Public Schools Aren’t Failing Us. We’re Failing Our Schools (And Our Kids).

by Christine Organ
Originally Published: 
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When my family and I moved to the suburbs a few years ago, we had some basic criteria in mind. We wanted to be (relatively) close to our extended family. We wanted to live near public transportation. And most importantly, we wanted to live in an area with good public schools.

After a lot of searching, we found a modest, fixer-upper just three blocks from the train, 15 minutes away from family, and in an excellent school district. We were fortunate. We were lucky. We were #blessed.

You don’t have to look far to hear or read about America’s struggling public education system. Just about everywhere you look, you’ll hear someone complain about subpar curriculum, stringent standardized tests, overcrowded classrooms, and failing schools. Politicians, the media, and soapbox complainers just love to talk about how our kids can’t compete with other kids in other countries, how they’re falling behind, and the schools (teachers, administration, and the system) are to blame. Let’s be honest: Self-righteous indignation and finger-pointing is the easiest way to avoid the hard truth, isn’t it?

Because in this case, the hard truth is that the schools aren’t failing our kids; we’re failing our schools, and by extension, our kids. We’ve been fed a bunch of lies about standards, curriculum, and unaccountable teachers as the reason American schools are struggling, but it’s simply not true. We’ve been fed a bunch of lies, folks.

Because the single biggest indicator of educational success is the amount of money a family has.

We don’t want to acknowledge this because it makes us uncomfortable. To acknowledge this fact would also mean that we would have to recognize the role that we all play in this problem and the (selfish at best, heartless at worst) ways we are perpetuating educational inequality. It’s much easier to blame everyone else, isn’t it?

The simple truth is that the shortcomings of the public education system aren’t affecting all students, and some people are perfectly happy to keep it this way.

According to educational psychologist David C. Berliner, family income strongly and significantly influences the mean scores in every standardized achievement test used to judge the quality of education. In other words, as a family’s income goes up, a child’s test scores go up. As the collective wealth of a community increases, so do the overall test scores of the school.

People argue that our students can’t compete with other nations, or talk about the ways other students are impeding their child’s ability to learn, but data shows that American students are competitive with any other nation in the world — as long as we’re talking about students from wealthy American families.

“When compared with other nations, some of our students and some of our public schools are not doing well,” Berliner said.

Which begs the question: Which students and why?

A recent report for the U.S. Department of Education found that the quality of teachers working in low-income schools is about the same as the quality of teachers in high-income schools. So we can stop blaming the teachers. Quite frankly, teachers are angels from heaven who aren’t paid nearly enough.

And we can stop blaming the curriculum, too, because rich kids in public schools comprised largely of other rich kids are competitive with kids in the highest scoring countries around the world. Since the curriculum is largely the same across the board, it can’t be the reason for the disparity.

So if teachers and the curriculum aren’t the problem, what is the problem?

Well, brace yourselves, folks. You’re the problem. And I am too. We are all the problem.

That’s because, as Berliner points out, we’ve created a system that relegates low-income students to the farthest corners of public education. We’ve created a system that, by design, segregates schools by socioeconomic status, race, and ethnicity.

And the biggest to blame? Upper-middle class, rich people, and basically anyone who has the means to choose to homeschool, send their child to private school, or live in a financially secure school district. The government and the wealthy have hoarded their wealth and rewarded “their own.”

“[The wealthy] hide behind school district boundaries that they often draw themselves, and when they do so, they proudly use a phrase we all applaud, ‘local control!'” wrote Berliner in the Washington Post. “We have created an apartheid-like, separate and unequal, system of education,” said Berliner.

This segregated and disparate system is only going to get worse with budget cuts like the ones the president has proposed, including a reduction in federal education spending by $9 billion (or 13.5%) in 2018 and stripping after-school programs for the nation’s most vulnerable students. We’ve created — and under 45 and Betsy DeVos will continue to perpetuate — a system of haves and have-nots, both intentionally and unintentionally, and it’s up to all of us to fix it.

I might be a self-professed public education zealot, and you might have perfectly good reasons for sending your kids to private school. I’m not judging. But 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, you have an even bigger obligation to fix this.

Instead of taking money away from or closing those schools that serve lower-income students, we need to give them more money. We need to stop funding schools with property taxes. We need to provide quality summer school programs, parent education classes, and after-school programs. We need to work on making sure that low-income students aren’t also food insecure or coming to school hungry. We need to stop holding PTA fundraisers where parents can “bid” on time with teachers and other activities that give some kids a leg up. We need to pay teachers more and evaluate them on their performance, not on their students’ test scores.

Of course, this will take additional funding, and if our kids go to a school that benefits from this messed up have/have-not system, they might be asked to give up something. But as they say, equality feels like oppression when you’re used to benefiting from your privilege, so get used to feeling a little bit uncomfortable. We all want what’s best for our children, but that can’t come at the expense of other innocent children when it comes to education.

What’s more, as Berliner points out, spending money on the education of the next generation is always a good investment. Communities will thrive and states will get their money back in the form of a higher paid workforce (which yields higher tax revenues), lower rates of incarceration, and lower health care costs, among other benefits. Not to mention the fact that it’s the right thing to do.

The bottom line is this: These are innocent children we’re talking about. They are quite literally our future. They should not be pawns in a messed up political fight. Public education is not a political issue; it’s a moral issue.

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.

Like I said, my kids are fortunate to go to a fabulous public school in the suburbs. But this also means that, in a roundabout way, my kids benefit from this messed up system, and if I don’t do anything to fix it, I am part of the problem. And so are you.

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