|Soviet Sputnik Stamp|
It's a wonder I can think at all."
--Paul Simon, "Kodachrome"
Recently, comparative data among various nations have placed the United States somewhere in the middle of all nations with respect to the performance by students on math exams and on other exams intended to measure the quality of education in various countries.
The usual sub rosa response to this is "Oh, well, if you exclude the scores of the inner city kids and the recent immigrants, America would be right up there on top."
In fact, analysis of the data shows that even students from the richest, best public American schools place just below the upper 1/3 of all nations, with Singapore, Korea, Finland, Norway, England and Germany all ahead of us.
Of course, we want to know more about the exams, how meaningful they are, what biases may be built into them. The last thing we want American schools doing is "teaching to the test."
In an intuitive way, Mad Dog is prepared to believe American education is simply not competitive, that it ranges from really dismal, if not worthless, in the inner city schools to just mediocre in the best public schools. It may be better in the really elite private schools--Phillips Exeter Academy, Sidwell Friends School, Georgetown Day school, but these schools cannot provide the numbers to lift and sustain our economy and innovative edge.
No better examination of the troubles besetting the lowest level of public education, the inner city schools of Washington, DC, Baltimore, New Orleans and of dozens of big cities exists than the detailed, sophisticated examination provided by the television series The Wire. Conceived and written by a Baltimore policeman who retired and then taught in the Baltimore inner city schools, this thorough going docu/drama revealed the interactions between the various dysfunctional institutions and community forces which ensure the failure of the school system in the inner city: The street culture of drugs and violence which shape the students, the absence of family, the political structure from the mayor's office to the city council to the state assembly, the competition for funds from police, public works and other governmental services which deprive schools of funding, the nature of the type of people available as teachers--all combine to make public education in these deprived, depressed places a farce.
There was a time when this was not true in the economically challenged inner cities. During the 1930's to 1940's the job of a public school teacher was a plum: It provided a reliable income at a level which placed teachers in the upper middle class when unemployment was high, and it came with pensions and benefits which were the envy of the working class. Teachers were smart, respected, on a par with engineers. And they were teaching students who had challenges, for whom English was a second language, but the culture which formed these students had strong families and parents who pressed their children to succeed in school.
As the economy changed in the 1950's, there were better jobs to be had than teaching, and the public schools slipped into complacency.
Until--October 4, 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in the setting of the cold war and this was successfully sold to the American public as the first knock on the door of American undoing. The Soviets were graduating ten times the number of engineers churned out by the United States. Something had to be done about our dumb kids! Money and thought and urgency were focused on education and that single event did more for public education than any set of test scores could ever have done. Of course, cynics said all Sputnik meant was the Soviets had captured more German rocket scientists than we had, but that got lost in the hysteria. The Soviets had engineers and those engineers knew how to make rockets and rockets could carry bombs and the Soviets would launch nuclear attack from the moon.
It was the classic example of the event which could be spun as a new perception, probably on spurious assumption. But it worked for a good outcome: American education became a priority in the 1960's.
After Sputnik, new thinking about science education probably improved science teaching, at least marginally, and it may have refocused career ambitions of some talented students, and more money flowed to education.
But money proved to be the least important factor in improvement, probably because it went to the wrong places. What would really have made a difference would have been if enough money were spent on teacher salaries. That's what attracted good minds during hard economic times.
The best and the brightest did not seek jobs as teachers--some did, but not enough--there was simply more money and more prestige to be had elsewhere.
So the moment was lost. The inner city schools, bled dry by white flight, sunk beneath the waves.
And even the rich suburban schools did not rise to the level of say, English or German schools; they just got more attention. Mad Dog attended public schools in the Washington, DC suburbs, some of the most affluent suburbs in the nation, with parents who wanted their kids going to Ivy League colleges. The problem was the teachers were simply not up to the task. There were some extraordinary teachers, to be sure, but the percentages were against excellence. And the kids were smart enough to perceive their teachers were only one chapter ahead of them in the textbook.
The moral of this story is simply that pouring money into schools, whether they are inner city schools or rich suburban schools is not enough. Schools do not exist in a vacuum. For all his good intentions, President Obama has bought into some pretty unhealthy misconceptions about education, like the idea of judging teachers faced with inner city students by the test scores of their students. You can judge students who have demanding parents by test scores, but you cannot apply that test to the teachers in inner city schools.
In fact, the test scores of the highly motivated children of tiger mothers likely reflects the efforts of the mothers more than the proficiency of the teachers.
The solutions for inner city schools, or for schools in places like Gaithersburg, Maryland, or Seabrook, New Hampshire will be different. In places like these, the problems are those of the immigrant, or of parents working two jobs, who have no academic background themselves. The solutions for these schools will have to be very different from the solutions for the rich suburban schools or the solutions for the bombed out inner city schools.
In schools where money is not a problem, the public schools of Beverly Hills, California, Chevy Chase, Maryland, Winiketa, Illinois, Shaker Heights, Ohio, Westchester County, New York, the problem will be finding academically gifted teachers and keeping the top heavy bureaucracy from getting in their way.
Too much money can actually be a problem in rich counties. In Montgomery County, Maryland dumbed down curricula from a central county education department bureaucracy are forced on teachers who could teach more sophisticated, better and smarter material, if they were allowed to do so. The huge education budget of this rich county supports a gargantuan, bloated administration of non classroom teachers, churning out lowest common denominator lessons sent out from the county seat.
Mr. Obama is right about one thing: It's easier to see the value of a new bridge or a new building than a new and better education. One is concrete, the other is in the minds of children. But the GI Bill which sent returning veterans to college after WWII, and the support for public education after Sputnik, were investments which paid off, which created not just a middle class but upper classes of doctors, engineers, lawyers and businessmen. You could not drive a car over it; you could not take an elevator ride to the top of it; you could not move your furniture into it, but the fact you could not see it did not mean it did not matter.
There will never be a perfect school, and certainly not a perfect high school, not in America, where hormones thwart some of the best efforts of teachers.
But there could be improvements, if the right people were involved.
One last thought: Some years ago Mad Dog gave a presentation at a very spiffy, elite private school for an introductory biology course. The teachers were very attentive and they were very smart and picked up on all the things Mad Dog thought they would miss for sure. But they informed Mad Dog his course could be an "enrichment" course for seniors, not an introductory course for freshman. Mad Dog slunk out of the school, embarrassed he did not know more about teaching. But on reflection, he thought, maybe he was not as wrong and they were not as right as it seemed. Maybe even the best teachers could benefit from hearing thoughts from outside the education world. If medicine is too important to be left in the hands of doctors, is education not too important to be left solely in the hands of teachers?