cross-posted at politicspofselfishness.com
The New York Times reported yesterday ["GOP Governors Take Aim at Teacher Tenure," 2/1/11] that governors in Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Nevada and New Jersey have urged that teacher tenure be eliminated. In this effort, they have been advised by former Washington D.C. school chancellor, Michelle Rhee, and her advocacy group, Students First. Ms. Rhee, who supports a top-down, GE management model for school administrations, has consistently blamed teachers for almost all for the ills of urban school systems such as Washington, D.C.
In the midst of this recession, with the attendant pressure it continues to exert upon state and local budgets, public school teachers have become a convenient target for anti-government, right-wing politicians and their corporate sponsors and lobbyists. These same anti-government crusaders refuse to have a serious, adult-like discussion about public education today with their constituents.
Redundant, unevenly-funded, locally-controlled school systems are a major contributor to the ills of American public education. Because of the existence of a federal system, with its emphasis upon diffused power, local school districts have been created almost entirely through the exercise of state power, in the form of legislative acts. As a result there are approximately 15,000 local school districts in the United States, each of which has its own superintendent, its own administrative bureaucracy, tax base and, often, meddlesome school committee - witness the number that are preoccupied with patronage concerns or which have advocated the adoption of crackpot ideas about creationism, the myth American exceptionalism, and prayer in schools.
These 15,000 units of government are also largely financed by regressive property taxes that all to often pit young families with children against "empty-nesters." According to the National Governors Association, state funding of local school districts varies dramatically among states, ranging from about 8 percent in New Hampshire to 74 percent in New Mexico. On average, states fund approximately 50 percent of local school districts' needs from their general budget. Local governments contribute an average of 44 percent, largely from local property taxes. As of 2005, the federal government's average contribution was reported to be 6 percent of a district's budget.
If American public education depends for its vitality and its support upon local autonomy, how then does one ensure that, in an increasingly national and global workplace, a high school diploma awarded to a graduate of a secondary school in El Paso, Texas is equivalent to that awarded to a graduate of the Boston Latin School or the Bronx High School of Science? The sad truth of the matter is that, because American public schools are purely creatures of state and local governments, and were not created through the exercise of national legislative powers, in contrast to most European countries, the demands, the financing and the outcomes of these local systems of education vary enormously.
Today, for example, the United States spends more money as a proportion of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product--7.5 percent--on education than do countries in the European Union, but the educational outcomes are significantly worse. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has reported that, "In most OECD countries, a child at the age of five can now expect to undertake between 16 and 21 years of education during his lifetime either full- or part-time, if present patterns of participation continue. Australia and the United Kingdom, at 20.7 years, show the highest educational expectancy among OECD countries, while in the United States a five year old can expect almost four years of education less during his/her lifetime.
Children in twelve European counties rank higher in mathematics literacy; and in eight European countries, the children were ranked as possessing better scientific literacy than their peers in the U.S. The 2003 results from the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) document the comparatively poor performance in mathematical proficiency, on average, of fifteen year olds in the United States. As the OECD noted, "Out of 30 OECD countries which participated in PISA 2003, the average performance for the United States was statistically higher only than that of five countries (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Mexico and Turkey) and statistically lower than that of twenty countries."
Equally a cause for concern, as of 2006, is the fact that the average adolescent in European Union countries completed 17.5 years of education, versus his counterpart in the United States who, on average, completed only 16.5 years of education. In nine European countries, more young people entered university education than in the U.S. and, as of 2006, the United States slipped from first to seventh in the number adults aged 24-35 who have received a bachelor's degree, as opposed to Canada (53 percent), Japan (52 percent), Sweden (42 percent), Belgium (41 percent) and Ireland (40 percent).
The problems caused by a decentralized, unequally-funded system of local public education across the United States are compounded by the existence and tolerance of widespread economic and social inequality which also explains, in large part, the uneven outcomes in America's decentralized education system and the dismal performance of so many of the children who are enrolled.
In a report released in March 2009, David Berliner, Regents Professor at Arizona State University, analyzed those "out-of-school factors" (OSFs) which "play a powerful role in generating existing achievement gaps" that continue to undermine the purpose of the federal "No Child Left Behind" act. Berliner, in a wide-ranging review of the existing data and summary of the educational literature, identified six significant factors among poor children that adversely affected their health and learning opportunities and which therefore "limit what schools can accomplish on their own: (1) low birth weight and non- genetic prenatal influences on children; (2) inadequate medical, dental, and vision care, often a result of inadequate or no medical insurance; (3) food insecurity; (4) environmental pollutants; (5) family relations and family stress; and (6) neighborhood characteristics."
These six factors, Berliner concluded, "are related to a host of poverty- induced physical, sociological and psychological problems that children often bring to school, ranging from neurological damage and attention disorders to excessive absenteeism, linguistic underdevelopment, and oppositional behavior."
Berliner further observed that, "Because America's schools are so highly segregated by income, race, and ethnicity, problems related to poverty occur simultaneously, with greater frequency, and act cumulatively in schools serving disadvantaged communities. These schools therefore face significantly greater challenges than schools serving wealthier communities, and their limited resources are often overwhelmed."
The data which Berliner cites showed that, in 2006-2007, the average white student attended a public school in which about 30 percent of the students were classified as low-income. By contrast, the average black or Hispanic student attended a school in which nearly 60 percent of the students were classified as low-income, while the average American Indian was enrolled in a school where more than half of the students were poor. "These schools," Berliner concluded, "are often dominated by the many dimensions of intense, concentrated, and isolated poverty that shape the lives of students and families."
The totality of the evidence suggests that American education, at almost every level, is experiencing a profound crisis and has failed to create a literate, educated citizenry. For example, the National Adult Literacy Survey found that over forty million Americans age 16 and older have significant literacy deficiencies. In addition, more than 20 percent of Americans read at or below a fifth grade level which is far below the level needed to earn a living wage. The data with respect to scientific literacy is also disquieting. Americans in general do not understand what molecules are, less than one third can identify DNA as a key to heredity, and one adult in five thinks that the Sun revolves around the Earth.
The increasing inequalities among local school districts in United States and between educational outcomes in the United States versus other member states in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are directly related to the ideological stranglehold that notions about individualism and local control of education continue to exert over American politics. This tradition of local autonomy in public school systems has led to the emergence of an increasing number of autonomous charter schools which siphon off badly-needed funds and better-performing students from more troubled, urban school systems. This trend, coupled with the existence of so many private secondary schools and colleges and universities, make it virtually impossible for American educational institutions to adopt and enforce uniform learning and graduation requirements or to effectively measure educational outcomes.
Given the magnitude of the problems that face American public education today, only demagogues will continue to argue that poorly-paid, poorly- supported teachers are the cause of this country's educational crisis and not a part of its solution. The continuing assault upon teachers, their job security and future retirement benefits will deter more and more top-performing university graduates from considering a career as a teacher.