An Assessment of the Problems facing Education Today: Look to Past, Present, and Future.

Recently, I was asked to participate in a discussion concerning a quote from the infamous 1983 study, A Nation at Risk:  The Imperative for Education Reform conducted by The National Commission on Excellence in Education for the United States Department of Education.  “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” With education funding, reform efforts, and testing being prominent topics today in 2012 examining some of the studies conducted during the 1980s regarding the status of education in the United States offers a reference point for some of the successes or lack thereof of various programs and initiatives.

The 1980s studies consistently cited one issue:  the abundance of often conflicting demands placed upon schools and teachers at all levels.  “They are routinely called on to provide solutions to personal, social, and political problems that the home and other institutions either will not or cannot resolve.”  There appears to be a lack of understandings that these demands of tackling these problems entail not just educational, but financial costs as well.

Other matters commonly argued today were present in the 1980s.  Should schools emphasize essentials such as reading and computation at the expense of other fundamentals such as comprehension, analysis, problem solving, and developing viable conclusions?  Should technical and occupational skills take precedence over arts and humanities? How can the idea that knowledge of humanities must be linked to science and technology in order to promote creativity and humanity?   How can the realization that humanities must be linked to science and technology to remain relevant within a given society?

In the 1980s, studies acknowledged the acceptance of the supposition that the “average” American is better educated and knowledgeable than the “average” Americans of previous generations.  They asserted that literacy and exposure to math and science were more widespread than earlier in our history.  The consensus maintained that the “average” graduate of today (1980s), however, is less educated and knowledgeable than the “average” graduate of previous generations when a significantly smaller proportion of Americans completed high school.  Also, most of the 1980s studies emphasize that the amount of high school graduates neither ready for college or the workforce continues to increase at a steady pace.

As per solutions, the various studies conducted during the 1980s stressed that the focus should not be on creating scapegoats such as teachers for the educational shortcomings.  Solutions were tied into a changing or reverting back to the position which embraced lifelong learning where “the commitment to a set of values and to a system of education that affords all members the opportunity to stretch their minds to full capacity, from early childhood through adulthood, learning more as the world itself changes. Such a society has as a basic foundation the idea that education is important not only because of what it contributes to one’s career goals but also because of the value it adds to the general quality of one’s life.”  They stressed that education extends beyond the traditional classrooms in schools and colleges and “into homes and workplaces; into libraries, art galleries, museums, and science centers; indeed, into every place where the individual can develop and mature in work and life.”  Early formal schooling only provides a foundation for lifelong learning because, without lifelong learning, skills will become outdated.

Unfortunately, as the years have passed, education has evolved into this incoherent system where the focus lies upon achieving the minimum skills necessary for the moment.  When everything is viewed in terms of “minimum requirements” it fosters the belief that simply obtaining the minimum is all that is necessary.  Achieving basic literacy should not be the goal set by an educational system or by a society, but the starting point to push for higher levels.  Increasing or even maintaining enrollments should not be of greater concern than maintaining and systematically increasing academic standards.  Curricula have become these diluted, homogenized systems which as a result lack a central purpose.  If one would compare curricula to nutrition for another perspective, the focus has become one of indulging on desserts while neglecting or even skipping the main courses.  In many instances, one cannot discern the main course from the dessert.  Still, there is an increasing effort to scrutinize students and individual teachers more than of the educational system as a whole.   Hence, under the current system which neglects the importance of the belief in, desire for, or necessity of lifelong learning, the teacher is transformed into the targeted scapegoat.

A complication results, however, when attempting to gauge success of both students and educators.  Even if a common interpretation of knowledge, skills, and abilities can be achieved, how can one factor in the amount of time, hard work, behavior, self-discipline, and motivation that are essential for high student achievement?  Test scores and other quantifiable data may seem a solid method of assessment, but it can only equate short term learning where minimum becomes the goal.  Value Added models of evaluation where the effectiveness of individual teachers and schools is based upon the level of increase in performance produce skewed statistical data by their nature.  Since the environment in which teachers operate is not a controlled system, respective variables are weighted in quantitative formulas which assume a “separate but equal” interpretation in an open environment.  Additionally, it is mathematically impossible to account for all potential performance variables within an open system.  Yet, these Value Added models have become the tool of choice to gauge teacher and educational effectiveness.  Those who endorse and implement these Value Added models, however, do not submit themselves to the same indicators of performance in regard to their effectiveness.  As a result, the education system slides toward one of “teaching tests” and diluting the educational process to achieve these minimum goals as a base with distinct and timely spikes for evaluation purposes.  Numerous studies have argued that school textbooks, a number of which are now written by amalgamated committees instead of experts in the respective disciplines have lessened content to the degree that some students already know up to 80 percent of the material in the text and therefore are neither challenged nor inspired through instinct to want to learn more since little is new.

When comparing American educational institutions to those of other countries, the 1980s studies focused on the differences in teacher training.  In the United States a significant amount of coursework for elementary and secondary school educators focused on educational theory classes at the expense of content courses.  As a result many teachers only have minimal knowledge in some of the subjects they are required to teach which contributes to the growing acceptance of minimum equal maximum.

In regard to students and classrooms, the 1980s studies were in agreement on the following:  A) compared to other nations, American students spend much less time on school work; B) time spent in the classroom and on homework is often used ineffectively; and (C) schools are not doing enough to help students develop either the study skills required to use time well or the willingness to spend more time on school work.

References cited in these assertions included the following examples:

In England and other industrialized countries, it is not unusual for academic high school students to spend 8 hours a day at school, 220 days per year. In the United States, by contrast, the typical school day lasts 6 hours and the school year is 180 days.

In many schools in the United States, the time spent learning how to cook and drive counts as much toward a high school diploma as the time spent studying mathematics, English, chemistry, U.S. history, or biology.

A study of the school week in the United States found that some schools provided students only 17 hours of academic instruction during the week, and the average school provided about 22.

A California study of individual classrooms found that because of poor management of classroom time, some elementary students received only one fifth of the instruction others received in reading comprehension.

In most schools, the teaching of study skills is haphazard and unplanned.  Consequently, many students complete high school and enter college without disciplined and systematic study habits.

By the year 2012, we have seen adjustments to the high school curricula, increased teacher content in various subject areas, and alternative certification programs which allow professionals in other occupations, many with advanced degrees in their subject areas, to transition more easily into classrooms.  Many of the other problems, however, remain.  Numerous government and private programs and initiatives have been implemented with varying degrees of success or lack thereof.  In some instances funding has been increased and in others funding has been decreased.  As always, there are conflicting interpretations as to causations and correlations between these adjustments whether in professional and curricula preparation or funding.

In 1983, the authors of A Nation at Risk wrote the following about the state of education in the United States:  “Our concern, however, goes well beyond matters such as industry and commerce. It also includes the intellectual, moral, and spiritual strengths of our people which knit together the very fabric of our society. The people of the United States need to know that individuals in our society who do not possess the levels of skill, literacy, and training essential to this new era will be effectively disenfranchised, not simply from the material rewards that accompany competent performance, but also from the chance to participate fully in our national life. A high level of shared education is essential to a free, democratic society and to the fostering of a common culture, especially in a country that prides itself on pluralism and individual freedom.”

Regardless of the particular program, most education initiatives fail to look at problems as a whole and address only specific aspects.  Every education system has its own unique set of problems so a simple “one size fits all” solution is not possible.  What is possible, however, is to change the perception of education.  This challenge moves beyond simply equating education with a lifelong process of learning.  For example, in many cultures teachers are revered members of society with salaries and benefits comparable, if not succeeding, those in other professions.  In order to maintain this level of appreciation, however, teachers are expected to continue with their own education and training throughout their career.  For many schools in Taiwan, the class day begins in silence with the students saluting the teacher and ends in silence with another formal salute.  In Japan, many hold firm to the belief that educating students is the responsibility of everyone.  When difficulties arise, everyone, not just the teacher, is expected to assist in solving the problem.  This concept of mutual responsibility carries over into the care of the school buildings by teachers and students where at the end of the day, students mop, dust, and clean their classrooms and halls.  It is held that such activities assist in developing pride in one’s school and provide a group project emphasizing social concern.

In Japan, a student is thought to appreciate the reverence and importance of education with the presentation of the Sansu Setto in the first grade.  Although this applies primarily to mathematical education, the Sansu Setto is a mathematical skill kit; the kit is wrapped to the degree of a wedding present and given as part of a formal ceremony to the child.  Many university students cite that ceremony along with continued high expectations from both parents and teachers as primary influences behind developing a commitment to their educational appreciation and maturation.

In summation, the educational system in the United States continues to deteriorate regardless of funding, new initiatives, and curricula adjustments applied.  The feeling of entitlement is rampant as is the call for increased technology in the classroom.  Teachers have become the scapegoat for the plethora of educational failures.  As in any profession, you have good and bad teachers, but many fail to acknowledge that teachers today have additional duties such as disciplinarian, counselor, sociologist, and substitute parent thrust upon them in ever increasing capacities.  All of these duties come at the expense of learning.

Steps to invigorate education in the United States will involve a multistep process entailing years of transition with progress hard to gauge by quantitative measures.  Foremost, the population has to regain a respect for education and teachers while embracing not only the concept of lifelong learning but of the effort, time and discipline needed to move forward.   The concept that education is a necessity for an improved lifestyle must be embraced by all.  Instead of becoming more conceptualized, the system must be regarded in totality with each step serving a purpose and fostering the perception that education and learning is relevant.

This multistep process might include some of the following actions:

Create an environment where “classroom management” is not behavioral management but management of instruction.  This development involves changing the perception of teachers, education, and the necessity of lifelong learning.  Two adjustments may help in that transition if installed at the beginning of one’s educational experience.

A) Increase both the amount of time of the school day and the length of the school year.  These increases would allow students more time in a controlled environment where the development of study skills can be developed.

B) A portion of the increased time could be utilized where administrators, support staff, students, and teachers assume responsibility for the physical conditions of the school with group efforts of cleaning and general upkeep.  Outings into the community and surrounding area could be scheduled to enhance that environment as well.  Aside from accepting responsibility, the concept of pride in one’s school and community would be fostered along with an interest in community service.

Coordinate the curriculum to provide a foundation for learning at each grade level which is then built upon at the next.  Page 18 of the Principles and Standards for School Mathematics (2000) includes the following:  “…students learn by connecting new ideas to prior knowledge, teachers must understand what their students already know. Effective teachers know how to ask questions and plan lessons that reveal students’ prior knowledge; they can then design experiences and lessons that respond to, and build on, this knowledge.”  This idea is similar to the Japanese principle of “anticipating students’ thinking” as a major part of teacher training.

The increased time spent in a controlled educational environment would allow teachers greater opportunities to identify individual student weaknesses and to not only develop but to implement strategies to assist these students in developing techniques to maximize their learning experience and potential.  With limited time and resources today, teachers cannot account for the plethora of external variables which limit student development.

Earning a high school diploma must become not only relevant but accepted as only a stage in the process of lifelong learning.

Those students continuing formal education at the college level often lack the content and/or skills to immediately succeed.  The increasing number of students needing learning support or remedial classes at the college level is a prime indicator.  Students have little, if any, experience managing their time or even possess the basic elements of study skills.

Students seeking to enter the workforce directly following high school lack the skills and training to be employable in career occupations.  Instead, many are forced into dead end jobs which offer no chance for advancement or provide the salaries necessary in many cases for a desirable life.

Quick fixes have not solved these issues.  These fixes include the promoting of community colleges for the remedial coursework, technical colleges for entry level qualifications for career fields, and “career tracking” high school curriculums by offering “course clusters” designed for potential direct entry into career occupations.  Many cite that with advances in technology, high school graduates are not prepared to enter into a vast number of career fields.  While this assessment is true, it fails to acknowledge that technological advances have been continuous and skills and knowledge can quickly become outdated without acceptance of the necessity of lifelong learning.  Others have capitalized on these quick fix approaches with the abundance of for profit learning institutions and the dramatic increases in tuition rates at all institutions of higher learning.  Monies funneled into the higher education systems have been a boon to financiers with the increase in student loans and has resulted in growing recognition of the student as a consumer.  Thus the system creates impressions that tuition equals purchasing of credentials and not of learning skills.  Institutions compete with one another to maximize enrollments for financial gain instead of cooperating and complementing each other in helping achieve a more learned society.

The solution lies not in full scale changes in secondary or higher education, but in viewing the educational process as a whole and introducing and nurturing the concept of lifelong learning at the very beginning.    If the youngest students develop a sense of belonging, support, and community within the educational system, they will strive to become and remain a part of that environment.  Tools and techniques will be developed and honed so that student is capable to adjust more easily to different challenges found at all levels of enterprise.  Once a student enters high school, the student will build upon these skills and have opportunities to receive advanced training in certain areas such as those found in systems where “course clusters” are available.  The difference, however, is that perceptions of these clusters would not be “you are work force eligible” but instead one of “you now have the opportunity to enter a career and must continue to work toward reaching your potential.”  Earlier schooling would prepare the student with the necessary basic skills to adapt to and not be overwhelmed by new environments.

For such an educational system to succeed, teachers will need to earn comparable compensation to that of other professionals working in the private sector.  Higher compensation would result in more respect for the profession and therefore encourage stronger students to enter the field.  Unlike the societal impression, teachers aren’t supermen and superwomen supposed to solve every problem that kids and parents may have. Teachers are that lantern to provide the light to find a better life, and simply need the opportunity to concentrate on teaching.  Teachers would, however, also need to embrace the concept of lifelong learning by continuing their work in their respective subject areas. In addition, teachers of different disciplines would need to participate in cohorts to offer students diverse perspectives on the same fundamental principles to emphasize adaptability and creativity.

Administrators will need to interact both with teachers and support staff and with students.  They cannot become isolated figures unaware of the differences between theory and practice as it applies to their institution.  In some schools, administrators may be needed as authority figures, in others coordinators, others as a proverbial “cheerleader” for both staff and students.  The administrator must set the example through words, policies, and most importantly actions.  If not teaching at least one content course section, they should have direct involvement with students through activities such as study halls, area upkeep and maintenance, or in participating in community service projects with the students.  Conversely, teachers must assist in the administrative process.

When classroom management becomes behavioral management, the system must act quickly.  As a respect for education grows, in many instances the concept of peer pressure will curb disrespectful behavior if fellow students frown upon the instigator.  In situations where students or school personnel need additional assistance, the educational system must have professionals available.  These professionals include but are not limited to psychologists and other counselors, medical practitioners, and law enforcement.

Politically, the fat must be trimmed and the educational system should not become inundated with opportunists and profiteers.  That can only be accomplished to the changing of public attitudes toward the role of teachers and education system in general.  Key elements remain dedication, persistence, and hard work.  There is no easy route and few immediately quantifiable statistics.  The benefits will become readily apparent as the process matures and materialize first in society than in test scores.

Many of the studies during the 1980s were considered infamous in their attacks on the quality of education in the United States.  By the year 2012, however, one can argue that many of the arguments and suppositions have proven correct.  Unfortunately, unlike the 1980s, the United States no longer operates with limited competition in terms of progress and industry as other countries have not only caught up but in some cases overtook the United States as a world leader in several characteristics.  It is not a popular assessment, but it is necessary for everyone to take ownership and responsibility for this educational decline.  Attitudes at both the top and at the bottom need to change along with the attitudes of everyone in middle.