The majority of experts suggest that poverty is the biggest problem in American public education. Notwithstanding that poverty creates tremendous disadvantages for students and that much must be done to put supports in place, there are many students from the poorest of backgrounds who excel academically and there are those who fail in spite of the relative affluence enjoyed by their families. We suggest that poverty and the problems with our systems of public education are symptoms of the same pathology. What seems to matter is a combination of two critical states of reality.
The first is how parents view the relationship between education and opportunity. For the relatively affluent families, it comes down to whether children are taught that opportunities must be earned, on the one hand, or are entitlements on the other. For the poor or for families that hover in the vicinity of the poverty level the issue is whether parents see an education as a way for their children to escape their disadvantage on the one hand or whether they have lost hope on the other.
It seems reasonable to conclude that the challenges of affluence are easier to overcome than the challenges poverty. We are concerned, however, about failing children on whatever end of the affluence continuum on which they can be found. The operative question is why we do not attack hopelessness, ferociously. Hope and expectations are inextricably connected. The consequences of an educational system that puts children in a position to fail can be devastating to the vulnerable and contributes greatly to this sense of hopelessness.
The second reality is the level of influence parents and family have over their children relative to the power and influence of the peer group. We suggest that parents who are ardent advocates for the importance of education and who teach their sons and daughters to swim in the currents of peer pressure rather than be swept away by it are most likely to have children who excel academically. As the strength of both the parent(s) advocacy regarding the importance of an education and their ability to help their children develop a healthy self-esteem begins to wane, academic performance seems to diminish. We suggest that the color of a family’s skin has precious little to do with the academic performance of their children. The role of affluence matters only to the extent that a family’s relative wealth contributes to or impedes its ability to sustain close relationships with its children.
Are there bad teachers in our public schools? Most certainly! Only a few, however, entered the teaching profession as bad teachers. They became bad over time, in many cases, after years of being subjected to a failure-laden system and precious little support from the parents of their students. If we were able to plot out the deterioration of the performance of such teachers it would be in almost perfect inverse proportion to the increase in their level of hopelessness with respect to successful outcomes. Many lose faith that what they are doing is making a difference.
What is remarkable is that there are so many public school teachers in urban communities all over the U.S. who somehow cling to their hope in the face of such distressing academic environments and teach to the best of their abilities. These men and women are the unsung heroes of public education and they deserve our respect and support, not the mounting criticism and indictments they are forced to endure.
Legislators are naive to think that they can make better schools available to the broad public simply through legislation that gives people more choices and also vouchers that help them pay for those choices. The problem, of course, is that only a small percentage of the total population is motivated to take advantage of such opportunities even when readily available to them. More choices and vouchers may provide lifelines to a few of the most motivated families but it is comparable to a sentence of death for the remainder.
The sad reality is that every time concerned parents jerk their children out of public schools in favor of alternatives such as suburban public, parochial, charter, or other “model” schools the abandoned urban public school is left with one less parent who cares. The teachers of these schools are now left with the most challenging and unmotivated students and least supportive parents, while enjoying none of the special luxuries that contribute to the success of their “model” counterparts and none of the hope. Projecting to all fifty states Indiana public schools’ loss of $37 million during the 2012-2013 academic year and we are talking about nearly $2 billion in revenue lost by schools systems that can least afford it.
What we are creating is a bifurcated system of education that separates the “haves” and the “have-nots.” The problem is not that we are creating alternatives for families that value an education rather it is that we are failing miserably in our efforts to fix the problems faced by the schools that are being abandoned.
The teaching profession certainly bears a portion of the responsibility for the problems with education in America and we must make every effort to improve the quality of teachers. We must challenge school administrations and teachers’ unions to find ways to work together toward this objective. In a later discussion, we will make recommendations for teachers and their unions on how to improve the accountability of teachers, thereby improving the quality of the aggregate faculty. Our top priorities, however, must be to attack the cultural forces that lead to parental apathy with respect to education and the resulting absence of motivation on the part of so many students on the one hand and to re-invent the educational process on the other.