I know public school teachers very well. There is much talk about the kind of job public school teachers are doing these days. Much of the discussion is very negative.  A lot of people seem to think that American public school education is in some kind of decline.  Conservatives in particular seem to have a good deal of criticism to direct at public school teachers.

While I suspect that this grumbling on the right has more to do with vengeful, angry little boys who have grown to be vengeful, angry men, I’ll set this hypothesis on the shelf for some more aging.

In Coloado we have an annual test battery for public school students called the CSAP’s.  It was an initiative set forth by conservative legislators who have a very negative view of public education in general and of teachers unions in particular.  The CSAP’s start tomorrow in fact.  My 9th grade kid will spend the next week taking them. 

It is funny. No matter how tight the legislation is, people will always find a way to game the system.  I know of one principal who was selected to open a brand new elementary school nearby.  While at his previous elementary school in a poor neighborhood, he had access to the students CSAP scores. Prior to his departure he contacted the parents of the top 70 or so students and invited them to come to his new school in a more affluent neighborhood. Nearly all of them did, leaving the previous school in the lurch.  Test scores plummeted at his previous school last year because of this. The parents of the recruited students had a good many volunteers among them. The level of volunteerism dropped substantially as well, adding to the workload in a school already depleted of hourly teachers aids.

Yes, the aforementioned principal seems guilty of some kind of malfeasance or corruption. He’s gaming the system. But he fell out of the sky into a system begging for gamesmanship.  He did it to pave his way into a superintendant slot someday and I’ve no doubt that he’ll get it.

The great fallacy of this issue in the public forum is that it is up to teachers alone to keep kids on track.  Having been married to a special education teacher I can say that there are a great many parents producing kids that are improperly wired, emotionally disturbed, sociopathic, and/or neglected or abused.  Many kids go to school hungry and go home to high stress environments where there is rampant drug abuse, alcohol, and family violence. 

It is not uncommon for some elementary students to be the only family members who can speak English.  Parents in such homes are not able to help with home work. They are not able to communicate with the schools owing to cultural aversion to such contact or because they are undocumented.

I believe that our culture has changed considerably since my age cohort was in public school.  College was a distant aspiration for many of us.  College was not needed to work in the trades. We could get on-the-job training or attend some kind of trade school.  Or, join the military.  These were the options. We had been to the moon, tamed the atom, and built massive industrial capacity for manufacturing an ever growing array of widgets and medicines.  Arguably, something was working well if industrial output is the measure.

But over time, with greater affluence in the US and abroad, the technology gap between the US and other nations began to shrink. Other cultures were developing their own magic dust and secret sauce.  The advantages of the US system began to diminish relative to other cultures. But the one thing that didn’t change is the bell curve.  As a population we still produce offspring who populate the bell curve of abilities and interests. 

I suspect that we have begun to intepret the “below 50th percentile” population in the various bell curves in a most disturbing way. Could it be that we are interpreting the very existance of the low academic achieving population as some sort of educational or societal failure?  Are we expecting modern education to skew the curve toward the high end against the natural spread of abilities and aptitudes in our culture?   Is the notion of excellence skewed towards academic achievement rather than the myriad other activities that make a productive life? Is high academic achievement the only acceptable result of education of our population? 

Not everyone needs to be a scientist or an engineer or astronaut.  We need to continue to identify youth who have such interests and aptitudes and carefully cultivate them toward such opportunities.  But we also must pay attention to those who have more ground based aspirations and abilities and value them just as highly.  It is like a food web.

The notion that we should engineer our schools to produce more super achievers is faulty and unfair to the 99 % who won’t become scientists or astronauts.   Even if we could multiply the population of scientists, engineers, and astronauts, the economy cannot accomodate them. Such professions are near the apex of the career pyramid.

I have come to believe that US culture has failed a large number of its youth.  Just look at the rates of incarceration in the USA.  A culture truly concerned about the wellbeing of its individuals wouldn’t have a few million of them in jail.  Could it be that the conditions in which we imprison citizens reflects what we truly think about individuals?  I think the current malaise in public school education manifested as high dropout rates and low achievement  and the epidemic of convicted felons may be connected as part of a larger failing of our society.