The Schools Aren’t Broken—Society Is

Those who believe private enterprise and the free market are the answer to all the world’s problems claim public schools are everything but what they actually are—one of the crown jewels of American democracy, the most efficient and effective way to bring education to the 319,000,000 of us, an institution whose superiority is recognized the world over. They are doing a great job. That’s not where the problems are.

If we want to see improvement in the schools, we have to quit beating down the regular people who sell stuff to us, deliver our packages, shelve our groceries, and so on. It doesn’t help to close “failing” schools or fire teachers because of test scores, because that’s not the problem—not to mention that our scores have shown nothing but consistent improvement. The problem is that regular folks can’t earn a living.

All we have to do
to see great improvement is
quit beating down the regular people.

Almost all the problems with schools come from poverty, not from the schools. Poverty is so pervasive and deep in the US that the poor universally feel hopeless. Why care about what you learn in school when everything in your life tells you that it will not matter?

The answer is super simple: pay a Living Wage, and in time the schools and their students will improve. “In time” is the operative term here. Results will take at least one generation, and will not result from standardized tests. This makes it very difficult for politicians whose time horizon is never beyond the next election.

Almost all the problems with schools
come from poverty.

The fact is that we are doing everything except what we must do in our effort to fix the problems in our schools. Notice that I did not say the problem “with” our schools. That’s because the problems arrive with the students on Day One, and began long before that. They don’t get enough to eat. Their family life is turmoil. There is never enough money in the house to buy necessities, in spite of the fact that the adults in the house work full time. Their neighborhood, urban, suburban, or rural, has too much crime, too much violence, too many drug dealers, all the usual problems of poverty. In the US, 1 out of 4 children are poor, which is an appalling statistic.

The single most important factor in fixing everyday life and the schools is the Living Wage laws we do not have. A rather long list of advanced countries have Living Wage laws. People with any job at all in those countries are not undernourished, and all can afford a decent place to live.

If you want change,
you have to be talking about
at least one generation down the line.

As I have said before, when the poorest earn a Living Wage, they are magically transformed from welfare recipient to tax payer, a double benefit for the whole nation.

We expect the problems with public school students to evaporate with the latest influx of profit-making corporate investments that force teachers to prepare students for standardized testing, provide charter and private school supers and principals with more money than they are worth, and put the lifetime careers of devoted veteran teachers in jeopardy because their students come from chaos and deep poverty.

We expect all the problems with students
to evaporate with the latest influx
of profit-making investments.

Sorry, folks. Foundation funding to test poor students still leaves them poor, and still leaves teachers struggling to help them with not enough resources. Not to mention that standardized tests are incapable of measuring some of the most important elements of a good education.

If you want student improvement, you have to be talking about at least one generation down the line. If you want change, the newest students have to arrive in school after a good night’s sleep and a nutritious breakfast, and wearing decent clothing. And good preparation would have started long before the first day of school.

In fact, school success starts with sex ed in the previous generation. It is absolutely essential that every child learn about human reproduction and understand the responsibilities and dangers inherent in sex. When a young woman becomes pregnant, it is often because of ignorance, and she is also likely to be ignorant about the grave dangers to her child from alcohol, smoking, and drugs. When she does know these things, she is far less likely to become a teenage mother in the first place, and when she eventually does become pregnant, her child stands a far better chance of doing well in school, and thus in life. There is an endless progression of the young, and each new kid needs to learn these things.

We are failing because
we fail to understand
that nobody can survive
on $7.25 an hour.

However, delivery of a normal weight infant with no developmental injuries is only the first step. It’s important, but what happens after that is only minimally under the control of the new parents if they can’t earn a decent living. Absent a Living Wage, the child is more likely to be undernourished, and to have difficulty learning.

Much of the rest depends on us, and we are failing because somehow we don’t understand that nobody can survive on $7.25 an hour, which will not pay the rent in any city in the country, let alone provide other necessities of life, like food, shelter, clothing, and health care. We endlessly debate whether we should do anything about minimum wage, which is rather like standing around and debating whether we should administer CPR to the unconscious kid we pulled out of the pool.

Yeah, but what about the lousy teachers? There are teachers who should be fired forthwith, and the teacher unions exist only to keep them on. Obviously, the unions are preventing progress, and should be ended as well. That’s what testing does.

Except that’s exactly wrong. There have been highly effective teacher evaluation systems functioning for many years. One such program is called PAR. In such systems the unions and administrators work together to identify ineffective teachers, help them improve, or move them out of the system if they can’t. It works well.

I have mentioned only the poor. The middle class counts too, of course, but it is the lowest earners who count most. When the poor can earn a living, the middle class will find itself boosted by the bootstraps of the formerly poor. The students will be OK, and the schools will be too.


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  1. Reblogged this on Citizens, not serfs.


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