05 July 2006

Dobbs: No summer vacation for our failing schools

I really enjoy it when people who have never taught in a K-12 school comment on how teachers should do their jobs, and last Wednesday's Lou Dobbs column No summer vacation for our failing schools gave me a good belly laugh.

According to Dobbs,
Our elected representatives and educational administrators all but refuse to acknowledge that high school graduation rates for American public schools were higher nearly 40 years ago than today. And while one-quarter of white high school students drop out of high school, the problem is magnified for blacks and Latinos, about half of whom drop out of high school, according to the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University and the Urban Institute.

Really? They ignore this? Funny, it seems like every time I turn around, another blowhard politician or political commentator is citing these facts.

Those numbers indicate the critical need to mount a national attack on the crisis that is far worse than administrators and educators have reported. Whether schools and their administrators are lying or cheating, or they're simply incompetent, matters little. Without independent educational studies, we would have no idea as to the depth of the crisis that faces our public school students in this country.

Well, thank goodness for those independent studies, because for years, teachers have been trying to draw attention to this, and for years, they've been patted on the head and told to go back into their classrooms. It's a good thing that the independent studies have brought this to light, because those teachers were obviously just crying wolf.

These so-called educators and administrators may be trying to keep the graduation numbers high so that they can meet the high standards of the No Child Left Behind initiative. While that initiative has not shown nearly as much success as its proponents and advocates had promised, it's done better than most of its critics and opponents would have you believe. In any event, the program offers far too little and lacks urgency in dealing with this crisis.

This "so-called educator" would like to point out that statistics can be manipulated both ways: just as we allegedly are manipulating our graduation numbers, proponents of NCLB are also manipulating its results.

Ironically, the United States spends a larger percentage of its total GDP on educating its students than just about any other country in the world.

As any good English teacher will tell you (anyone know one of those? Apparently I'm only a "so-called educator", so I guess I don't qualify), statements like "just about any" are vague, weak, and should be avoided. In an attempt to clarify Dobbs's statement, I went searching for his original data. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, whom he cites in the next line, the US is 10th in educational spending, with 4.8% of its GDP going toward education. This puts it behind such countries as Saudi Arabia (#1, 9.5%), Norway, Malaysia, France, and South Africa.

Yes, you may say, but there are 191 192 202 243 254 countries in the world (a number defined only by one's definition of the word "country"), so isn't 10th still pretty high? Look more closely at the study. There are only 29 countries included: 7 from the Americas, 10 from Europe, 8 from Asia and 4 from the Middle East and Africa. This isn't exactly all of the countries in the world.

Additionally, (heh heh, no pun intended) numbers can be played multiple ways. The study Dobbs cites looks at education as a percentage of a country's GDP. However, perhaps a more telling number is the percentage of a nation's budget that is spent on education. According to the National School Board Association, "voters believe that 20 percent of the federal budget is currently spent on K-12 education." In reality, the US spends 1.5% of the federal budget on education. Compare this with Singapore, ranked above the US at spending roughly 7.5% of its GDP on education, a number that translates to almost 22% of its national budget. [PDF, pops]

Granted, Singapore is more heavily taxed and regulated than the US is or ought to be, but given the level of government subsidy in every sector of society, this is still a huge number.

Finally, Dobbs addresses his novel, step-by-step plan of how schools can be fixed reiterates everything teachers have been saying for years now:

# It is time to restore absolute discipline to our public schools and classrooms to eliminate every extraneous program in kindergarten through eighth grade that does not focus on reading, literature, writing, American history and civics, mathematics and natural sciences.

No art? Music? PE? It's not all about the academic classes, something almost any student will attest to when you ask them their favorite class is and they reply, "recess." Children are sponges for knowledge, yes, but that's not all they should be doing with their day. The more we pressure them to focus on core materials without giving them a larger context in which to fit that knowledge, the earlier we are going to burn them out on education. Some things you just can't quantify with a test, but that doesn't mean they should be limited in the classroom.

# We should begin to redress the compensation of all public school teachers to ensure that we have the very best and brightest educating our next generation. For me, that means paying teachers far more and demanding far more of them.

Speaking purely for myself here, I really can't work much harder than I already am. Heck, it's summertime right now and it STILL took me four days to finish this post. I'm just that busy with schoolwork--summer school, and keeping tabs on the students I mentor. Not that I don't know teachers who don't pull their weight, because I do, but if you pay professional wages, you're going to attract teachers capable of pulling their own weight, leaving the ones who don't to find jobs elsewhere. Teaching needs to pay enough to be one of the top choices of our college grads, not something some people go into because of the great benefits or vacation time or because they don't know what else to be.

# The role of the federal government should be to provide, no matter what the cost, a scholarship program that provides a family stipend to economically disadvantaged students who demonstrate exceptional intellect and talent.

Again, this has been said before, and is a no-brainer. However, I believe scholarship models like Michigan's, as well as Georgia's HOPE program, which is publicly funded, are more the way to go--students know from a young age that money will be less of a barrier with regards to college, so I believe they are more likely to see it as part of their future. Not all students are going to be the most exceptional, the best and brightest, but there are many hard-working, motivated students who might not qualify for other scholarships but would benefit greatly from tuition assistance at a state school.

# All graduating seniors in the top 10 percent of their class should be assured federally funded national scholarships to pursue university educations in mathematics, science and English. And stipend programs should be instituted, conditional on an educational commitment to teach in our public schools after their college graduation.

Excellent idea. And these scholarships need to not be for a limited amount, but ones that will cover unmet need, such as the Millenium Scholars scholarships offered by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. These scholarships ensure that top students will be able to attend top schools without having to worry about financial aid--they cover the gap between the free financial aid that the schools offer (grants and scholarships) and the total cost of attendence, so that the students and their families won't have to take out loans. Since the inception of the Gates Millenium Scholars program, over 10,000 academically talented, underprivileged students have been able to attend the university of their choice free of the financial barriers that might otherwise restrict them. While I realize that this is an infinitesimal number compared to the number of graduating seniors each year, it still is a good model to consider.

To sum up, I agree with Dobbs that the current paradigm isn't effective for the needs of our students. However, I believe the change needs to come from more than just the local school systems--what is needed is a national change, and a societal change. Until people realize that teachers should receive a salary commensurate with other professionals, until politicians quit trying to quantify the sometimes unquantifiable, and until some of the societal ills that underlie many of our educational problems are remedied, Dobbs's advice will just be another noise in the cacophony of voices clamoring for change in a system they really know nothing about.


At 12:18 PM, Blogger The Rain said...

Superior post--I'm glad you submitted it to the carnival!

It's always fun to backtrack numbers like you did and see how the commentator twisted the study to fit his own needs. Sadly, the honest rejoinder will never get as much play as the initial spew, which is part of the reason that it seems like we're always behind the 8-ball in education.

At 8:14 AM, Blogger reality-based educator said...

Nicely done. I came over from School Me and this part of your post particularly resonated with me:

"Until people realize that teachers should receive a salary commensurate with other professionals, until politicians quit trying to quantify the sometimes unquantifiable, and until some of the societal ills that underlie many of our educational problems are remedied, Dobbs's advice will just be another noise in the cacophony of voices clamoring for change in a system they really know nothing about."


At 3:41 AM, Anonymous Casino Tips said...

It is well told.


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