The President has recently been promising increased funding for schools, but more money hasn’t solved the problem yet. We need to answer some basic questions first.
How can America, in the space of 40 years, fall from being the world leader in education to 24th place, and still dropping? A large part of the population subscribes to the idea that “All we need to fix this is better teachers.” Regardless of what some self-proclaimed finger-pointers are touting, the causes, and more importantly the cures, are much more complex than just poor teachers, overcrowded schools, and the current economic crisis.
There are deep undercurrents in the American culture that continue to threaten the entire educational system on many fronts. Superficial programs, slogans, and laws are having little effect on plugging the widening gaps, and rather than to continue to apply quick-fix patches and to dump more money down the abyss, it is time to look closely at global root causes. It is time to rebuild the system so it produces students who graduate with a world-class education and the ability to think clearly.
The easiest target to attack is the education system’s frontline personnel, the individual teachers. After all, if the dropout rate keeps climbing, many people believe that teachers aren’t teaching effectively. A closer look, however, shows that most of the major problems in education are pressures over which the teachers have little or no control.
Historically, the American system was designed to operate in nine month long school year, because of the agricultural cycle, and because there was no air-conditioning to ward off the summer heat. Losing 25 percent of the available yearly instructional time means that schools will have to work 25 percent harder and/or smarter just to stay even with other educational systems, which are in session all year long.
Another problem is that the demands placed on the individual teachers continue to rise. In 1973, most teachers could fulfill their duties during the teaching day, with an occasional evening spent in parent conferences. This was true in most of the various assignments teachers had then, which included teaching in inner-city, rural, and vocational schools. That is no longer true for hardly any of today’s teachers. Teachers are too busy to do much teaching any more.
The teacher dropout rate in America is even worse than the student dropout rate. Jalongo and Heider* pointed out in their article that 46 percent of new teachers in this country quit teaching after five years or less, and that 90 percent of teachers who are hired in this country are replacements for teachers who have left teaching for some reason other than retirement.
In addition, there is a reading epidemic facing American education. A large percentage of students in every class are reading below grade level, and this is a national trend. Boling and Evans (2008) report that more than eight million American students cannot read or comprehend what they read, even at a basic level. They add that more than seven thousand students drop out of school each day, because they lack the basic literacy skills needed to be successful.
Another aspect of the reading dilemma is that with increased emphasis on phonics in the primary grades, students become excellent “word callers,” while lacking in comprehension skills. Without some specialized training to help screen these readers, many teachers are unable to detect this problem, and are fooled into thinking that the problem lies elsewhere based on the student’s oral reading skills. When these students reach the intermediate grades, they may struggle to transition from word calling to text comprehension.
A recent brief informal contact of Cincinnati Public School teachers commonly reported a large portion of each class reading two years below grade and comprehending even lower. How many years of frustration from being behind will it take before these students begin contemplating dropping out of school?
The next post in the series will look at the changing core moral values of Americans, particularly those of school age children. Future posts will focus on what Cincinnati Public Schools is doing to combat this national trend.
* Mary Jalongo and Kelly Heider, Early Childhood Education Journal, Vol. 33, #6, June 2006.
*Charlotte J. Boling and William Evans, Preventing School Failure, Vol. 2, #2, Winter 2008.