A Simple Solution to Fix the Problem of our Failing Public Education System


Let me begin with an apology: I have intentionally lured you here under false pretenses. What do I mean? I’ve used that favorite strategy of internet hoaxes and supermarket tabloids, the “click bait headline”, to catch your eye, whet your appetite, and influence you to “click” the link, which brought you here.

According to Wikipedia, “click bait headlines” rely on outrageous quotes or eye-catching graphics to provide just enough scanty tidbits of information to generate “click throughs,” and encourage readers to forward content via social media. See–it works!

And while I’m fessing up, let me also apologize for including the following outright lies in the above headline:

1. There are no “simple solutions” when it comes to education.

A simple solution infers that a single strategy, or group of strategies, will be sufficient to address problems across a wide variety of settings–in this case, our public schools. As anyone who has ever spent a day teaching in a public school knows, no two public schools are alike, so the notion that any one idea or approach holds the answer to wide-spread, systemic change in an ecosystem as large and diverse as America’s public school system is either naive or disingenuous. And neither of those traits is a good thing when it comes to making suggestions about our nation’s education policy.

Currently, this education ecosystem includes traditional public schools, public charter schools (which are not truly “public” schools–but that’s an issue for another day), private schools, online schools, for-profit schools, religious schools, virtual schools, and more. And it’s possible that there is as much diversity within some of these sectors of the education “market” than there is between them.

In spite of this patchwork quilt of schooling options, corporate reformers, led by persons such as Peter Cunningham, Michelle Rhee, and Eva Moskowitz, and organizations like The 74, Education Post, and the various charter school management outfits, such as KIPP and National Heritage Academies, have doubled down on one, single, simplistic solution to the “problem” of American education: school choice.

Doesn’t it seem ironic then, that during a time when parents have never had more choice with respect to education options for their children, that more and more families are seeing their actual “choices” dwindling? When this charter school was closing its doors in 2016, less than two weeks before the start of Fall classes, hundreds of Detroit families were left stranded, scrambling to find seats for their children in local schools.

Why did this charter school close up shop? Was it because they couldn’t hire certified teachers? Or were struggling to offer a full curriculum? As it turns out, the reason the school closed had nothing to do with children, teachers, or learning. Rather than working with their teachers on their request to join a union, the charter management company, New Paradigm, decided they would rather just shut their doors and close the school.

And this is not a localized problem. The Center for Media and Democracy points to a chilling statistic: “Nearly 2,500 charter schools have shuttered between 2001 and 2013, affecting 288,000 American children enrolled in primary and secondary schools, and the failure rate for charter schools is much higher than for traditional public schools.”

As I’ve written about previously, while closing schools may be a business solution, it’s not an educative solution. Closing a school is like tearing apart a family–it doesn’t improve anything, it only destroys…relationships, communities, and simple human bonds. School closings should be an option of last resort–not a convenient business strategy to avoid negotiating in good faith with your employees.

2. Education is not a “problem.” Or a “solution”…

The education “business” has been the victim of a hostile takeover from the corporate reform of education movement, funded by billions of dollars from agencies and foundations headed by some of our nation’s wealthiest and most successful business persons–Bill and Melinda Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton family (i.e., WalMart), etc. None of these persons, and very few of the folks they have hired to carry out their plans, has a degree in education, or has ever taught, and few of them even attended or sent their own children to a public school.

These “reformers” don’t see education as a “common good,” or as a value system, or even as a worthwhile form of public service. Rather, they see education as a business “problem.” And when business sees a problem, there’s a pretty simple strategy that is followed: determine how much it will cost to “fix” the problem; conduct a “cost-benefit” analysis to determine if the problem is “worth” fixing; make the decision and implement the fix.

Here’s the “problem”: Children are not widgets. When a group of children isn’t learning “enough,” or even just “fast enough,” you don’t simply discard the whole class like a bad batch of “product”, and start over. Because education is not a business–it never was, and never will be. So business strategies, and business plans, and business approaches are just not going to work in the schools, no matter how many “turn around school” programs, and “scale up” initiatives, and “customer-driven models” are introduced, and then hastily abandoned in our schools.

Perhaps more importantly: education is not a problem. It’s a complex, complicated web of relationships. To be successful, it needs to be nurtured, not “solved.” Education is a journey, not a destination. It’s never going to be perfect, and is by definition messy, noisy, and gloriously inefficient at times. Education is to be savored, like a fine meal, and celebrated, like a child’s first attempt at walking or riding a bike–not viewed as a problem to be solved, and profited from.

And, perhaps more controversially: education is not a solution. Please understand–I am not devaluing or diminishing the importance of education in any way. Just the opposite. Education has been in many ways one of the most powerful agents of social change in our country’s history. It has the ability to help students find their passions, fuel their dreams, and express their feelings. Public education is the single most important factor responsible for the growth of the US as a major economic and political force in today’s world.

But expecting children to solve the problems caused by adults seems, to me, extraordinarily unfair and illogical. In our current reform discourse, the “coin of the realm” when it comes to educational value is “student achievement,” defined narrowly as student scores on standardized tests. Reformers have suggested that improved student achievement is the key to returning our nation to economic glory, military dominance, and respect from our global neighbors. This is, to put it bluntly, ridiculous. A student’s score on a standardized test tells us nothing about how to address the important problems we face as a people–it’s a solution in search of a problem.

It has never been the purpose of education to solve a country’s economic and political problems. Expecting our children and the schools to assume responsibility for fixing our problems as a society is nothing more than an abrogation of duty on the part of our leaders.

3. Our public schools are not “failing.”

This one IS simple. Our public schools are not “failing,” our teachers are not “lazy,” and, no, Arne Duncan: our children are not “dumb.”

In fact, given the challenges that our teachers are facing with cuts to funding, and attacks on their profession, I would suggest that the work being done by teachers in our public schools is nothing short of heroic.

What is “failing” is our support for the institution of public education. Our schools are not failing: we are failing our schools.

What can we do to fix this problem? We can start by voting–support those candidates who are vocal advocates and champions for strong, locally-controlled public schools. Get involved in local campaigns, where the impact on schools is the most profound: town council, mayor, state representatives, and your local school board. Vote for your local school budget the next time it comes up on the ballot. And pay attention to the positions taken by your state’s elected officials on education issues, like charter school caps and regulations, school funding, vouchers, and teacher evaluation systems. And if you don’t know what policies make the most sense for your child and your community, ask an expert: your child’s certified public school teacher.

So, it turns out that there IS a “simple solution” after all…

Oops, I lied again. As it turns out, there is a “simple solution” to improving public education: Listen to the experts.

And by experts, I mean our teachers. Instead of following the policy pronouncements of self-appointed amateur edu-hobbyists like Bill Gates, Betsy DeVos, and Donald Trump, let’s put the control for our schools back into the hands of the folks who know the most about learning, pedagogy, and our children–their teachers and parents.

Let’s adequately fund all of our schools, and make sure that the school in the inner-city is as clean, safe and well-equipped as the one in the wealthiest of suburbs.

Let’s stop allowing uncertified, unqualified edu-tourists from groups like Teach for America to be handed the responsibility of educating our children in urban and rural schools, and insist that all kids be taught by dedicated, committed professionals, with the appropriate course work, licenses, and certifications.

Let’s demand that all schools offer a rich, engaging curriculum, including music, art, and physical education–and let’s stop referring to these subjects as “extras,” or “specials”–our children certainly don’t see them as “extras.” For some kids, these are the things that make school worth going to.

Let’s guarantee that every publicly-funded school is held to the same standards, regulations, and expectations, that all such schools are required to admit any child who wishes to attend, that “lotteries” and other similar methods of artificially “managing” student enrollment are eliminated, and that every child has access to a high quality public school, regardless of geography or socio-economic status.

Let’s stop pretending that competition and choice are the solutions to the problems that have been created by competition and choice.

Let’s stop trying to fund two parallel, “separate but equal” school systems, and put a moratorium on the creation of new charter schools until all publicly-funded schools are “competing” on level playing fields.

And let’s return control for our public schools to where it belongs: elected school boards made up of concern citizens from the communities in which their schools are located, and put an end to schools governed by unreliable charter “management companies” and state-appointed “emergency managers” and “CEOs”.