It’s Our Fault Public Schools Are Struggling – And It’s Up To Us To Fix It

by Christine Organ
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The buzzwords are all around us. Failing public schools. Common Core. New math. Teaching to the test. Most of us can’t actually define what these things mean, and yet we know that they mean one thing: America’s public schools must really suck.

Except that they don’t suck. And to the extent our children aren’t getting the education they need and deserve, it’s our own damn fault.

A couple months ago, I wrote a piece about how public schools aren’t failing our kids; we are failing our schools — and our kids. You can read the full piece here, but basically we are to blame for our current education system. We have been fed a bunch of lies about poor teacher performance and underperforming schools, and we’ve believed those lies, and that’s why we are where we are right now.

We’ve touted the “think local” mantra with righteous indignation even if we know that our own kids’ school isn’t suffering and doesn’t need our help, but other schools do. We move into neighborhoods with people who look like us and act like us. We throw our time and energy into volunteering for the PTA at schools that are busting at the seams with volunteers and resources, while turning a blind eye to the students in schools that have fewer volunteers and fewer resources.

It’s a bullshit system, and we’ve allowed this de facto segregation to continue under our watch. It’s our own damn fault any schools are struggling, and it’s our obligation to fix this mess. Because, quite frankly, the “think local” mentality has continued to hurt the most vulnerable children among us — and that’s unacceptable.

Let me say this one more time, boldly, for the folks who are still missing the point: All children — not just the children fortunate enough to be born to rich parents who live in the right neighborhood, but all children — deserve a high-quality education.

Children do not choose which family to be born into, nor do they have any control over where their parents live or how much they earn. They are innocent clean slates, and every single one of them is worthy of getting the same high-quality education. You don’t get to wash your hands of the problem simply because it doesn’t affect you — either because your kids go to a decent school or you can afford to send your kids to private school. Quite frankly, if your kids go to private school or you’re fortunate enough to live in a good school district, we have an even bigger obligation to fix this.

So what can we do about it? How can we fix this mess we’ve perpetuated for so long?

Well, first, we need to educate ourselves. Despite the growing number of armchair activists and self-righteous complainers, most people don’t understand effective teaching methods or how the education system works. Few people appreciate the inequitable impact that property taxes have on public education. And many people want to ignore the inequitable and negative impact that today’s current standardized test regime has on minority students.

This confusion and lack of understanding, while unintentional, has important and detrimental implications because these misperceptions feed off each other and create justification for our inequitable views on education. Although the financial impact of private and charter schools on public education varies by state, in most cases, it results in a significant loss of money even though the district is providing the same services.

In Wisconsin, for instance, the state gives each public school district tax dollars in proportion to the number of kids in its schools. If a district loses students — whether to a private or charter school — the district also loses money, even though it still needs to provide the same services.

Parents (and non-parents) should stay informed and seek a variety of opinions about people with actual knowledge of the situation. Talk to the educators you know. Believe them when they tell you about their concerns and what they need. Follow reputable education-based websites like Answer Sheet on The Washington Post or Edutopia. And do a little hands-on investigation yourself. Resist the urge to get wrapped up in test scores and school rankings. Instead of accepting a school’s gossip mill reputation as truth, visit the school yourself and talk to the teachers and administrators who are there, in the thick of it, every single day.

As uncomfortable as it might be, we can’t ignore the ways systemic racism, inadequate mental health services, and socioeconomic biases impact education. It’s important to pay attention to our own blind spots and acknowledge the ways you might be contributing to segregated classrooms. For instance, a study found that white parents tended to seek out neighborhoods where their children would be with other white kids. To counteract this tendency, Adina Brooks, a parent and PhD candidate in education policy, recommends participating in activities and organizations where all people feel welcome, regardless of race or socioeconomic status.

“Find places within a larger metro area that are more integrated, where families of various races and ethnicities feel comfortable,” Brooks told Scary Mommy. “When white families participate in activities where they are not in power, and find value and become invested in the program, this can be incredibly transformative.” She suggested volunteering at Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCAs, music and dances classes, and sport teams in urban areas as both a way to expose your children to more diverse people and to provide resources to community-based youth programs.

Within your own community, you can also do things to raise awareness and increase diversity. For instance, Jessica Smock — a former teacher, education researcher, and parent — recommends raising money to host diverse speakers at your school and facilitating opportunities for your school to join with other schools for special activities, like author events and school fairs.

Above all, we have to stop acquiescing to this broken system of haves and have-nots. Be a voice for change. Vote often and armed with information — not just in presidential elections, but midterm elections and state/local elections as well. And when you’re not voting, be a strong advocate. Push for better health services (both physical and mental), especially in lower socioeconomic areas. Advocate for your local libraries, funding for the arts, and smaller classrooms because these changes can make a huge difference, especially in those schools that may be struggling. In fact, evidence shows that a large classroom hurts test scores not just in the short run, but also in the long run — and the negative impact is even greater for low-income and minority children.

Remind yourself that these are children. Blaming them or holding them responsible for their situation is not only illogical, but cruel. Instead of focusing on the education your own children are getting, think big picture and look to the needs of other schools as well. Volunteer at a school in a lower socioeconomic area. Send gift cards to the teachers at those schools, or donate funds to pay for students at other schools to go on field trips. Change can only happen if we get out of our comfort zones and look at the ways the system is affecting all children.

I’m up for the challenge. Are you?