is that even our better schools are under performing relative to the school systems of other developed nations.
The only places where American students are consistently performing at an exceptional level are in special schools that exist, in small numbers, along the fringes of the mainstream educational system. Readers who have viewed the documentary, Waiting for Superman , were given a glimpse of a few examples of these remarkable little schools. As exciting as their performance might appear, these special little schools are not the answer to the American educational dilemma although they do offer a glimpse of the secret to solving the problem. They are not the solution because they are too few in number and simply cannot be replicated in sufficient numbers to solve the problem for the other ninety-nine percent of our nation’s student population. More importantly, they are not the solution because we have not made the effort to fully understand the reasons for their success. Instead, we stumble along in search of answers, blinded by our assumptions.
The leaders and advocates of such special schools suggest that their success can be attributed to two key factors. The first, these advocates suggest, is that these programs enjoy the luxury of being able to recruit exemplary teachers; the proverbial cream of the crop. The second is that, because these schools exist outside of the formal educational system, they are constrained by neither the bureaucracy of the public school system nor the power of teacher unions. Absent these constraints, according to their administrators, these schools are able to develop innovative curricula and place their exemplary teachers in exceptionally conducive environments, allowing them to do extraordinary things.
The freedom to do things differently and to break away from conventional wisdom creates a tremendous advantage for these schools and their students and mainstream educational policy makers and administrators must learn from their example. What we often ignore is that the most important advantage enjoyed by these special schools, we believe, is that the student populations of these schools are made up almost entirely of children whose parents are fiercely determined to see that their sons and daughters will get the best possible education.
Whether they are black, white, rich, poor, come from intact or fractured families is inconsequential. These parents took extraordinary action to get their children into these special schools, sometimes agonizing through a lottery process before their children are even accepted, and they are fully on board as partners in the educational process. It is from this fierce passion on the part of parents that students derive a powerful motivation to learn. When motivated students are supported by a sustained and active partnership between parents and educators, truly remarkable things happen. When combined with exemplary teachers utilizing innovative curricula and instructional methodology what takes place could be described as magical.
One would think it should be glaringly obvious that committed parents and their motivated sons and daughters are an essential ingredient in successful schools, wherever we find them, but the overwhelming majority of American educators and policy makers are so caught up in their daily challenges and so blinded by their preconceptions that they fail to see it.