Fixing Pathetic Public Schools

A frustrated, upset child, or child with learning difficulties.

Fixing America’s Pathetic Education System

We the People Speaking – August 27, 2021

BOTTOM LINE: “Education is the wellspring from which a nation ascends … or the quagmire into which it sinks.Education is everything.”  Michael Russell

INTENT:  My intent here is to make two points.  One, what is the magnitude of the problem and secondly how do we fix it? 

HOW BIG IS THE PROBLEM? Huge. Education is perhaps this nation’s greatest disgrace.  Yet every four years we go through the same song-and-dance.  Candidates promise to spend more billions of dollars, resulting in more top-down regulation which then requires a bigger inefficient and ineffective Department of Education bureaucracy.  This is a decades-old formula for failure as we spend more dollars per student and watch our world rating in education continue to decline.

WHERE ARE WE TODAY?  Education has been headline-news over the past 18 months.  The pandemic shut down schools and 60 million kids and 180 million adults with children under age 18 had to learn, or not, to endure remote classrooms.  More recently the national debate has been about including critical race theory as a foundational piece of every school’s curriculum and about masks and vaccinations. But what we do not talk about is the elephant in the room, embarrassing, ridiculous education results.

THE NATION’S REPORT CARD: The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is the only assessment that measures what U.S. students know and can do in various subjects across the nation, states, and in some urban districts. Also known as The Nation’s Report Card, NAEP has provided important information about how students are performing academically since 1969.  They grade mathematics, reading, science, writing, technology, arts, civics, geography, economics, and U.S. history for grades 4th and 8th every 2 years and 12th grade every 4 years.

PRE-COVID NAEP REPORT CARD: In 2019 NAEP tested 150,600 grade 4 students, 143,100 grade 8, and 26,700 grade 12 students and reported:  Here is a summary pulled from a large comprehensive report:

Reading:  The assessment measures reading comprehension by asking students to read selected grade-appropriate materials and answer questions based on what they have read. 

                                                Grade 4           Grade 8           Grade 12

NOT proficient:                         59%                 66%                   76%

Mathematics: The assessment measures both mathematics knowledge and the students’ ability to apply their knowledge in problem-solving situations.

                                                Grade 4           Grade 8           Grade 12

NOT proficient:                         65%                   66%              63%

Other subjects were even worse.  For high school seniors 88% NOT proficient in history, 77% NOT proficient in writing ability and 78% NOT proficient in science. 

NAEP defines “proficiency” as follows:  NAEP student achievement levels are performance standards that describe what students should know and be able to do. Results are reported at three achievement levels, Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. What we-the-people want and deserve from our schools are high school graduates who are “proficient”, that is they are ready to go out into the world with the skills to put together a successful and prosperous life.  The above percentages represent the number that cannot score up to the “proficient” level.  Generally speaking, two thirds of our high school graduates are not adequately prepared to do that.  And that says nothing about the 7,000 students who drop out every school day.   

More snapshots that illustrate the problems in government-run public schools:  Providence, RI:  Only 5% of eighth graders are proficient in math.  Newark, NJ: 21% proficiency in math.  North Carolina: 44 % of North Carolina fourth-graders are not proficient in reading.  Wisconsin: Black American eighth graders perform only slightly better than white fourth graders in reading and math.  And so it goes across the country.  A recent survey found that 20% of American adults cannot name even one of the three branches of government.

GOVERNMENT-RUN vs CHARTER:  One cannot adequately analyze education results without getting inside the government-run public schools vs charter schools discussion. Let’s begin by understanding what a charter school is.

Facts shared by nearly all the states: Charter schools are authorized by the State Board of Education. Charter schools are tuition-free schools of choice that are operated mostly by independent non-profit boards of directors. 

The two major teachers’ unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) consistently spread false information against charter schools. 

Misinformation # 1: “Charter schools are unaccountable, private schools that take money away from district schools.” Truth: Charter schools are 100% accountable to state authorities. Charter school students are typically funded at $0.73/dollar compared to district school students.

Misinformation # 2: “Charter schools don’t serve a diverse population of students; they get to hand pick their students to populate their schools.” The truth is, if a child is eligible to attend a public government school, parents may apply to any charter school.  If a charter school receives more applications than its capacity, a lottery is conducted. Discrimination based on race, national origin, or religion is prohibited.

Misinformation # 3: “Charter schools are not academically superior to government-run public schools.”  Truth: In New York City, for example, in a number of minority communities, traditional public school and charter school classes are co-located in a common building.  In one co-mingled building in 28 different classes less than 10% of the government-run public school students tested to a proficient level while 81-100% of charter students were proficient.

Why do charter school students perform better?  Two reasons:  1) Government-run public schools are top-down highly regulated vs charters with their own organization, planning, and programs allowing them the freedom to use innovative school models and customized approaches to curriculum, staffing , budgeting and teaching.

2) Government-run public schools are highly unionized while charters are not. With teacher union support, on average it takes about two years of a Principal’s effort to fire a teacher for poor performance. Unsatisfactory teachers are not being held accountable. By contrast, if charter students do not measure up to standards, the school is subject to being shut down by state law.  Is accountability important in education?  Yes, it is the ultimate arbiter.

CONCLUSION, TEACHERS’ UNIONS ARE NOT A PART OF THE SOLUTION, THEY ARE A BIG PART OF THE PROBLEM.  Two facts lead to this conclusion:

One, generally, across the nation, charter school students score higher on achievement tests than students in government-run public schools.

Two, this is a summary of what the union leaders are telling we-the-people about charter schools: Charter schools are privately-operated, deregulated, segregated, poorly-supervised, de-unionized scandal-ridden contract schools that drain much-needed funds from demonized public schools.Those statements are all lies.

To illustrate how out-of-control the teachers unions can get, when California was considering sending teachers back in to the classroom, the Los Angeles teachers’ union made the following demands: defund police, a moratorium on new charter schools, new wealth taxes on California millionaires and billionaires and Medicare-for-all at the federal level.  Three questions come to mind: 1) How did they get so far out of their lane?  2) Why are they the final decision maker on when teachers return to the classroom? 3) How did they get that much power and influence?

THE DEMOCRAT PARTY AND EDUCATION: Biden on education during the 2020 campaign: “There are some charter schools that work.”  Wow, what a resounding endorsement!  And, “I will stop all federal funding for for-profit charter schools.” Only about 16 percent of charter schools across the country are operated by for-profit entities.

The Democrat party traditionally supports everything the teachers’ unions are saying and doing which is not necessarily good for education. But it is good for campaigning; in 2016 the two largest teachers’ unions contributed $41 million dollars to candidates with 94% going to Democrats.

The Democrat Governor and legislature in Oregon, July 2021, found a solution to the dismal reporting that the state’s high school graduates had failed to master essential skills. The governor signed into law a suspension of the state requirements that students demonstrate proficiency in reading, writing and math.  That simple piece of legislation just told the teachers, Principals, Superintendents and school boards that they will not be held accountable for passing out high school diplomas to illiterate graduates. 

FIXING EDUCATION begins with an understanding that education without standards is a failed system; education without accountability is a failed system.  We have a failed system.

Since the Federal Government established the Department of Education in 1979, we have seen one failed program after another as each succeeding administration tries to fix education from the top down with hundreds of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of bureaucrats. What to do?  We have to change the way we solve education problems with more decentralized decision making and execution.

Learn from charter schools. As pointed out earlier, charters are turning out better educated graduates because they are allowed to operate with their own organization, planning, and programs allowing them the freedom to use innovative school models and customized approaches to curriculum, staffing, budgeting and teaching.  Big, centralized government bureaucracies stifle all of that.

We need to begin education reform by doing away with the federal Department of Education.  Turn it into a small agency principally dedicated to handling federal grants to education.  This will in turn take education out of national politics and hopefully make it less partisan.

Decentralize education by putting the responsibility for quality education squarely on the states where it can be more directly scrutinized by we-the-people. 

AN ORGANIZATION WITHOUT STANDARDS IS A FAILED ORGANIZATION:  Applying standards to education makes the teaching game-plan simple to define. It begins with the identification of an end state standard for a particular time period.  For example, there must be a standard for the end of first semester fourth grade math.  Given that standard the teacher will then develop a week-by-week lesson plan to achieve that standard with every student.  Teach to a standard, then test.  Teach to the next level, then test again.  And, so it goes week after week for 13 years, K-12.  The concept is simple and there will be no need for hundreds of pages of regulations, frequent recurring reports, no need for legions of bureaucrats providing oversight and requirements for national testing.

HOW DO WE ESTABLISH THE STANDARDS?  It is not difficult; it can be done quickly and does not require any bureaucrats, regulations or tax dollars to do it. Here are the steps to take, for example at the State level, led by the Governor.  The governor is accountable for standards.

The governor will set up a summer work session by inviting selected teachers and Principals to establish education standards.

On day-one there will be a meeting of three experienced outstanding kindergarten teachers and three equally outstanding elementary school Principles.  Their task is to define what every Kindergarten student should achieve by school year end; that is, the end state standard. Having done that, they will then outline, in general terms, what to achieve during each of the six-week intervals on the way to the end state. That’s it, they are done.  The kindergarten standards are set.  Every elementary school principal and kindergarten teacher in the state will then work to achieve that standard.

A similar group of 1st grade teachers, who sat in on the kindergarten session but did not participate, now have a clear understanding of the kindergarten end-state which clearly defines their start point for 1st grade standards. They then set about to establish end of 1st grade standards.

And so it would go on day after day during a summer-long session to define standards for every grade and every course K-12. 

AN ORGANIZATION WITHOUT ACCOUNTABILITY IS A FAILED ORGANIZATION.  If the accountable Governor has established viable, understandable standards for all subjects and all grades, accountability immediately moves down to the local level. 

The local Board of Education and the Superintendent are accountable to the local public, we-the-people, for institutionalizing the standards. That begins with their school Principals’ job description, mission statement, goals, focus etc. however they want to phrase it. The Principal will be accountable for quality instruction to standard of every subject in every classroom every day; period. It is the Principal’s number one priority every day and whatever is second priority should rarely see the light of day; period.

How does the principal’s focus get translated into the classroom?  It begins with good old fashioned lesson plans. Every teacher is accountable for preparing lesson plans on a week-by-week basis that lead directly to the standard (for example) established for end of first semester 4th grade math.

The Principal’s accountability begins at the beginning of the year when he/she goes over every lesson plan with each teacher to insure there is a clear path to the required end-state; that is, what the student must know and understand at the end of each semester. 

The Principle should have all the lesson plans in a 3-ring binder or on an iPad.  Every day he/she will take the lesson plans and visit classrooms. If the teacher is behind schedule, if the instruction is sub-par, if the students are obviously not “getting it” there must then be a one-on-one Principal/teacher “discussion” at the end of that day.  Fix it. Accountability.  

Accountability on the part of the Principal should include creating conditions for success. That is, an open-door/open discussion atmosphere, an environment in which initiative and innovation are encouraged and best practices sharing is the norm and reenforced with a culture of trust and respect.  

Teacher accountability is to teach/test, teach/test so as to know at all times if the kids “get it” and if they do not, re-teach, tutor, whatever it takes to not let a student get behind.  Getting behind in 4th grade leads to being further behind in 5th grade etc. until they eventually become one of the 7,000-per-day dropouts. 

SEPARATING THE WHEAT FROM THE CHAFF:  Teachers and leaders.

Teachers:  Just as in any other organization, schools have key individuals (in this case teachers) who can be categorized as great, good, mediocre or poor performers.  How can you tell?  There is a good chance that poor performing students have a mediocre or poor teacher.  These are the teachers who will say in a huff, “Well, I know how to present the material but I can’t make them learn;” blaming their failures on someone else. In contrast is the teacher with students who are doing well and that teacher not only knows how to present the subject matter but also knows how to make the students WANT to learn.

Leaders:  In all large organizations, industry, government, military and in this case education, there are elements (branches, divisions, schools) that are drowning in mediocracy.  One thing that may be common in all of these is what I call consensus-to-fail.  It is an unwritten, unstated but also alive and functioning operational understanding wherein the leader is “saying” without actually saying it out loud, “I will not hold you responsible for being mediocre subordinates if you will not hold me responsible for being a mediocre leader. When one walks into an organization like that there is a feeling, a sense that initiative, innovation, high standards are not the order of the day and they are completely satisfied with mediocracy.

There are some schools that are consistently poor performing organizations.  If it is a charter school their charter will be pulled.  If it is a government-run public school the usual solution is to throw more money at the problem.  Additionally, one reason poor performing schools have a tendency to remain substandard is that when a great or good teacher is hired and they get a sense of the consensus-to-fail culture, they want no part of it and they move on.  

With this emphasis on transforming education at the point of execution there is going to be demand for good-to-great leadership at the local level. The Superintendent is the first level where quality instruction becomes that position’s number one priority.  On a daily basis the Superintendent must lead, mentor and observe the first-line leaders the school Principals. Unrelenting focus on quality instruction.

Many school districts will be faced with the problem of not having enough experienced leaders at the Superintendent/Principal level.  Many individuals in those positions were placed there based on the fact that they were excellent teachers but may in fact have never had a day of leadership training.  There is always an easy fix at the local level and it is free.  Every community has its share of successful civilian and/or military leaders either still employed or retired.  The board of education could easily set up mandatory Saturday morning leader development seminars for the Superintendent and all of the school Principles.  Solicit the local leaders to participate pro bono in the seminars.

This is not rocket science; this is leadership and accountability and unrelenting focus at the point of execution.  Some teachers will probably complain to their union representative. Good, that’s when the Superintendent and/or the local Board of Education steps in and explains to the union how the soup is made in their school district.   

Sometimes large and seemingly insurmountable problems have a simple, common-sense solution.  I believe that education in America can be put back on track.  But it is going to take some draconian action by the President and Congress.  Do away with the Department of Education.  Cut out all the federal bureaucratic regulations and reporting requirements. Get politics out of education, just let it work on its own at the local level.  We-the-people cannot rely on some nameless faceless bureaucrat in Washington to solve our local education problems.  But if the accountable local Board of Education members get off track, we can for sure vote them out of office.  The local Superintendent and school Principals are people we know and can talk to.

RECAP:  EDUCATION NEEDS A NATIONAL TRANSFORMATION WHICH WILL ENTAIL, AS A MINIMUM DOING THE FOLLOWING:

  • Do away with the Dept of Education and it rules, regulations, reporting requirements and bureaucrats.
  • Expand school choice with more charter schools.
  • Decentralize education to the states to establish standards.
  • Decentralize education to the school districts for accountability.
  • Find a way to curb the power, control and authority of the teachers’ unions.

Achievable standards and clearly articulated accountability is a formula for dramatically raising students’ “proficiency” in all subjects across America. It does not begin in Washington, it begins with state-wide standards and is accomplished at the point of execution, inside the school house one day at a time.   

Marvin L. Covault, Lt Gen US Army, retired, is the author of VISION TO EXECUTION, a book for leaders, a columnist for THE PILOT, a national award-winning local newspaper in Southern Pines, NC and the author of a blog, WeThePeopleSpeaking.com

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