The Paradox of Public Education

Public education is the dog that can be ignored when it is kenneled and quiet, but gets kicked when it barks.  Perhaps it is inevitable that something so readily available and necessary is taken for granted, and treated with contempt and derision, by those who have unavoidably benefited from it.

Now as I write this, I will have to admit I am not a disinterested observer of the sausage making that passes for school budget negotiations.  My wife works in public education, so I have lived her profession vicariously, and  have a vested interested interest in seeing her get paid a few dollars more each year.  I always appreciate being able to better afford the increasing costs of living.  That said, enough is enough.  It is time to end the duck and cover games between the county board of supervisors and school board members.  Flat leveling of school budgets, while politically popular is continuing a trend in existence before the economic meltdown, of shoving many aspiring and experienced teachers out the door, and whittling away at the salaries of those with the determination, motivation, and desire to tough it out.

To no one’s surprise, in the five or more years since the Great Recession, everything costs more, and as a result teacher pay has declined while class sizes and job requirements have increased, making the job more like indentured servitude than a job. But, “a job is a job” you say.  No.  Teaching is far more than just a “job” with pay and responsibilities.  It has a moral and societal impact beyond the localities from which they operate.  Teaching is one of the few jobs in this world that has the scope and scale to move humanity to a better place, and yet it is treated as just another spreadsheet entry– another category to be funded — like paper hats and napkins at a fast-food restaurant.

Fueling the discontent, is the underlying, truly American distaste for paying taxes.  Since public education is a large line item in localities budgets, it gets a fair amount of the angst from those who bristle at the idea of THEIR money going to pay for OTHER PEOPLE to do things which may, or MAY NOT, benefit them directly.  There used to be a time, when shared sacrifice for the greater good had traction in this country.  Sadly, though, that no longer appears to be the case.  The current economic meltdown has peeled the limited veneer separating goodwill, charity, and self-sacrifice, from truly capitalistic, mean-spirited, monetary truculence for anything that smacks of government (taxpayer dependent) spending.  As such, what we see now is a schizophrenic psychosis, where education is recognized as necessary, and reviled for that same reason.  This extends substantially to those whose salaries constitute the majority of a school system’s budget —  the educator (e.g, teacher, or erstwhile new age slave).

To meet demands for competence and certification, educators expend substantial time, energy, resources, accumulating skills (and debt), and yet their reward is to be sneered at as “overpaid babysitters” and “leeches on the public payroll.”  To further demonize these pedagogical hooligans, the convenient myth of the “bad teacher” is promulgated by those seeking to placate a taxaphobic public, thereby rationalizing the need to slash school budgets, and heap “accountability” on the backs of those already overburdened, all in the name of “conservative” fiscal policy and “progressive” educational reform.  This “pro-business” mentality appeals directly to those pulling the board of supervisors strings.  These tea-party wannabes are tuneless minstrels trumpeting the happy facade of “you can have everything you want by paying nothing”.  They are supported in this endeavor by parents who dramatically make noises about how they can’t live without that extra $50 a year, and gnash their teeth in hopes to deflect blame for when Johnny can’t read, write, or think (and now sits in their basement playing a Xbox, and bemoaning the fact that society has failed them).

Why is it that decision makers consistently fail to understand that by not educating kids, or supporting those who do, they — and ultimately society — will pay a higher price in the long-term, for high unemployment, low wage jobs, and rising poverty levels?  You need only look at how literacy rates impact earning capacity to see what the future holds for those who don’t get educated.  And even for those who do get “educated”, the inability to think critically will mire future generations in institutionalized mediocrity.  Why don’t stakeholders have faith in a system that reaches across economic class boundaries to raise the potential of the next generation? That generation will inherit and have to deal with the consequences of today’s decisions.  The answer, I fear, is that those in charge live strictly in the moment, like people locking their doors while the house is on fire.  We need to open our eyes and look to the horizon, and see the harvest of trouble we going to reap from the poor decisions with which we are sowing the future.

The problem is made worse by what is happening with the declining investment in education.  In particular, where is the focus today in education?  Is it on students, curriculum, or critical thinking?  No.  It is on the collection  and analysis of data, or in geek-speak “data driven.”  So, what does “data driven” mean (besides being analytic rat hole)?  Twain best describes the basis for such nonsense as “lies, damned lies, and statistics.”  Case-in-point, data can be manipulated to say anything you want, like when George Bush 2 cherry picked information to justify the invasion of Iraq.  Of course, self-justification and high-order foolishness does not need to drive the process, the opposite can be said as well, in that information is collected for no other reason than to justify itself (e.g., the self-licking ice cream cone), and the results of this one man argument can be used to say nothing of importance whatsoever.  Further, with technology, the ability to accumulate digital lint and make superfluous judgements can be done in fancy, colorful bar charts, which rotate and utilize 3D effects while making happy chipmunk noises.  Even better, computers can generate terabytes of useless, distracting and totally misleading information in mere seconds than it took office buildings full of monkeys on typewriters to generate them in the past.

So where is going?  In the race to the top (of the manure pile), education has embraced the “data driven” mantra and is accelerating toward the future of standardized testing and remediation (the combination of lowering expectations and hand-holding), such that once they finish perfecting the educational perpetual motion machine, teachers can be jettisoned from the system, as well as, ultimately, the students too.  Then everyone will be replaced by computers, and a brave new world where machines run everything and we serve them will be at hand.  At that point, I do hope Virginia’s homegrown climate Luddite, Ken Cuccinelli has it wrong, and that global warming exists such that the oceans rise and drown us all.  And if we are lucky, the education computers will be like those crappy iPods that short out the instant a drop of water vapor lands on them.  But then again, I digress.

One of the by products of the current slash burn approach to education funding has been to increase class sizes, and despite those who will gladly tell you that class size doesn’t matter, those who work in the classroom will tell you differently.  Why is there such a disconnect?  For the same reason that inflation is always “under control” and yet  the cost of living is rising higher than the inflation rate — because we aren’t measuring the things that matter, or, in other words, the rules have been written to muddy the reality of what is happening because dealing with the truth is so problematic.  Consider, for example, the state rules for class sizes in Virginia, wherein there will be no more than 24 students per class, which when you read it, would imply that there will be no more than 24 students in a classroom.  And yet, my wife consistently has 30 or more in her classes.  How is that possible, and yet, the school meets the letter of the law?  Well, it is because the calculation the state uses obfuscates the actual numbers in the classroom through numeric smoke and mirrors.  Average class size for a school is calculated from the number of enrolled students, divided by the number of faculty.  So all you need is one faculty member not to  teach any students, along with students in small or individualized alternative education classes, and the ratios get skewed such that you can easily stuff 35 kids in a classroom.  These lecture hall worthy classes packed with underage humanity are little Petrie dishes of trouble for even experience teachers, and for those just coming out of college, it must be like a feeding time at the ape house.  I always wondered why teacher retention rates were so poor, but now I know.  Public education eats its young.

Any attempt to analyze why kids fail to graduate, or learn to think critically has to  extend to the family, and the feathered nest of familial discontent.  Kids arrive at school hungry and tired, many after departing alone from single parent households.  Whereupon students can catch a few hours of sleep during 90 minute cat-naps that pass for class-time, and commiserate with their dealers and fellow gang members.  At the end of the day they slink off to empty homes, with even emptier stomachs and minds, ready to be refilled via late night trolling of social media websites, the haze of illicit and prescription pharmaceuticals, all while the flashing lights of digitized rape and murder courtesy the Internet and video games light up their faces.  Thus prepared, they show up the next day clueless and unmotivated, waiting for teachers who can “fix” them.  And if they can’t be fixed, well then, it must be because their teachers are “bad”.  A teacher can no more “fix” an unwilling student, than a doctor can heal a brain-dead patient.  You have to have something to work with, a commitment and a desire to reach a shared goal.  Without that, a teacher can be no more than a baby sitter, but that is not the teacher’s fault.

And what do we say about the victims of “education”?  Let us consider poor Johnny, the proverbial sacrificial lamb of public education.  Oh how we’ve failed him, his self-esteem destroyed by the tyranny of uncaring, unsympathetic and incompetent educators.  Poor Johnny, doomed to wander the halls of his “failing” school (when he feels like showing up), is habitually unable to turn in assignments on time (because he’s never in class, nor required to).  He is ignored by his “bad teachers” (those that have even the lowliest expectations), and must resort to stuffing his face with fat-laden, high calorie snacks and drinks to self-medicate the stress of due dates and lucidity.  At least he still has his parent’s love, in the form of a $300 iPhone, which allows him to sit in the restroom, during class, perusing naked pictures of his underage girlfriend.  Such a tragedy — truly.

But no diatribe is complete without offering something of a solution, and my solution is probably one that will never see the light of day because it requires two incredibly difficult things: the courage (and character) to do what is right, and to stop kicking teachers in the ass.  So if you want better schools, try fully funding them because sometimes “you get what you pay for”, and if you want better teaching, try giving teachers a helping hand by supporting their efforts, and not by stomping on their necks and telling them to shut up because you “pay their salary”.  If you want fairness and equity, try practicing what you preach.  We all want to get to the same place, in a future where kids have the skills to take advantage of the opportunities that are there; the only question is whether you want to risk paying for that now because ultimately, we will all pay for it later, one way or another.