Five Biggest Problems: Public Education

Five Biggest Problems: Public Education September 19, 2011

Part of a series on the Five Biggest Problems Facing America:


5. Unnecessary wars

4. Inequalities in public education

3. Corporate tax loopholes (Tuesday)

2. Medicare (Wednesday)

1. Money in politics (Thursday)

Conclusion (Friday)

I am very, very privileged in that I went to one of the best public school systems in the world — that’s right, I’d say the world, not just in the U.S. And my children now attend this same school system, which is showered with awards and accolades regularly.

But many kids in America do not get this great educational start. Instead, they are at schools that have well-meaning but overworked and undervalued teachers.

What’s the difference? Of course, it’s the fact that I live in a suburb that’s full of relatively wealthy people. We have a strong property tax base, and we have a population that demands top-notch schools, as much for property values as for the good of our children.

There are other problems with public education, like the myopic focus on test scores. But I think that the inequalities of funding, and therefore teaching and resources, is the root cause of our struggling educational system.

Here’s the deal: If we’re going to have a public education system, we need to fund it robustly, and across the board. There’s no point in having public schools if they don’t have money. And there’s really no point in having a public education system if families can take the public money earmarked for the education of their children in the form of a voucher and pay for a private school. That undercuts the entire system — it does not increase competitiveness, as its advocates claim.

We’ve got enough experience as a country now to determine what things the government does well, and what things it does not do well. Our government has done a good job at educating us and our children for generations, though we seem to be slipping in that regard. If we’re going to keep offering public education, we cannot do it half-assed. We either need to go all-in, or fold and get out of that game.

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  • I hope you are offering that last choice as a way to make it clear that we must go all in. Unfortunately, I think that many see getting out as preferable. Certainly corporations are not happy with the biggest piece of government pie that they don’t own. Education a la defense contractors is their ultimate goal. Then reference your #5 problem. Combine this with the liberal bias of teachers (or teachers’ unions) and you have two allies who are going to fix us into oblivion.

    • Bluetexan

      Liberal bias of teachers? I think that is a pretty inaccurate statement. Do you have any proof that this is the case?

      Teachers’ unions have a liberal bias? If that is true, perhaps they feel that way because one of the two major polical parties want to destroy them and any worker protections for the teachers.

      The root problems are really the poverty that cripples communities of color as well as the GOP and GOP-lite unyielding and unsustainable drive for test scores.

    • John, I agree with you that commercialization of learning seems to be the end game for so many on the conservative end of the political spectrum.

      Education is a public good, more important than any other infrastructure investment we make.

      Ceding that investment to the commercial sector is a recipe for a disaster that dwarves the financial meltdown in 2007/2008. This system is truly too big & too important to fail.

    • Amanda

      I think someone needs to address the school regulations in school. We have to cram a ton of stuff in, and take a ton of EOI’s to graduate. The problem is that because of how fast teachers are moving and how much they have to teach in their limited time, the students are just memorizing (short term) or cheating to get by and are not learning. Off topic, but the ACT should not determine if a student can get scholarships and get into college. Some students are bad testers, and some, like myself, are slow and can’t get through enough of it to do good. There are students that have made “Advanced” on every EOI; yet, they only get a score like a “20” on the ACT. I only answered half of the questions in the reading section, and received a 22 in reading. Getting a 22 in reading is just like getting half of the questions right. If I only answered half of them and made a 22, then I got 100% of the questions I did answer right. The ACT should not determine whether or not a person goes to college. Yes, they can be accepted into college, but they can’t pay for it. Thousands don’t go to college at all for that reason. I for one think there should be some serious change in education.

  • Our education system is in crisis. Average SAT scores are falling, and America is slipping down the list of nations for college completion. The complexity of the policy issues here makes health care look simple.

    On a human level, few things disgust me in contemporary politics than the villianization those who teach. These women & men work against great odds to help nurture students and families.

    They need to be EMPOWERED to teach – not abunch of test prep — this silly drill and kill nonsense that any serious person knows doesn’t promote real learning. They needed to freed to approach students in each classroom like an individual puzzle. They take so much care in figuring out who each student is and how to best make the lessons resonate with each student.

    What ever policy innovations we experiment with, teachers need to empowered to unlock our students’ potential. They need to be allowed to be teachers.

  • Tony,

    Loved that you used Sir Ken Robinson. I heard him speak at a Blackboard conference and he was amazing. I often wonder if higher education is in the same boat especially in theological education. I wonder what a postmodern theological education would look like. Just all thoughts that I had. Thanks for the article.


  • Patrick

    Finally Tony and I are in complete agreement! The inequities in education are appalling. We’ve tried, for 40 years, to fix the problem by throwing more money at it. What has happened? Well, we just said it: crappy schools. So why dump more money into a system we already know stinks. Shouldn’t maybe we should try something else. Like maybe ANYTHING.

    I would start by not forcing kids who go to lousy schools to continue to go to lousy schools. If our government allows rich people to go to the school of their choice, why does it force poor people to go to lousy ones? Doesn’t that seem odd? Why are we so afraid of letting poor people go to the school they think will best educate their kids? And the well established premise is that poor kids are not being well educated by the current system, so why reward the current lousy system with more dough?

  • Dan Hauge

    Tony–right on.

    Patrick, the reason that poor people cannot go to the school that would best educate their kids is because they cannot afford to live in the neighborhoods where those schools are–schools that have all kinds of parents’ money, and property tax money, “thrown” at them. What makes better schools better has a huge amount to do with how much money they have–to pay for good books, good computer systems, and good teachers.

    I’m all for getting poor kids into good schools. How exactly do you propose to do this? Once the best schools are full, where do the other students go? Doesn’t it make sense to improve all the schools that we have, rather than abandon them, so that all our schools across the board are quality schools?

    • Patrick

      In no particular order:
      – Pass Obama’s education reform package as originally introduced
      – Allow teachers to choose whether to join an education union or not (not sure how mandatory union membership helps kids learn)
      – Allow vouchers, charter schools and just about anything else under the sun
      – Allow non-certified teachers into the classroom to help/augment a certified teacher’s particular teachings

      • Dan Hauge

        I could probably get behind most of this. I’m still curious to see how a voucher system will work across the board, and be universally available to poorer communities. Can we afford enough charter schools to meet the demand, given that right now they are only able to take a tiny minority of those who want to go (hence the dramatic lotteries)? And again, why can we not apply the positive models we learn from charter schools to improve our public school system?

        • Patrick

          Charter schools don’t cost any more money than is currently in the system. Public schools receive a certain amount per pupil. If your child goes to the charter school, the funding goes there. Voucher works the same way. Obviously, if a public school loses kids, they loose funding.

          The main reason there are so few charter schools is often the number of total schools allowed is capped. Silly isn’t it? I’d be delighted if charter schools were allowed (gov’t deciding the marketplace again) to thrive and then, over time, public schools improved so much they took kids back from charter schools. Families could decide which school was the best match for their circumstances. Wouldn’t that be awesome?

          • Dan Hauge

            I’m not necessarily opposed to lifting the caps, to a certain extent. And with regards to your response to me below (which the blog didn’t let me reply to, for some reason), it make a little more sense. At first it sounded a lot like you were saying that the amount of money is completely irrelevant in providing good education.

            I’m even open to a certain amount of tying funds to outcomes, IF . . . there is allowance for how much a school is improving given their present situation. If we simply say “the schools doing the best get the most money”, then of course schools in richer neighborhoods with higher standards of living will be doing better already, and poorer schools in neighborhoods of poverty will be starting at a lower level. So if you just make a flat standard, then poorer schools doing their darndest to improve scores a bit will still lose out on any funding to improve their situation, staying in the perpetual spiral they’re already in. Accountability is great as long as it’s detailed and nuanced, looking at the whole situation.

            From what I’ve read, it’s not clear at all that most charters do all that much better a job than public schools as it is. Certain educational systems (like what Geoffrey Canada is doing with the Harlem Children’s Zone) are succeding incredibly (but they cost quite a bit of $), but it’s not a clear picture at all that charter = better.

  • Jeremy Loeding

    I think we need to make an important distinction between education and schools. While schools are created to educate, education happens through an entire lifetime. One can certainly be educated without school systems. Now I’m not against schools, but as the this post as been implying…schools cost money. I really don’t think we are capable of funding every scho0l “robustly” The good news is I don’t think we have to. Pioneers like Salman Khan, creator of the website, are making it not only possible to get a good education…but also free!! I went through his pre-algebra course and in a few months I was learning calculus . I’ve learned more about the atom in one setting than I learned in an entire semester of chemstry. The site is still a work in process, but do think its the future of education. As much as I appreciate the public school system, we need to consider the economic strain it puts on all of us. There will come a time when the price tag is too much to bear.

    • Miles M.

      Unfortunnately Jeremy, in order for such a system as the Khan Academy to work efficiently the student must truly have the appreciation for learning. Or at least the apt interest in learning itself. Not to say though that I don’t find his academy quite excelent, but you see I have the said appreciation. Therefore I suppose I’m asking you how you might go about promoting such an interest or appreciation. In addtion, you must ask yourself how long could this educational program possibly last? The future is one factor that most don’t take into account.

  • I timely article from THE ECONOMIST:

    It is striking that the correlation to spending per pupil is shaky at best. They report that educational performance varies widely even among countries that spend similar amounts per pupil.

    I was struck by what they found as 4 insights for improvement:

    decentralisation (handing power back to schools)
    a focus on underachieving pupils
    a choice of different sorts of schools
    high standards for teachers

  • Patrick

    I am happy to say that bob c and I agree. Not only that, he takes out Tony’s main point (more $ = better schools) far more effectively and efficiently than me. Well done.

    • Seriously? Committing to pay teachers more won’t better our public education?

      • To be clear (sorry Patrick) my point about spending per pupil does not equate to a belief that teachers are underpaid.

        In the United States teachers generally spend more time teaching but without an equivalent advantage in pay. Certainly there are ways to make the system more efficient for teachers, but the fact still remains that countries like S. Korea, Germany, England and New Zealand all pay their teachers more than the U.S. does.

        I suspect that one of the contributing factors to this gap is that 69.4 percent of teachers are women.

      • Patrick

        Help me understand how it would, since it hasn’t yet. Would it somehow improve the skills they currently have? Or maybe the problem is different. Maybe its that good teachers don’t want to stay in a system where they have no ability to rise because of their talent. Instead, they have to wait 20 years until they are at the top of the seniority list. It doesn’t matter if you pay them more, many of the good ones will still leave in droves.

        Why not look at this from the point of the view of the kids: instead of hoping more money will lead to better scores, why not focus on the kids directly?

        • Patrick

          (The above was a reply to Tony.)

        • Dan Hauge

          So let me see if I understand–teachers are currently frustrated because they are in a system where it takes to long to rise (in terms of benefits and pay–otherwise, what are they ‘rising’ to?). But, paying them more now won’t make any difference, they will still leave? This is beyond confusing.

          In most professions, in the private sector, there seems to be a general consensus that higher salaries attract more talent, and the prospect of higher salaries encourages people to work harder and do better at their job. Why then, would this concept not apply to people who teach for a living?

          By this logic, we should be able to expect the best possible results by lowering teachers’ salaries to minimum wage levels, using only used textbooks which are about three or four decades out of date, and have students learn math only with pencils and protractors instead of with computers and graphing calculators. And this will produce just as effective skills for the 21st century workplace, because money doesn’t make any difference as long as we just ‘focus on the kids’.

          • Patrick

            You may not be familiar with the way government entities work. Generally you rise not on merit, but on longevity. And since the teacher unions exist only to protect its senior-most members, little is done to change the current system.

            You are exactly right that, in MOST professions, you rise in responsibility and salary as you prove your value. The way you get higher salaries as a teacher is, again, through longevity and getting additional degrees (steps and lanes increases), not by proving you are the best educator.

            I agree with you: wouldn’t it be great for a new teacher to be the highest paid — assuming they were great at their job, i.e. their kids learned a lot?

            Your last paragraph is incongruent with what I’m saying. My point is you get the best results when you give families and teachers flexibility to succeed and, in the specific case of salary, tie measurable outcomes to more money. Better outcomes, more money. Tony just simply wants to give all teachers and schools more money regardless of whether they are any good or not.

  • DanS

    Merit pay increases – that has some merit. 🙂 But just adding more across the board in terms of pay – no. Teachers currently get increases solely on the basis of how many additional courses they take, even if they are not good educators. We have great teachers who make $40,000 and rotten ones who make $100,000. The one-size-fits-all solutions do not solve anything.

    Bob C is on the right track.

    Decentralisation (handing power back to schools). Unfortunately, in the state I am working in, the state is on a fast track to totally micromanage every aspect of education, including tracking the course load and teacher assignments for every student in the entire state, causing schools to spend countless hours submitting data to a centralized system. A huge waste of money that could be far better spent – and for what purpose exactly? Totalitarian control?

    A focus on underachieving pupils – This, I have seen work. But it only works if there are clear, sensible goals coupled with intelligent use of assessments. A kid can’t pass algebra if he can’t add. Teach him basis math – catch him up and then move on. We have a high number of kids in high school who cannot read at junior high level. They will not do well without focused, sensible intervention, and a better education in grade school.

    A choice of different sorts of schools – Yup. Unions hate this one. But if a school is not doing its job, regardless of the reason, parents should be able to opt out and take their tax money elsewhere.

    High standards for teachers – Yes, but not if this is a moving target, and unfortunately government run schools are notorious for moving the goalposts. It really is simple – reading, writing, math and science reasoning skills. Not too hard to measure whether a kid knows basic grammar or can read a newspaper with comprehension or can calculate the area of a rectangle. Standards that are clear and assessments that actually measure the standards should not be all that threatening for a good teacher. But standards that change with every political wind are not fair to teachers or kids.

  • CJ


    How do you determine the quality of a teacher’s work?

    • Patrick

      Same way anyone gets measured at their work: are they providing value? In this case, see how much the kids learn after a year of that person teaching.

  • James

    I currently work in a public school district that has been getting a lot of press lately for vouchers (a.k.a. scholoraships) and an attempt to move to “pay-for performance.” Additionally, we are in the middle off one of the worst economic downturns this district has ever experienced which has resulted in very large budget cuts, pay freezes and a lot of growing pains the past three years. On top of all that is an upcoming election for a bond and a mill levy increase this fall that is hotly contested. If that election fails, the budget cuts for next year will make things even worse.

    Having said all that, I tend to lean in Patricks direction here. I am all for funding good teachers but the question remains, how do we determine a good teacher. In our current district, there is no way to adjudicate that so everything is based on tenure. The new proposal to switch to a pay-for-performance model is getting serious opposition from the teachers themselves (and their union). While I do think that the teaching profession as a whole is undervalued I also believe that for every Joe Clark or Jaime Escalante there are numerous Ed Rooneys. In our district, which is in one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, there is no resistance to funding good educators but there is a growing consensus of the tax payers that the current structures are not designed to do that. In fact, in the last bond and mill levy increase elections (that were narrowly defeated two years ago) this was one of several contested issues. Many of the young, energetic professionals who could make a real difference will not make any money as entry level educators so instead go into a different profession. Meanwhile, the teachers who have been here a long time and are burned-out, ineffective and counting down months and years till they can retire are safe and secure in their positions but have no real interest in teaching. They complain about their loss of “planning time” and then their classes consist of watching videos. Who knew that Nation Treasure was such a great teaching tool for Social Studies?

    So while I wouldn’t disagree with Tony that we need to go “all in” I suspect that “all in” means different things to everyone and that is part of why things don’t change. The tax payers in this district will pay to educate the children in this community because they have the money to do it. But I suspect that these new funding initiatives on this fall’s ballots will both fail because the money does not ever get to the level of educating children. And so the teachers (and other school district staff) will deal with another pay freeze, we will lose some positions, some services and gain larger class sizes.

  • CJ

    The idea of paying/firing teachers based on how much their students learn would work really well if those students weren’t, you know, human beings. I don’t know about the rest of you, but in every class I’ve ever been in–from kindergarten through graduate school–there have been students who learned a lot and students who, for whatever reasons, didn’t. I sat through the same lectures as those kids who got lower grades than I did in English class and the same lectures as those kids who got higher grades than I did in Math class. It’s absurd to say that the teacher is excellent based on how well his or her students master the material and it’s absurd to say a teacher is a failure based on his or her students failure to master the material. Some children simply do better in school than others. I was–and am–terrible at math. That’s not my teachers’ fault any more than it’s my high school tennis coach’s fault that I am a lousy tennis player. I’m good at some things and not so good at others. So is everyone else.

    Of course there are lousy teachers out there–just like there are lousy doctors and lawyers and pastors. But a doctor doesn’t get fired because her patients get sick. A lawyer doesn’t get fired because his client is guilty. A pastor doesn’t get fired because her congregation still sins. When you are dealing with human beings, the success or failure of those doing the dealing can’t be based on how those human beings “turn out.” Teaching is a lot like parenting in that you can do everything right and the kid will still make stupid decisions. That’s what human beings do.

    I don’t say that to suggest that teachers shouldn’t be evaluated–they should. But I want to point out that evaluation is a whole lot trickier than just assessing student test scores that really tell you far more about the students than they do about the teachers.

    All that being said, I don’t think raising teacher pay is the solution to the problems that plague education. I’m not suggesting teachers shouldn’t be paid a decent wage for the work they do, but I also don’t think anyone goes into teaching for the money. Teachers are motivated by a desire to teach and the best education solutions have to figure out how to capitalize on that motivation. What would help, I think, is hiring more teachers to keep class sizes small, giving schools the financial resources they need to support struggling students, and changing our ideas about what “success” looks like in schools. Not every child is going to go to college. Not every child is going to do well in school. But every child should have the opportunity to learn in a safe environment that has sufficient resources–both human and material–for that child to do the best he or she can do.

  • Patrick

    Insightful article on why good teachers leave under the current union-first, kids-second system.

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  • Dan Prokop

    If you are interested in learning more about the appalling condition of our educational system, watch “Waiting for Superman.” It paints a very clear picture of the problems in our current system, and also presents alternatives that have been shown to work.

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  • Zoom Drezz

    I think that the children of the United States of America should decide what we do with our schools. I myself go to a school that doesn’t care what we think, I want to change the way that we do things. My school wants to combine about two different schools with their own. I wish that they would listen to us the students and take our opinion into account.

  • Mira P.

    I am actually a student myself and came across this video while researching the issue with our education system. I do agree that more funding will help improve conditions at “poor” public schools (I happen to attend a “poor” public school) but I also believe that the main issue is motivation. No matter rich or poor, the student has some sort of access to education and resources whether it be at school or a public library, however I think that motivation is what differentiates a high test score from a low test score. I am part of an IB program at my school and I see students who are so intelligent and have so much potential receive bad test scores. The reason is lack of motivation. They tell me “Oh I don’t need this class.” or “When will I ever need this for the future?” They don’t try at all in class, yet receive high SAT scores. If students put in more effort to actually care and take that extra step to go to the library and study or stay after school for tutoring, then they would be improving without the help of “funding.” You can buy students the best computers and the best books in the world. But they must have the motivation to actually open the book and learn.

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