The American Public Education Crisis: Introduction

Education is a passionate topic for many of the Persephone team.  From the former and current teachers who write for us and comment to the Persephone parents to our American taxpayer readers, we’ve all got a stake in public education. There is no question that we need to work together as a nation to improve how we educate our children, but until we’re able to put the needs of our nation’s kids ahead of political agendas, we’re screwed.

This is an introduction to what I hope will be a long and interesting series of posts about the current state of the American education system.  I’m hoping to pull in several writers, both from the awesome pool we already have, as well as outside experts and stakeholders.  Mona has already written several great pieces, like this one on standardized testing or yesterday’s post on bilingual education, and we’ve realized we’re barely scratching the surface at a time when it’s critical for Americans to understand the real problems with the system, without having them filtered through someone who’s trying to get elected for something.

Today, one of the top education stories is exposing a potential cheating scandal in the D.C. public schools.   Michelle Rhee, controversial education reform leader and chancellor of D.C. public schools when the infraction allegedly occurred, is under fire from many outlets.  As with most education stories, this one is more complicated than it looks. To help all of us make more sense of what’s really happening in education and what we can all do to help make sure upcoming reforms to No Child Left Behind are actually beneficial to America’s kids, we’re going to be tackling the following topics:

  • It’s Not the Teachers: Using data collected under NCLB to prove that teacher quality is not the primary cause for poor school performance.  We’ll be looking at the interventions, programs, incentives and penalties faced by public school teachers when their schools met or didn’t meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).  Most of the programs mandated by NCLB were aimed at improving teacher quality, we’ll look at each of these programs and the data associated with them to show you the results unfiltered by a politician.
  • The Long Term Cost of NCLB Sanctions: What happens after a state takes over a school or district?  Schools which fail to meet AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) for more than a certain number of years are turned over to for-profit corporations.  We’ll be examining the New Orleans public school system, which is the district which has been at least partially under government take-over the longest, and how the corporate run schools compare to the public schools still under district control.  New Orleans’ schools were taken over after Katrina, which is a story in and of itself, well ahead of the timelines established in NCLB.  Now many other districts, all across the country, are out of time as well, and many public schools are set to be taken away from local control and run by what amounts to a franchise.
  • School Funding: How it works.  Public school funding is, in the most basic terms, more complicated than a Gordian knot.  We’ll break down how funding is acquired and distributed at the state and federal level.
  • Testing Monopolies: How five companies made billions of dollars from NCLB.  We’ll look at the companies who produce the standardized tests used in public schools, as well as the billions of dollars of supplemental tests and materials they forced schools to purchase by having the use of these particular products as a requirement of complying with NCLB.
  • The Students Who Need Us the Most: Looking at student populations with special needs, non-native English speakers and students from high-poverty, low-resource areas.

As you can see, we’ve got a lot of ground to cover.  We’ll be hammering away at these topics for several weeks, and I’d love it if any of you would like to jump in and help us make this series as comprehensive as possible.  If you’ve got any questions or other topics you’d like to see explored, let us know in the comments!

By [E] Selena MacIntosh*

Selena MacIntosh is the owner and editor of Persephone Magazine. She also fixes it when it breaks. She is fueled by Diet Coke, coffee with a lot of cream in it, and cat hair.

43 replies on “The American Public Education Crisis: Introduction”

The Students Who Need Us the Most section is one that I spend a great deal of time analyzing. How to reach out to underrepresented groups at the undergraduate level in the sciences broadly and biology specifically is something that I’m very passionate about and while I see some truly wonderful programs in place, I find that the demands on professor’s and TA’s time can often leave educators without the time and knowledge necessary to make the classroom a truly inclusive and empowering space. This costs the students who need us most the most. I aim as an educator to address these concerns and the more I think about it, the more I realize how it takes work from all educational levels, from K-12 to beyond, and work from all corners of campus. A holistic approach, I guess.

I am so excited for this series I can barely contain it (can you tell with my long-winded response?!). I don’t know much about many of the things listed, but I absolutely cannot wait to learn. Well done, you all, with getting this idea together. I love it.

One idea that’s worked really well at the elementary level, at least, is co-teaching. That’s where a general education teacher and a special education teacher work together to differentiate the instruction, so it takes the extra time burden off the gen ed teacher while allowing a ton of collaboration. As more students with special needs and English learners enter higher education, I hope we see more college-level educators who have training in how to best reach different learners.

At the university level, the onus is on the student to have mastered English to an appropriate degree. Some educators believe that that means perfect grammar, writing, and speaking, without taking into account the various hurdles ESL students face. One thing I see is a movement to change how educators think about assessing how much an ESL student learned. Focus on a journey in developing ideas and writing simultaneously, instead of dismissing the work of ESL students because of grammar/syntax errors. It’s basic stuff, but I am really glad that there’s work in that direction.

Honestly, out of the “different learner” grab-bag, there’s most attention being paid to focusing on different learning styles instead of different learning backgrounds, at least in my experience.

I work as an environmental educator, doing field trips and in-class programs. I visit a ton of different schools in both rural and urban districts, and it’s always interesting to see what schools do differently, what seems to work, what causes extra challenges.

A while ago, I had middle school class that was a huge challenge. I couldn’t figure out why they were being so difficult; their task was to read different scenarios, and instead of reading them, they were throwing them at each other and flat-out refusing the task.

I found out at the end of the class that many of them could not read.

I’m still stunned; I can’t figure out how one gets to middle school without learning how to read. I’m so sad for them, and frustrated; how can this be? It’s bad enough that I’m sometimes told that my programs are the only science the class gets all year, but the idea that many of my students were illiterate is just shocking to me.

All that to say I look forward to reading this series.

I appreciate the enthusiasm! I do lots of different things, actually. Today, I was out in the field with high school biology students, helping them with projects like finding macroinvertebrates (underwater bugs!) in streams and comparing how many were in each part of the streams. I also bring rehabilitated unreleasable animals into classrooms for programs, supervise outdoor field trips, and talk to tourists and local grown-up groups (“adult” always sounds dirty!) about our local ecology. I also write programs, which I love but sounds boring to most people. It’s a job that’s pretty much perfect for me-the mix of play, creativity, science, and mud is great.

If you’d like to see some of the animals I work with/see as I’m working, my name is the same on tumblr.

Under-representation in the sciences is a concern of mine too, though I’m obviously working at a different level. One of the most amazing experiences I’ve had was working in the South and taking underprivileged youth into the forest for the first time; even though they lived near it, they’d been taught to be terrified of it (we’ll be attacked, we’ll be bitten by snakes, etc,) and some of my girls broke down and cried before we walked in for a class on forest ecology. They came out of the woods a lot less scared of it, and even a little bit interested. I don’t see people change career paths in my line of work; I just get to see the “you know, maybe this is okay” or “WOW COOL” step. Most of the time, that’s enough, though I’d love to know if any of my students go on in the sciences.

I do ecology so I know about the issues with bringing kids from urban settings into forests (no seriously, what you just described went into an essay I wrote, really). I am not an expert by any means, but my involvement in science (specifically ecology) outreach makes me interested in eventually working with groups dedicated to environmental education.

I will find you on tumblr if that’s OK (same name, too).

Thank you for sharing!

I’ve heard good things about the KIPP school here in Indy too, so I’d love to hear more.

Ditto on Edison schools. I have no idea how widespread the Edison school system is, but my best friend spent forever getting her child into one here in Indy and I can’t seem to understand what the concept is. Are they Charter schools? or privatized public schools?

Her kid seems to be thriving, but….is that really because of the ‘Edison’ system? Are they taking money away from the township school corporations that need it?

Edison, and I believe KIPP, are both for-profit. They have shareholders and the company is publicly traded. They are funded with taxpayer money.
A glaring difference between for-profit schools and public schools is selective enrollment. I don’t believe either KIPP or Edison serve students with significant special needs, nor do they provide ESL programs.

Okay, some searching reveals KIPP is non-profit, but it partnered with The Gap to go nationwide. Open enrollment means they’re accepting applications, not that they accept everyone who applies. Looking for data on how many applications they receive v. how many they enroll and the criteria.
Edison is no longer publicly traded, it turns out, since they were investigated by the SEC for failing to report $150m in income. They’ve been privately owned and kept afloat by Liberty Capital.

But they don’t provide services for students with significant special needs, or for students who don’t speak English fluently, and they kick out students for behavior disruptions.
KIPP is a great solution, but it’s not going to work for all kids. If we kicked all the kids with behavior issues out of public schools, or didn’t provide the necessary supports for students with significant special needs or students learning English as an additional language, where would they go? What would happen to them? What are their lives going to look like when they’re adults?
Charter schools like KIPP don’t have to answer those questions. Public schools do. I don’t think public school money should go to schools that won’t take responsibility for educating ALL of the public. Because that’s how we’re supposed to do things here in America. Saving a few doesn’t count if we’re still letting kids fall through the cracks, and you shouldn’t have to win a lottery to get a great education if you’re poor.

I’m curious about the effects of programs like Teach for America (and other smaller ones) that take college kids and place them in environments in which they have no experience and have them teach for a few years. A friend is doing a similar program in inner city DC (he’s from the suburbs of DC) and while he loves the work, he’s admitted that it’s a major culture shock and he really stressed about relating to kids who automatically assumed that because he was white he looked down on them.

Like a lot of education reform, TFA has good points and bad. One overwhelming positive that I see is that a lot of these TFA fellows are going to be power players in a few decades. I hope their actual experience in the classroom helps them make sure our educational policy is based in reality.
The major drawback, as far as I can see, is that large groups of ill-informed, idealistic, privileged people can be dangerous.

Those are some very complicated questions, and they need pretty complicated answers. Short answers:
Yes, it was supposed to make 100% of American students proficient (meaning on grade level) in reading and math by 2014.
NCLB had great intentions and shitty implementation. Instead of helping schools better meet the needs of the students, NCLB punished schools that didn’t perform well by taking away resources. It tried to create a one-size-fits-all model of education, which anyone who knows more than two children understands won’t work.
There’s no doubt our system was broken before. We rely on an education system created to meet the needs of first an agrarian and then an industrial society, neither of which is really applicable anymore. Many districts are top heavy with expensive, under-qualified administrators and controlled by school boards with a greater interest in being elected than meeting the needs of students. The funding systems puts an undo burden on individual taxpayers while letting the businesses who will eventually need and hire our public school students slide.
That wasn’t so short, huh? We’ll get into all the nitty gritty details. We’re lucky that so much data is available publicly, I’m expecting to learn a lot as we go on.

Word on the administrators thing. Not just that there are under-qualified administrators, but that there are just SO DAMN MANY of them. In one suburb of my city that boasts a total population of 88,000 and some change according to the most recent census, there are five school districts.

New York State has 700 school districts, more than 200 of which serve 1000 students or less district-wide. Some of this can be attributed to rural districts where students would otherwise have an unreasonable travel time. Consolidation can only do so much. But for reference, the entirety of New York City is served by a single school district. It’s not perfect, for sure, but if a system like that is possible, then surely some of these surburban towns with multiple districts can suck it up and do something. It would save the state an obscene amount of money that we could then actually be spent on services for students – teachers, books, special ed resources, specials like art and music – instead of on administrative waste.

Charlotte, NC has one huge district that covers an entire county, and they’ve done remarkably well. Indianapolis has a population of roughly 1mil, and we have NINE school districts, one of which just paid a retiring superintendent a $1mil golden parachute. The township I live in spends an obscene amount on sports, yet doesn’t have enough textbooks for all its students. It’s because of the sports Indy will never consider consolidating its districts.

Well, as a creepy Internet stalker, I’m guessing I know what township you live in.

Oh wait…that’s most of them. Crap.

And $1 mil kills me. And the money now being spent to ‘investigate’ it. ARRRGH.

I’m not sure how feasible/appropriate consolidating all of the township schools would be, but purely from a downsizing of adminstrators and the cost of muliple administrations, it seems like it would be in the best interest of all of the school corporations. But I imagine there would be a lot of get the goverment out of our (public) schools and we don’t want ____ Township to become like IPS, etc. Oh yes, and the sports.

Ha! Yeah, you know where to find me. Under the giant purple football banner with the abysmal graduation rates and the middle school with a f’ing rotunda.
I’m all for school sports, too. I know how beneficial participating in sports can be for kids. I just don’t think the cost and importance of the sports programs should outweigh the academics.
And IPS is not the shithole it’s made out to be. IPS was trying a lot of really innovative methods, including magnet programs and public Montessori schools, years before the townships. And it’s chock full of some really amazing teachers. A local reporter got a hate-on for IPS about fifteen (?) years ago and the public perception has been tainted ever since. Plus it’s easier than your average state to make poor white people mad at poor non-white people.

I am really excited for this! Education policy is much, much more complicated than most people give it credit for, and I’m glad you guys are digging down into it.

That Rhee thing should be getting MUCH more press, but everyone is too in love with her to care. I hate her policies. Hate them because of this very thing – she applies business standards to schools without putting in place the kind of safeguards and redundancy that most businesses have to protect against fraud. Plus she, like Duncan, like to play musical chairs with children’s lives by closing schools and shuffling everyone around. And she didn’t even improve aggregate test scores significantly! /rant

We’re keeping this to K-12, right? Because a lot of this stuff is moving to higher ed. the calls for productivity, accountability, testing, ‘overpaid’ professors, etc.

My personal area is K-12, so most of the above is relating to that group. Ailanthus has been covering a lot of great issues related to higher ed, I’ll point her in here.

I’m digging into Rhee. She’s a tough one b/c not all of her policies are crackpot, but the ones that are crackpot are dangerous.

I’ve just read so many articles about her my eyes and my soul are bleeding a little. How did she get here? Was she sprung from the skull of evil? How can someone who is supposedly so knowledgeable about education think so little of teachers? Oh gah, I am full of gahs. I need to be working on my West Wing for tomorrow and I am too filled with rage at this lady.

I’m going to be as objective as I can in the series posts, but I reserve the right to come rant in the comments with all of you. <3

I do not know what your experience is with higher ed, but in my experience at the university level, there’s been a few things that have come out.

1. At research universities, like many large state schools (land grants, for instance), professors are encouraged to be A grade researchers and C grade educators. While there have been calls for for a shift in that paradigm, the shift will probably come from the next generation of professors who

2. Are facing a much tougher job market, especially when it comes to tenure-track positions. Tenure as we know it (work your 7 years or so at the prof level, churn out publications, and get tenure for forever) is probably going to either disappear or change. It is not sustainable especially as

3. Higher ed is facing huge funding cuts. Some of this comes from state budget problems, some of it comes from the fact that so much financial aid is being given – I think universities are getting 2.5% less from tuition than they did a few years ago, even though tuition is on the rise (I need to check this number, but the bottom line, that universities are in a precarious funding position remains). This means cuts to a lot of supporting staff, professorships, etc, increasing the load on the faculty, staff, and grad students.

I completely agree that the calls for productivity, the anger at “overpaid” professors, etc is moving to higher ed (maybe the only one I don’t see is testing – I remember taking one “standardized” writing test in college, but I might be misinterpreting your words). Some of the pressures are the same, but the structure in higher ed and the K-12 system is very different. It creates a gap that can be difficult to bridge, especially when you’re trying to integrate the university into the broader community. I am excited for this series especially because it will help me understand more of what is going on at the K-12 level. I know bits of the structure, I know bits of teaching philosophy, but at the end of the day, my experience in higher education doesn’t completely translate to what’s going on with K-12.

If I’m wrong in my assessment or your experience differs from mine, I’d love to hear how and where. This series and the comments within are going to be an education unto itself!

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