Three Observations on Education

After nearly 18 years of teaching in public schools, I have learned a great deal about myself, my students, and the deeper values of education.  This work simultaneously provides me with some of the lowest points in my life, and some of the highest hopes for the future.  To say it is a strange line of work would be an understatement.  In most instances, the frustrations which develop in the lives of most teachers do not come from the children.  

One would presume that adults (especially educated ones) care about children and education.  Yet, that often does not seem the case in the United States, particularly in West Virginia.  Adults really do ruin everything.  I want to present three major observations about education and the problems this field faces.

Socioeconomic status of students and their educational achievement are strongly correlated.  In the United States, research demonstrates these factors are connected and one of the best ways which this nation can improve the education of its children is to effectively reduce poverty.  Of course, people of good conscience may disagree over the best way to reduce poverty, but at this point, the relationship between educational achievement and wealth is almost undeniable.

No one is or would suggest that people without wealth are incapable of learning, but these children often face obstacles which are unnoticed by society.  Children from low-income families worry about the lack of adequate food, clothing, and shelter.  A lack of money also causes friction within a marriage and those arguments create collateral damage in the lives of children.  

This also leads us to an uncomfortable fact that a large achievement gap exists between black and white children in America.  This should not surprise anyone when we consider the wealth gap between black and white Americans.  It is important to recognize that these are correlations and yes, a critic might argue the gaps in education, wealth, etc. go beyond this simple solution of: fix poverty, fix education.  I agree with that statement.  Complex problems rarely have simple solutions.  However, one cannot explain away this data as merely coincidence.  

In West Virginia, more than 10,000 students are documented as homeless and aside from that figure, almost 10% of the state’s students live with someone who is not a parent (which leads the nation).  The instability in the home lives of West Virginia’s children has further consequences, including chronic absenteeism.  This only further erodes learning and the achievement gap.  Currently, West Virginia has 11.8% of Pre-K through grade 3 students missing 18 days or more of school in a given academic year.  (Addendum:  the early years of education are far more critical.  Studies show that children who are more than one grade level behind by the time they reach grade 6 typically never make up that gap.)

West Virginia’s poverty rate stands near 18%, which means we are one of the poorest states in the Union.  Only Louisiana, New Mexico, and Mississippi have rates worse than ours.

Poverty rates across the United States

When we look at educational achievement, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), it’s almost a mirror image of poverty rates.  West Virginia, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Mississippi rank in the bottom five of both categories.  

Minnesota, for instance, has one of the nation’s lowest poverty rates and nearly the highest rate in NAEP test scores.  Are we to believe that the children of Minnesota are somehow inherently smarter?  Or perhaps their teachers far exceed those of our own state?  Of course not.  

The teacher in the room matters more than you might think.  Research demonstrates that the most important component in directly affecting educational outcomes is the effectiveness of the teacher in the classroom.  Good teachers make a difference in the teaching of the material but do far more than that.  According to research done at Stanford University, the importance of a solid teacher extends to the encouragement of positive behaviors, including decreasing student absenteeism.

Bearing this in mind, how does the United States, and in particular, West Virginia, treat teachers?  Not very well.  We do little to incentivize education as a prioritized profession in our society.  

Teachers do not receive pay commensurate to their degree of education.  Nationally, the average teacher salary is $60,477 and in West Virginia, the average salary statewide is $50,238.  This state pays $10,000 less than the national average, and that gap actually narrowed thanks to two teacher strikes in the last four years.  

A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) suggested that teachers make 21.8% less than those with similar levels of education in other professions.  The study also revealed that when adjusted for inflation, teachers in 2018 made less money than in 1996. 

Beyond compensation, government at all levels seems to be unable to provide any incentive for young men and women to seek out jobs as educators.  Popular culture has turned education into a joke, where people who teach in public schools somehow never amounted to anything in life.  Television, film, and literature can have a profound effect on the way society views any person, object, or in this case, a profession.

Think of all the cartoonish caricatures of teachers and principals we have seen in the last 30 years.  Saved by the Bell gave my generation the lovable goofball Mr. Belding.  Ferris Bueller’s Day Off portrayed a clever teenager running circles around the dimwitted Mr. Rooney — and who can forget Ben Stein’s classic monotone voice explaining to a glazed over class “voodoo economics”?  Do we need to remind anyone of the jerk principal in The Breakfast Club?  Hollywood has slowly ebbed away at the respectability of the profession.

Mr. Feeny isn’t as good as you think … look at the assignment in the background

Society has somehow changed the nature of how we view teachers.  Teachers do not feel a general sense of respect from the community at large.  Polling data reveals teachers are justified in feeling this way.  The data from Gallup reveals a few interesting trends about public education in America.  For instance, in 1975, 62% of respondents stated they had either a ‘great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of respect for the institution of public schools.  In 2019, only 29% of Americans had the same level of respect for public schools (the second lowest number on record). 

Disproportionate stress and burnout are the results.  Typically, teachers who leave the profession do so within five years, but studies also show that teachers typically need five years to maximize their effectiveness in the classroom.  They leave just when they’re hitting a groove in terms of their abilities but the other nonsense drives them out of the classroom.

So why do they leave?  

1. Petty tyranny and bureaucratic madness.  Schools are increasingly asked to take on more responsibilities and ultimately, those jobs trickle down to teachers.  Tasks are piled on to the plate of teachers while nothing is ever removed.  Aside from instruction of students and associated tasks with that (lesson plans, research, etc.), schools expect teachers to attend and work extracurricular events, counsel students about behaviors, collect money for various items, chaperone school events, make contact with parents in multiple ways, look for signs of mental health problems or any abuse, or any other number of record keeping and secretarial tasks that end up taking time away from actual instruction.  The West Virginia State Legislature has routinely added more responsibilities to public educators or dictated what we should or should not teach.

Is this a European monarch or West Virginia lawmaker? Hard to tell the difference anymore

Currently, West Virginia’s lawmakers are passing policies in the 2021 Legislative Session which lack support or input from educators, peer reviewed studies, or have any coherent logic.  (That’s another post in its entirety, but educational professionals do not want people with no experience in the field micromanaging their work.)

2. Lack of support from parents and the public.  Simply put, many parents believe their children over teachers.  They do not implement consequences at home, and this undermines the authority of educational professionals.  In the instance of West Virginia, the lack of strong parental authority and a safe environment mean that children lack the guidance they need to right their behaviors.  

In the past, other community members would often help provide guidance to children, but the loss of schools as a community institution seems to have a negative impact on the ability of others to help.  Consolidations have placed new schools in areas outside of towns and residential areas.  From my experience, adults living in areas are less likely to support these schools unless they have children attending them.  

3. Underfunded schools.  While teacher salary and lack of social supports create problems for teachers, a significant number of schools lack the resources necessary to provide students with a complete education.  The United States Department of Education has an annual budget of approximately $74 billion, which might seem like quite a bit.  When one considers the federal government spends nearly $4 trillion in a given year, the amount spent on education is a pittance.  This becomes more apparent when we consider defense spending receives ten times the funding of education. Everyone realizes defense of the nation is a priority but, by comparison, education receives such little funding.  

Critics will claim that “throwing money at the problem” will not cure the issues in American schools, and they are correct.  Money by itself doesn’t correct problems, but not having the financial resources to pay teachers, provide adequate supplies, and build proper facilities translates to educators struggling to keep the ship afloat. 

People misunderstand the purpose and mission of educational institutions.  In terms of human history, widespread educational programs are relatively new.  And we should continually ask ourselves about the purpose(s) of these institutions.  What do we want our children to learn and why?  

A segment of society believes schools should exist solely for job preparation, but this is not the case, nor should it be.  The purpose of education ought to be the cultivation of thought and intelligence, the development of moral character, and the devotion to helping children reach their fullest potential.  If society can do those things in a child, then they will be ready for the workforce (which often requires on the job training anyway) and it won’t matter how technology changes. 

Have schools become too fixed in their curriculum and educational strategies?  Perhaps so, but schools routinely receive questions from parents and children framed around the idea of “When will I ever need to know this as an adult?”  When someone asks that question, it feels tantamount to an accusation.  It’s as if someone is saying to a teacher, “You don’t know what you’re doing.”  

Exercising the mind is not altogether different from exercising the rest of one’s body.  We repeatedly do physical exercises in terms of weight training and cardiovascular exercises that do not often equate to real life activities.  “When am I ever going to have to do five rounds of push-ups as an adult?”  Probably never, but if you want your body to look a certain way or to have strength in particular muscle groups, you will do the push-ups.  The same is true for the mind.  Will you ever have to find the area under a curve in real life?  Or diagram a sentence?  No, but the effects on your brain are akin to you bench pressing a metric ton.  Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but you get the idea.  

We want our students to learn core information.  They need to memorize and learn rote activities.  However, education goes beyond simply knowing something.  The ability to think critically about an idea, event, issue, person.  This skill comes from the many little activities, lectures, assignments, questions, and lessons from schools. 

Many believe, as some historians have asserted, that public schools were created to produce factory workers.  I would contend this is an oversimplification of public education and if this was the case, one would be hard pressed to explain the teaching of literature, poetry, languages, science, art, and music.  What purpose does a carefully cultivated and well-rounded person serve in a factory?

The educational aspect of a school does not reflect the additional social responsibilities which I addressed previously in this post.  Schools spend so much time on the ‘other’ aspects of helping children, the academic education of children receives less emphasis than it should.  

While there is always room for improvement in our education system, we still produce so many good outcomes for children.  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s