Education – The Forgotten Issue

Elizabeth Ross

(Dedicated in memory of Pittsburgh police officers Stephen Mayhle, Eric Kelly and Paul Sciullo II)

While most eyes are on Secretaries Geithner and Clinton, I’m keeping tabs on Secretary Duncan. Since long before NCLB was even thought of, the concept of educational reform has been of high importance to me, and has guided quite a bit of my personal research into the inner-workings of our government.

Admittedly, I was influenced early on by my father, a systems analyst who was tired of training new engineers in his workplace because they were “never properly prepared to enter the workplace.” The shortcomings of the Ivory Tower in America were favorite table topics in our house, and as I got older, I ended up with quite a bit of my own personal evidence of it.

Particularly, I am no fan of scholars who are extremely arrogant, and am extremely annoyed with ones who also fail to display even a minuscule amount of common sense. One can be the most learned individual on the planet, but that knowledge is useless if that person lacks the ability to discern basic truths of the real world and social interaction. I am beginning to suspect that this lack of common sense amongst scholars may also be at the root of my primary objections to NCLB and most of the education researchers’ alternatives I’ve seen.

Primarily, I have found it disturbing that in most of the research I’ve read over the past few years, there is rarely anything mentioned about the lack of standard requirements for teacher education programs. This is not a new concept, and extremely high standards for educators is the norm in countries with far more successful educational programs than ours (consider Japan, Korea, etc. where teaching is one of the hardest professions to get into, with much higher pay scales than in the U.S.) I’ve heard the argument that we do not place as high a status on the occupation of educator because teaching is associated more with women than men, at least on the elementary level, but it falls flat in the face of the successes seen in countries that are rapidly moving beyond us in the areas of business and technology.

I was holding out hope that education might become a serious issue for this administration, but it isn’t looking good so far. It was particularly disturbing that I didn’t hear Obama mention a single word about significantly changing teacher education requirements in his speech to Congress — although he did mention merit pay in passing (I suspect his rubric for determining deserving candidates will not be significantly different from the current NCLB one, though.)

On a personal level, I have observed some of the negative effects of NCLB in my own backyard, including the closing of failing schools, and administrators pushing teachers to do more documentation of their work at the expense of students (classroom teachers leaving students with substitutes for more days each year for the sake of interminable meetings and paperwork sessions.) Unfunded mandates are tying school district officials’ hands, causing them to make hard decisions about the quality of education of their students – compromising education for the sake of Federal requirements. Add the fact that the work that I’m seeing from many college students and graduates today is comparable to what I have in boxes in my attic from my days in high school in the late eighties, and it’s obvious that standards across the board are slipping. (It’s downright terrifying when I compare theses my mother typed for graduate students in the sixties with ones I see today.)

While the economy is gathering headlines for being a rough inheritance for Secretary Geithner, Secretary Duncan is facing one at least as difficult. The question is whether or not he will be daring enough to suggest that we have been on the wrong path since the beginning with NCLB. Expecting students to perform better without making sure that the teachers are better qualified is a farce, and if we do not rectify that problem, the current economic problems will pale in comparison. We can’t expect to compete in the global community without making sure that our children are up to the task.