I am delighted welcome this week’s guest, D A Adams, whose informative post outlines what he feels are the reasons for the decline of the educational system in the United States of America. Something, no doubt, many of us are witnessing in our own respective countries, and for many of the same reasons. But is there a solution!
It’s not a secret that the American educational system is rapidly declining. Our rank among developed nations has slipped from consistently in the top five to now around nineteenth. For a country with the largest and wealthiest economy in the world, that’s a staggering and saddening drop. Those of us who work within the system have been sounding the alarms for years and begging our so-called leaders to enact reforms. However, so far, our cries have gone unheard, and in fact, much of the legislation that has been passed over the last decade has done more to damage the system than reform it. As an educator, I see the primary issues with our system as threefold. First, professional educators are paid salaries lower than virtually any other sector of the economy, short of unskilled and semi-skilled labor. Second, too much emphasis is placed on standardized testing for producing quantifiable data, and finally, current educational leadership is more focused on implementing business models to improve operational efficiency than on time-tested educational models to increase effective learning.
In America, the manager of a fast-food restaurant such as McDonald’s earns more money than the average teacher. The typical starting salary for K-12 is around $25,000 a year. At the collegiate level, which requires significantly more training and certification, the average starting salary is roughly $35,000. In professions that demand equitable levels of education, such as accounting or engineering, the entry-level wages typically range from $75,000-120,000. One major disadvantage to these substandard wages is that the most qualified and talented people do not pursue education as a career because they are not willing to make the necessary sacrifices for the job. That’s not to say those of us in the profession are not creative, intelligent people. Many of my colleagues over the years have been brilliant within their respective disciplines, but as time has passed, fewer and fewer of the highly gifted people are entering this profession. Another problem is that many of us end up working second and sometimes third jobs just to earn a living wage. The demands of teaching are already tremendous, from lesson plans to grading to instruction, but when a second job is added in, many of us feel stretched beyond reasonable expectations.
One of the worst “reforms” to our system over the last two decades has been the move to standardized testing. By themselves, these tests can be effective tools to enhance instruction. However, federal mandates now dictate that all school districts rely on these exams for funding and state accreditation. As a result, most in-class delivery and methodology has shifted towards preparing students for the test. After twelve years of this system, the results have been disastrous. Critical thinking, writing, and application skills have diminished, despite test scores regularly climbing. When it comes to picking out a multiple choice answer, current students excel. When it comes to applying knowledge, they are lost. Bureaucrats and politicians have difficulty seeing the problem because they look at the quantifiable numbers and express that the scores have gone up, but they can’t seem to grasp that mastery of a multiple choice test is much different than mastery of knowledge. On my end, as a collegiate writing instructor, I now see less than 20% of my students operating at above average skill level, while nearly half are barely literate.
Also, over the last twenty to thirty years, nearly all reforms to education have been business-minded changes meant to streamline efficiency. Every year, another layer of teacher autonomy is eroded in favor of homogenous curriculum. To administrators, this is a pleasant change, for they don’t have to worry about individual instructors having competence in their field. As long as instructors can follow the standardized curriculum approved by the state, they can effectively deliver the desired course content. However, generic curriculum by its very nature is highly ineffective at reaching individual students. Professional educators understand that the most effective instruction is tailored to particular students based on their learning needs. To be capable of this technique, teachers must be masters of their discipline and spend three to five years in the classroom learning how to be effective. Today, it’s nearly impossible to personalize education in part because of the generic curriculum but also because of another tragedy of the business model design – student overcrowding. Teachers are now required by state regulations to maintain a minimum student load that is nearly double the optimum ratio. This overcrowding makes the job maddeningly frustrating. In fact, today, most new teachers burn out within three years, long before they have fully learned all the necessary skills, and those of us who have been in the profession for a while find it more and more difficult to juggle all of the challenges each new semester brings. Many of my colleagues, myself included, have expressed an overt desire to leave our profession specifically because of the ever-growing presence of business-minded paradigms that view education as an assembly line. Personally, I’m scared of what our education landscape will look like in another ten to twenty years.
If Americans want to fix our educational system, we have to address these three issues, sooner rather than later. We have to bring teacher pay up to a professional standard to attract the best people into the career. We have to reduce the emphasis on standardized testing for measuring achievement. The scores are not reflective of useful learning and distort the reality that our schools are failing this generation. Finally, we have to eliminate the business model from curriculum decisions. We must get student/teacher ratios into a 15:1 per class range, and we must return classroom autonomy to teachers to allow for personalized education that reaches individual students. Until we fix these three areas, our international ranking among developed nations will continue to decline, and we will wake up one day soon to find ourselves irreparably behind the rest of the world.
To learn more about author and educator D.A. Adams, please check out these links:
- Nine questions about ’21st Century curriculum’ (washingtonpost.com)
- Alternative to Testing (educatoral.com)
- Feds: Teachers embroiled in test-taking fraud (utsandiego.com)