The economy and war have been center stage in the current election rhetoric for obvious reasons. Unfortunately they are upstaging a problem that should have been granted much more scrutiny. The Bush administration has touted the No Child Left Behind act as a success, theoretically a legacy for future generations. On paper, it seemed like a lovely idea, introducing a form of capitalism to education by offering more federal dollars to schools that perform well.
Making it easier for individuals to end up in the classroom as teachers was part of this program, to address the teacher shortage in certain regions. There was talk of increasing standards for teachers and requirements for a certain percentage of “highly qualified” teachers for each district, but definitions for what that actually meant became a bit murky. There were plenty of standards for elementary, middle and secondary students, but nothing for accrediting education programs on the post-secondary and graduate levels.
Off paper and on the ground, I’ve been watching local schools close, and surrounding districts adopting students they are ill prepared to handle. Money for those displaced students does not follow to the districts that they now call home – at least not anywhere near the level that those districts typically spend on their students. Nothing has been said or done about “top heavy” districts – districts that spend far too much money on administration. I live in a district of this kind, knowing that the Advanced Placement English students in our high school do not have enough textbooks to go around, while members of the administration enjoy inflated incomes and benefit plans.
Through all of this, I have been watching researchers in education and literacy considering the options, and trying to communicate what the primary problems are with NCLB. I’m just an administrator of a non-profit that occasionally gives books to at risk youths and low income children, so if I would weigh in on the issues, it’s unlikely anyone would pay much attention to what I had to say. There are days when I just want to type “look at the Asian model of education” over and over again in all capital letters in response to comments that would be about as effective as a band-aid on a bullet wound.
Maybe my silent thoughts finally made their way to some of those researchers by osmosis or telepathy, but they’re slowly starting to examine the process of becoming a teacher. Top-down reform in education has been the only logical solution I could muster, and now that logic seems to be seeping into academia – and the minds of some politicians. It’s mentioned in passing on the campaign trail, and most recently, I heard it mentioned by Hillary Clinton in one of her stump speeches in Pennsylvania. Maybe if I think about it enough, the candidates will pick up a way to connect the problems with NCLB to the problems with the economy. Perhaps the fact that Sony is regretting opening a plant near my home will be noticed and mentioned. Sony is finding that high school graduates in our area lack the basic math and English skills they require for even the simpler jobs in their plant.
We don’t respect teaching as a profession in this country, mostly because of the beginnings of education here. Women were often the teachers, whether it was teaching basic reading and math skills by the hearth, or in a town hall. Teaching of basic skills isn’t considered a high aspiration, in spite of a general feeling that education is one of the most important issues in the country. Requirements to acquire a certificate to teach have eroded over the years, and there is no such thing as a national standard – something that probably should have been considered when NCLB was being drafted. If we aren’t insisting on excellence from individuals who seek to become teachers, we can’t expect excellence from our students. Teaching should not be a fall-back for university students who didn’t cut it in other areas – it should be the hardest academic program to gain entrance to, and the most difficult to complete.
This election, regardless of what the candidates are talking about, it is necessary to take the time to verify where they stand on education. All of our current foreign and domestic problems are linked to this single issue. Effective foreign policy that is backed by the people cannot be attained when the people are not taught about the intricacies of governments – our own, and those of the rest of world. We cannot have effective dialogues with peoples of other nations if we do not learn about their cultures – the current wars in the Middle East are a direct result of our misunderstanding of the cultures of that region. If we do not improve education in this country dramatically, we cannot hope to have even a stable economy – forget about a healthy and flourishing one. The claim that we are the greatest nation on earth loses its veracity when we can’t even manage to compete against some nations in education. To be better, faster and richer, we must be smarter first.