Education Reform

No other nation believes in the power of education like the United States does. For centuries, U.S citizens have adhered to the belief that education is the key to unlock the golden door to economic flourishing in the free market. But is this really the case?

In this essay, I want to examine the growing problem of poor schools. Disparities between schools in the nation are often based on factors such as social class and race. Poor school environments lead to widespread poverty and inadequate access to the free market.

Knowing this, there is one fundamental question I want to answer: How can we improve our education system so that the average American has more opportunities and success in the free market?

One’s access to quality education in the U.S is based on two factors. The first factor is the wealth of the tax base in the local community. If the tax base is impoverished, then the school’s will be weak.

The second factor that determines the quality of a child’s educational opportunity is related to where a child’s parent’s economic capacity enables them to reside. If the parent’s economic capacity is poor, they will reside in a neighborhood with inadequate schools (Wise, Rich Schools, Poor Schools).

As a matter of fact, a child born into a poor family only has a 9% chance of getting a college degree — while a child born into a high-income family has a 54% chance (Bailey, Dynarski, Gains and Gaps: Changing inequality in U.S College Entry and Completion).

It may very well be the case that the state is denying equal access to education by not enforcing the equal protection of the laws in poor and minority neighborhoods. This proposition would lead us to believe that the 14th Amendment (equal protection of laws) and Brown V Board of Education (school desegregation) have not been enforced properly (Kelly, The School Review, Pg. 637).

This causes implicit income and racial segregation in U.S public schools. Many court cases across the U.S such as McInnis V. Ogilvie have attempted to address the problem of school disparities by demanding recourses be distributed based on the educational needs of children (Kelly, The School Review, Pg. 638).

These cases have been struck down for vagueness and unenforceability. However, these cases raise a vital question: Are all American’s getting the schooling they deserve or is one’s quality of schooling based on factors such as race and social class?

Inequality in America seems to be a direct cause of our inability to educate the poor and lower middle class. Education, for our purposes, is defined as the early acquisition of useful knowledge and basic social skills that will lead one to the next level of schooling (Edmonds, Effective Schools for the Urban Poor, Pg. 15).

Poor schools even fail to provide these basic rights to students. Studies by George Weber in 1971 and the New York’s Office of Education Performance Review study of two inner city schools, one of rich status and one of poor status, lead us to the following conclusions: the differences in student performance in these schools are based on factors under the schools control, administrative behavior and practices have a significant impact on student performance and most importantly, children responded to unstimulating learning with disruptive or absent behavior (Edmonds, Effective Schools for the Urban Poor, Pg. 17).

This tells us the following: schools must have plans to improve student performance, staff must be optimistic about their students and communicate with them in positive ways, and teachers must present material in innovative and stimulating ways.

In 1976, Madison, Lawson, and Sweet studied twenty-one California Elementary Schools with high standardized test scores vs twenty-one California Elementary Schools with low scores.

This study yielded similar results to those of Weber and The New York Office of Education Performance Review; higher achieving students report greater amounts of support, higher achieving school teachers were more goal orientated, and lastly, higher achieving schools had happier children and more access to support services (Edmonds, Effective Schools for the Urban Poor, Pg. 17). This enforces the importance of factors such as leadership, expectations and atmosphere in forming a successful student experience.

There seems to be many systemic flaws in our education system that prevent the flourishing of all social and racial groups in the U.S from flourishing. These flaws include implicit bias, bureaucratic culture and a narrow one size fits all approach to education.

Schools across the nation have enabled a bureaucratic culture that promotes hierarchical power relations, accountability and impersonal relationships (Astuto, Clark, Read, McGree, and Fernandez). This leads to a lack of response to individual needs.

Perhaps one of the main problems with the lack of personalization in the education system is that it is foreign to both immigrants and poor families alike.

Students born into poor families as well as new immigrants lack the tools necessary to navigate vast and complex educational institutions, since the parents of these students lack formal education experience themselves (Patterson, Cultural Contradictions and School Leaving: A Case Study of an Urban High School, Pg. 5).

Another major problem in urban schools arises when educators “unknowingly, and with good intentions, allocate blame for poor school performance to children from poor and minority backgrounds.

Generalizations and misguided assumptions lead to educators absolving themselves of responsibility for student failure (Patterson, Cultural Contradictions and School Leaving: A Case Study of an Urban High School, Pg. 7).

Educators have a fundamental role in a student’s academic and social development. Successful urban schools are staffed with teachers who develop positive, caring relationships with their students (Patterson, Cultural Contradictions and School Leaving: A Case Study of an Urban High School, Pg. 7). Perhaps it is the structural and bureaucratic apparatus of the school system that makes many educator’s role minimal.

At Prairie High School, an inner-city school with a prominent Latino and Black population; teachers complained that they did not have enough time to work with students one-on-one, collaborate with each other, and meet the demands of teaching and non-teaching duties such as paperwork and hall duty. (Patterson, Cultural Contradictions and School Leaving: A Case Study of an Urban High School, Pg. 10).

Faculty found the bureaucratic structure of high schools personally and professionally frustrating; the lack of time in the school day to cover basic curriculum, class sizes, and the inflexible graduation requirements are just a few examples in a sea of complaints made by staff.

Students at Prairie High School rightfully complained about the teaching methods of the teachers, which included talking for the whole lecture and organizing students into groups such as honors, average or at risk. Minority students reported bias such as staff putting more faith and recourses into white students by putting them in the honors group while putting Latino and Black students into the average or at-risk groups (Patterson, Cultural Contradictions and School Leaving: A Case Study of an Urban High School, Pg. 11).

African American students in the at-risk group complained that teachers misused the allocated 90 minutes from the block schedule by making the class “boring” and making the concepts boring and abstract (Patterson, Cultural Contradictions and School Leaving: A Case Study of an Urban High School, Pg. 11).

Our approach in combating these issues should be obvious: use technology to teach in fun and innovative ways, decrease useless bureaucracy and personalize the education system to fit each students individual needs and aspirations.

To achieve this, poor schools need to increase funding so that each class should contain about 15 students. Notably, neoliberal approaches such as No Child Left Behind disadvantages poor minority schools, since such programs cut vital funding to underprivileged schools instead of increasing it.

Standardized testing only furthers inequities by widening the gap between the quality of education for poor and minority youth and that of more privileged students (McNeil, Contradictions of School Reform Pg. 3).

The discrimination here is evident: there is immediate evidence of a reduction in quality and quantity of education for schools that score low on standardized tests. For instance, Texas, a diverse state with a sizable Latino and Black population, enacted a set of standardized controls to monitor children’s learning and teaching; which in turn leads to the defunding of many poor and minority schools (McNeil, Contradictions of School Reform Pg. 4).

In the end, these standardized controls will disproportionately damage the education of all children, but particularly African American and Latino students. When dissecting the problem of standardized testing, we must first look at the literature. The literature in Texas says that urban city “magnet schools” (schools populated with a primarily Black and Latino population), proved to show signs of actual authentic and meaningful learning.

These “magnet schools” served a city as high-quality vehicles for desegregation. In these schools, teachers and students were free of the constraints of state textbook adoption, so they co-constructed rich academic environments in multi-racial settings (McNeil, Contradictions of School Reform, Pg. 5).

The literature on magnet schools, then shows us that as the controls were imposed, and the regulations increasingly standardized, the quality of teaching and learning began to suffer (McNeil, Contradictions of School Reform, Pg. 5). Furthermore, within the observational data, phony curricula began to emerge, were teachers shifted to forms of knowledge found on centralized tests.

Here, class shifted away from intellectual activity toward dispensing packaged fragments of information sent from an upper level bureaucracy (McNeil, Contradictions of School Reform, Pg. 5).

The problem here is that through useless bureaucratic reforms, the student’s contributions to classroom discourse as free thinkers, problem solvers and interesting organisms with compelling life stories and experiences immediately diminishes to one single, generic, bureaucratic school curriculum. Students are effectively becoming cogs in the machine; they are being detached from useful knowledge and education.

The main problem with this “one size fits all” bureaucratic culture of standardized testing is that it doesn’t accurately measure standards, as it does not account for other factors of emotional and creative intelligence for students.

Every student is different and measuring them vis-a-vis collective standards will not do justice to the rich life experiences and talents of a diverse population of a school. As a matter of fact, as previous literature shows, standardized testing is worded in a way that, due to cultural differences, may seem foreign to minorities and immigrants.

What’s worrying here is that standardized tests are of critical importance, as they carry serious consequences for students and those who teach them; grade placement, promotion, and graduation are imposed for commercial standardized tests (McNeil, Contradictions of School Reform, Pg. 6).

Commercial standardized tests are used in “accountability systems”, individual and aggregate student test scores are used as indirect measures of teachers’ work, principal’s performance and the quality of the school (McNeil, Contradictions of School Reform, Pg. 6). This problematic one size fits all model is a cause of mindless bureaucratic standards that hinder any true educational achievements.

It seems to me that the fundamental dilemma in poor schools is a collective bureaucratic cultural that operates in a one size fits all apparatus that disregards innovation and differing cultural and economic experiences. This current model is disadvantaging creative thinking and is creating roadblocks to equal access to the free market. Our approach should be to give more freedom to the teachers and principals and then evaluate their performance.

This is exactly what the city of New Orleans did to help their students succeed. In 2005, the state of Louisiana embraced on the most ambitious education overhaul in American history that abolished the old bureaucracy and closed nearly every school — the state, oversaw the schools, while hiring independent operators of public schools (charter schools) and tracked their progress (Leonhardt, The New York Times, How New Orleans Is Helping Its Students Succeed).

With this program, schools with a high rate of black and low-income students have seen exceptional academic progress. Reports show that with this ambitious new program — New Orleans academic performance has risen on a national level — with the average New Orleans student moving to the 37th percentile of math and reading scores, from the 22nd percentile pre-Katrina (Leonhardt, The New York Times, How New Orleans Is Helping Its Students Succeed).

Tulane University economists Douglas Harris and Matthew Larson have released a study dissecting the effects of Louisiana’s crucial education reform project, with the results being the following: increased test scores truly had positive effects on students’ lives, with students seeing a spike in high school graduation and college prospects (Leonhardt, The New York Times, How New Orleans Is Helping Its Students Succeed).

As a result of the reforms mentioned above — the teacher’s workforce now viewed their work as more important — and school spending increased by 13% in total (Education Research Alliance). Based on this data, our approach should be obvious; allow for more school autonomy and accountability.

In other words — limit clunky central bureaucracies such as the Board of Education and allow for the following: a curriculum designed by competent facility members that is tailored to the needs of the students in the given community. Given these results, maybe we should follow the Louisiana model of managing public schools as if they are charter schools.

Make no mistakes, there is a major distinction between the Louisiana approach and that of neoliberal school choice fundamentalists like Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education under the Trump administration. The problems with the charter school model include but are not limited to, the following: increased school segregation, the slashing of public funds and profiteering.

The argument school choice fundamentalists make is that public school are inefficient in educating the students. By contrast, charter schools have less students, therefore, funding each student will prove to be easier. As a matter of fact, this is a myth, since when classes are reduced, teacher salaries will remain the same and no facility will be terminated.

Though I have called for more personalized curriculum and smaller class sizes, the charter school approach is dangerous for a couple of reasons.

First, these charter schools withdraw vital money that goes to fund public schools. Charter schools are sucking up money that could have been used to help poor children with free and reduced lunches and literacy programs.

Second, government regulations mandate school’s investment in vital programs such as those who help students with disabilities — charter schools spend less on these programs.

Third, charter schools are structured and operate in ways that introduce to special interests’ groups and cooperation’s new ways to skim money from taxpayers — even nonprofit charter schools’ profit from public tax and privatize public access (Network for Public Education).

These charter schools follow business incentives instead of the educational interests of the students. For instance, in Michigan, 80% of schools are for profit. In Washington D.C, a charter school owner public education funded money to his company, which paid him 2.5 million over a 2-year period, with 14 million being paid by the school to the firm in 10 years (Network for Public Education).

There is a lack of oversight and mismanaged funds in these charter schools — the federal government spent more than 3.7 billion to boost the charter sector — here millions were wasted on financing so called “ghost schools” that never opened (Network for Public Education).

In this essay, we have attempted to address what makes students in poor and minority schools less able to access the complex free market. The literature throughout this essay has points out vital disparities that prevent the flourishing of poor students in the academic framework — leading to cross generational poverty — due to the lack of preparation and credentials to flourish in today’s competitive free market.

Such disparities include but are not limited to the following: poor tax bases in communities, poor parents reside in destitute areas with inadequate schools, the denying of equal education opportunities across districts, cultural differences and school segregation apropos the defunding of public schools for the corporate and unaffordable charter schools.

To make things worse, there are systemic, bureaucratic road blocks that prevent poor kids from flourishing in the U.S educational apparatus. Perhaps one of the most notable barriers is standardized tests — which have a notable impact in determines ones flourishing in the free market — while often contradicting and ignoring poor students interests and life experiences.

Teachers are forced to administer a clunky curriculum that students find boring — while teacher and school performance (and sometimes funding) — depend on the ability of teachers to instill into their students a one size fits all bureaucratic curriculum at odds with differing student competence, interests, personality and cultural experiences.

Charter schools may not be a viable alternative to these problems. Charter schools incentivize corporatism and greed — while becoming increasingly segregated and taking vital money and recourses from public schools that could serve the poor.

The logical approach when attempting to improve the quality of education across the nation would be to increase funding for schools that have poor rates of performance. This will provide poor schools with more recourses to ensure better leadership, expectations and atmosphere to ensure success. Big bureaucracy and neoliberal education policies should definitely not be the approach going forward.

I propose a school curriculum that is crafted by teachers, education professionals and the students themselves. This will lead to a truly efficient curriculum, tailored to each student’s specific needs.

The Louisiana case mentioned above is a prime example of the power of getting rid of clunky centralized bureaucracy — while simultaneously giving teachers back their autonomy and instituting proper mechanisms for accountability.

Giving control back to the teachers, facility and students will only encourage a more personal and intimate school setting for each student. Each student has unique life experiences and talents that will make them succeed in today’s free market —it is the job of school facility to tap into each student’s soul.

We must increase funding for public schools. Teachers must have more recourses and tools to navigate and personalize each student experience so as to provide educational and personal support for our most unlucky students. Smaller class sizes would be desirable. To achieve this dream, we must increase funding for public schools and not be distracted by useless corporate enterprises such as charter schools that would overwhelmingly disadvantage the unluckiest in our society.