The Quality of Education is in the Eye of the Beholder

The public education system in this country is broken. It is not the fault of the teachers (although mass firings would lead you to believe it is), it is not the fault of the students, it is not the fault of the parents and it is not the fault of the government. The fault lies in the system itself. In a pre Brown V. Board of Education world, the public school system was comprised of two parts, one for white students and one (that was called “equal”) for blacks. The schools for the black children were woefully under resourced (and in many cases overcrowded) and had no chance (for the most part) to compete for the best available teaching talent. Flash forward to today, 55 years after the landmark Supreme Court case that outlawed the policy of “separate but equal” and we have a public school system that in many ways mirrors the landscape as it stood in the pre Brown days.

The policy of “separate but equal” was kept in place, in part, to not only keep children of different skin colors apart, but in order to perpetuate a permanent underclass in this country. The policy proved incredibly successful in that respect. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, life for those on the wrong side of the “separate” doctrine remained amazingly stagnant. The tidal wave of prosperity that swept the entire country following the end of WWII somehow managed to elude those at the very bottom of the socio-economic chain. In the south, especially, those born with the wrong skin pigmentation could not realistically hope that their lives would be any better than those of their parents. And the law of land saw to it that their opportunities for advancement were very limited indeed.

The changes that were brought about due to Brown and the subsequent Civil Rights acts and voting rights act of the following decade led to a new outlook. The 60’s ushered in a new age of enlightenment. LBJ dreamed of a “Great Society” and of the end of discrimination and poverty and for a time, the country, caught up in the age of Aquarius, went along for the ride. Schools were desegregated; For the first time in the history of the nation a thriving black/minority middle class emerged; affirmative action helped to limit the effects of discriminatory hiring practices; And education, which for over a century had provided a barrier to any chance of upward mobility, gave those with less, a chance for more.

Then came the 80’s and the attacks on the hopes and goals of the “Great Society” came fast and furious. Our nation became much less concerned with US and much more concerned with ME. White flight to the suburbs became a rushing torrent and our inner cities were left to be, more and more, the last refuge for those with no other choice. One of the major consequences of the flight to the suburbs was the loss of the tax base that helped to support the public school system. Property values dropped and the stream of revenue that helped to support the education of our children began to dry up. With the loss in revenue came a loss in the quality of education that could be provided to those children who happen to be unfortunate enough to be born in a underfunded district..

Funding for public schools comes from a combination of federal, state and local government money. Federal and State money are usually handed out equally based on school populations, but local money is most often kept within the locality. So the upshot of that policy is that, here in NY there are schools that have computer labs that provide every student with a computer, and there are those that require that multiple students to share one. There are schools that have average class sizes of 20 and those that have average class sizes of 40. There are schools that have modern facilities and textbooks, and there are schools that have to convert closets to classroom spaces because they have no more room to fit their expanding population. I know I’ve taken a long time to get to my point, but here it is: The simple question that should be posed is why, do we as a country, value some children more than others?

The beginning of one the most quoted and repeated lines in all of history says, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal”. Let’s look past the obvious contradictions of the statement at the time it was written, to the actual meaning of those words. We, as Americans believe as part of our DNA, that everyone in this country should have an equal opportunity to succeed. We believe that we are a meritocracy despite all the evidence to the contrary. Life may not actually work this way, but we, as a people, are not ready to admit that a kind of social Darwinism should reign supreme. Yet as we close our eyes to the absolute inequity of our public school system, that is exactly what we are doing.

“Let’s fire all the teachers!”, some say. “It’s all the parents’ fault”, still others will claim. Yet as we point fingers at each other, another generation of our children is being lost. Wait, let me rephrase that, another generation of lost souls is being created. As it was before Brown and the Civil Rights Acts, we, as a country are in back in the business of perpetuating a permanent underclass. People can go to the movies and watch a Sandra Bullock movie, where one black kid is “saved” and becomes a success and believe that all is right with the world. Unfortunately, that story is not repeated very often. Most of us do not have an extraordinary skill. Most of us would not stand out on a field or court. Most of us would not stand out against the best or brightest in any of the endeavors that we have chosen to undertake. That has not, however, precluded us from some acquiring some level of achievement or satisfaction in our lives.

I took my education for granted, as I’m sure most of us did. The children who now attend public schools in well funded districts probably take their education for granted as well. They have what they need to satisfy any intellectual curiosity that may be sparked during their typical day. Children who come up on the short end of the birth lottery most typically would not have the resources to satisfy that curiosity. When the intellectual spark is not nurtured into a fire, it eventually disappears. We, as a country, are currently in the business of choosing who gets that opportunity and who does not. And what happens to those kids whose curiosity isn’t nurtured? You already know the answer. We all do.

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34 Responses to The Quality of Education is in the Eye of the Beholder

  1. Holte Ender

    April 6, 2010 at 2:59 pm

    Chil­dren who come up on the short end of the birth lot­tery most typ­i­cally would not have the resources to sat­isfy that curios­ity. When the intel­lec­tual spark is not nur­tured into a fire, it even­tu­ally dis­ap­pears. We, as a coun­try, are cur­rently in the busi­ness of choos­ing who gets that oppor­tu­nity and who does not. And what hap­pens to those kids whose curios­ity isn’t nur­tured? You already know the answer. We all do. There you have it. We do know what happens to them. They end up selling $10 or $20 little bags of stuff, for the big dog on the block, or if they are big and strong, become the muscle end of the business. It’s a shocking waste of people.

    • Mycue

      April 6, 2010 at 3:25 pm

      “It’s a shocking waste of people”. I couldn’t have said it better myself. We have apparently decided that certain children aren’t worth the effort. We allow them only a perfunctory education and then throw them unprepared into the world. Can there be any other outcome than hopelessness and despair? Are we okay with that? We used to be and it seems we’ve reached the point when we are again. Of course pointing out a problem isn’t enough. My plan is to propose real solutions in my upcoming posts.

  2. fourdinners

    April 6, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    Pretty bad over here too mate. Teachers have just received an official instruction to smile at pupils – I kid you not.

    Many schools no longer teach any history about The British Empire but seem quite keen on introducing lessons in Urdhu.

    Apparently many schools feel their curriculum should be more representative of our ‘ethnically diverse society’

    Yeah. Right. So kids will leave school speaking Punjabi and thinking Churchill is a cartoon dog off TV advertsising car insurance.

    Welcome to 21st Century England.

    • BigHarryH

      April 6, 2010 at 5:36 pm

      The British Empire is the reason you lot have the crap going on. Empire is nothing to be proud of.

      • Infidel753

        April 6, 2010 at 5:51 pm

        Ah, but if it hadn’t been for the British Empire, the United States wouldn’t exist…..

        • osori

          April 6, 2010 at 7:09 pm

          one more thing to blame on the bastards then.

          • MadMike

            April 6, 2010 at 7:15 pm

            LOL LOL!

  3. Truth101

    April 6, 2010 at 3:12 pm

    I wonder if the aging population, and large share that has no kids in school contributes. My town has an older population and it hasn’t approved a school tax hike since forever.

    You pointed out that perhaps we don’t care about kids as much. I think we only care about OUR kids. Screw the rest of them.

    There are huge flaws in our schools. Kids need to be taught subjects like goal setting. How to budget and save and be responsible. But sadly Home Ec classes were cut years ago. And regardless of what anyone says about parents teaching this stuff, show me a hundred 18 year old kids and 97 will have no clue how a credit card or mortgage works.

    Of course the way schools are these days, they might not have any clue about anything.

    • Mycue

      April 6, 2010 at 3:36 pm

      Education is the key that allows our children to enjoy those “unalienable rights” of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If we don’t all accept that as our responsibility, then whose responsibility is it? A portion of my taxes have gone for public education for years, even though I don’t have any children. I’ve never questioned the fact that my money is going to pay for other people’s children to get an education. Of course trying to improve the educational opportunity of all of our children I’m sure would be looked on as part of the “socialist” agenda these days by those on the right.

      • Mother Hen

        April 8, 2010 at 9:38 pm

        Aging populations do have something to do with it. As the kids leave (grow up and move) the folks stay until the neighborhood is full of them. Instead of just one crabby geezer grousing: “Git offa mah lawn” you have an entire city section of old, (usually conservative) voters who won’t agree to any tax increase no matter what it is for. To be fair, many are living on fixed incomes, and the schools (at least around here) are funded by property taxes. Their rates have been low (since they doubtless bought their homes 40 years before) and they don’t want anything to affect that.

        White flight is a different thing. While some whites are douchy enough to flee for suburbia as soon as a darky moves in three blocks away, most have different motives.
        As a family grows, parents want to move to a bigger home, preferably with a yard for the kids to run around in. That cute apartment or one bedroom starter home just isn’t going to cut it.
        Often, buying within the older parts of the city means choosing from areas populated by the above mentioned geezer demographic, (who might sell their home once dead, but until then only rentals are available in the area) by immigrants (who may not speak the language), or by old-moneyed wealthy land barons who have sold off their extra lots to developers who build starter castles that no middle class family could afford. Sure you could buy a “fixer upper” in the old part of town and walk to the local school, but nowadays few know how to unclog a drain or fix a leaky faucet- let alone renovate a house with kids underfoot!

        Most choose the path of least resistance- new, smaller, (treeless!) cheaply built cookie cutter houses in suburbia. They get room for the kids, a relatively “new” house they don’t have to know how to repair, and a long commute.

        So who is left in the town proper? Geezers (no taxes!), immigrants, poor people who can’t afford to leave, intrepid do-it-yourselfers, and rich people (who send their kids to private school). Not much of a tax base for the schools there. As the old folks die, brave liberals might move in to gentrify the neighborhood; conservative opportunistic types buy properties not to live in themselves (the horror!) but to turn into rentals. With absentee landlords many of these degrade into slummy areas that no one but the desperate will live in.

        The teachers want to teach kids whose parents will be home to help with the homework, and participate in book and science fairs. They want to teach kids who come to school with breakfast, dressed appropriately for the season, and ready to learn. It is just easier to deal with those kids.

        Teachers are poorly compensated for their level of education, among the lowest paid of college graduates. But they do it for the “intrinsic” rewards, as they’ll tell you. But for every poor kid, that “diamond in the rough” a teacher is able to influence for the better, there are 20 horror stories. How many have the energy, willpower, stamina, and cojones to tackle inner city problems? How often can a teacher stomach having students come to school abused, neglected, with the looming “F” on their report card the least of their worries?

        It takes a hell of a toll on a person to deal with a class that has only a couple of students with discipline problems. An entire class full of disadvantaged kids with no materials, high turnover, spotty attendance, and discipline issues on top of all of it- only saints and martyrs need apply! The teacher burnout rate for these areas is understandably high.

        So who is left in these schools? The idealistic, novice teacher with no tenure yet; the jaded hag with a couple years until retirement and nothing to lose; the drill sergeant type who instills discipline through fear. Are any of them up to the challenge?

        Increasing teacher-student ratio helps, but even the perfect professional can’t do much if she has students who do not value learning, whose parents do not provide support. Even among the underclass that desires status and success, many kids are hampered by their attitude. Capitalist culture has created the materialistic urge without the accompanying work ethic that provides the means to fulfill that desire.

        The ones who do care about learning are graduating with college degrees and immense loans they can’t afford to pay because they can’t find work. Education for its own sake, which would produce an intelligent voting populace, (and ironically, one willing to elect leaders supportive of education) is too expensive and out of reach for most kids of any color.

        Until people are convinced that the best society can only be achieved if we have a healthy, educated population, I am afraid nothing will change.

        • Mycue

          April 9, 2010 at 4:06 pm

          Mother Hen,
          Great points. Do you have any potential solutions to the problem?

  4. Infidel753

    April 6, 2010 at 5:53 pm

    Well, the right-wingers are increasingly pulling their kids out of public schools to home-school them these days, because they know public schools don’t provide a proper education. Most public school kids don’t even know the name of the dinosaur that Jesus was riding across Texas when he wrote the Constitution.

    • mycue

      April 6, 2010 at 6:02 pm

      Dino! But of course I’m the product of a superior catholic school education.

  5. fourdinners

    April 6, 2010 at 6:50 pm

    Big Harry : Actually old bean, it is. (Something to be proud of). At least in our case. Obviously, certain things happened which may not have been entirely cricket, but, the quality of life of all nations encompassed by The British Empire was infinitely superior to the quality of life those nations currently have – which is why they all want to come over here.

    Independence was great until they realised they didn’t have Britain ‘backing them’.

    Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) is screwed for example. Noticeably, most previously ‘British Empire’ countries, on gaining independence, chose to remain in the ‘Commonwealth of Great Britain’.

    ie – they knew where their bread was buttered.

    Only Australia and the USA have prospered post Empire.

    We were ‘chinless wonders’ then and knew how to rule the world.

    Rule Brittania and all that, what!!

    • Holte Ender

      April 6, 2010 at 10:47 pm

      What about Canada and New Zealand.

  6. MikeP

    April 6, 2010 at 7:07 pm

    Help me out here. What exactly are you saying? Are you saying that public education in this country is broken because schools with predominately black student enrollment aren’t getting the money they need, and that predominately white enrollment schools do?

    • mycue

      April 6, 2010 at 9:09 pm

      To 3shelf and Mikep:
      The post is not racial per se, it is definitely cultural. The segregation that existed pre Brown was racial by definition, whereas the segregation that exists today is defined by economics. That does impact minorities to a greater extent, but it also traps the poor children of every race, color and creed. The American dream isn’t defined by the success of an individual, but it should be defined by the opportunity that individual is given. The dream (or the myth, in some cases) is simply not available to some of our children. My central question remains, Why do we value some of our children more than others?

      • MikeP

        April 7, 2010 at 6:26 am

        Thanks for the clarification, Mycue. I wasn’t sure to which factor you were attributing the problem. Now I understand. You indicate that you will be making additional posts on this so I’ll wait for those before offering much comment. I do take some exception to your question, “why do we value some of our children more than other?” That seems like an unfairly loaded statement to me, but that might be what you are going for. Because I can’t afford something that you can afford doesn’t necessarily mean I value it less than you.

        When discussing education, inevitably the topic of cash comes up. If you pay for it, they will come. How much does it cost to educate a child? Is there a specific dollar amount per child that we can assign and everybody wins? No. There is not. I live in one of the poorest counties in South Carolina. By accident, one industry in the county provides a huge boost to the tax base here. It’s tiny school district scarfs up more than half of the entire county tax revenue and per student spending is higher than any district in the state. Read that statement again. Per student spending is higher than any district in the entire state, even those privileged districts where all the rich white kids go. It is also the most unsuccessful educator of children in the state based on any meaningful measure of that, and has been for a long time. More money will not educate these kids.

        But, I said I was going to wait to comment and here I go rambling on. Sorry. I’ll sit quietly now. Anyway, I don’t think I’m going to agree with you, but I do look forward to your further postings on the topic.

  7. 3shelf

    April 6, 2010 at 7:43 pm

    I am wondering what is being said precisely. There is much here that has great value, but there seems to be a racial undercurrent. Please clarify Mr. MyCue. Thanks.

  8. Gwendolyn H. Barry

    April 6, 2010 at 8:22 pm

    I only know it’s a very sad situation. All through America. I’m not so sure elsewhere. I went to private schools all my life (a notable three month exception between prep schools) but I have so many friends with kids in public schools and my best friend works in public high school down here… and the thing is; there is good as well as the insurmountable bad. And my nephew is graduating this summer. I have to say, he is not up to the reading and writing I think he should be, yet he blows me away with math… and he has had good teachers. Coaches. But the cost to play and so many schools are dumping the arts and sports due to no money. I don’t know enough, Mycue, about this situation… but what I do know, is troubling. Educational standards are not what they were… or is it me? But this I have heard and observed in my little FL community… there is no racial discrimination about funds and teachers and supplies… it’s all the same. And Murphy tells me that it’s the same with her school. They are hurting but managing still. And the West Boca High is multi racial / cultural … so varied. I guess I’ve been fortunate to see effort and care in my communities. I take your word that it’s nasty elsewhere. What can be done? Is what I wonder… what can I do? I mean that sincerely…too. Not in any irony. It’s a good post Michael. 🙂

    • MadMike

      April 6, 2010 at 8:31 pm

      I am also the product of private schools Gwen, at least until my HS years. I also never saw any racial discrimination, but then again I was just a kid and I had no clue. Speaking for myself I loved this post, understand it and support every word.

      • Bee

        April 7, 2010 at 6:27 pm

        I was sent to southern baptist private schools (yeah, that’s a major oxymoron, there – southern baptist “school”), and I saw it. There was one african american kid there, and the little shits in that school tormented her until her parents finally pulled her our. That was in Fredericksburg, VA, just for a mental mapping. And, oh, hell, I’m tired and I forgot the point I was going to make.

    • mycue

      April 6, 2010 at 9:26 pm

      I think that the we as a nation have to decide that each child deserves the same opportunity to succeed or fail. The federal government can’t force local governments to share the wealth, so to speak, but the President can be a leading voice in bringing to the public’s attention the plight of our children. The President can talk all he wants about new standards for teachers and standardized tests for schools, but those things do not get at the root issue. My first proposal is that everyone who works in the federal govenment in DC should have to send their kids to public school within the district. DC public schools have been notoriously bad for years, but I’m sure if the President and the members of Congress were forced to send their children there, the standards and quality of education would be magically raised overnight. The shame is that something can be done. We have the resources. The question is whether someone in power will have the courage to point out the almost criminal inequity that is being forced on some of our children.

      • Gwendolyn H. Barry

        April 7, 2010 at 12:11 pm

        Michael, I can wholly support that. I’ll keep my eye open for the opportunities to expand that in my community. I’m determined to keep going to the HS sports… I guess I’m a ‘booster’… Also, my sister is supporting one of my newphews’ team mates to get into a local college and to keep his football up… so staying active in your community’s public education is part of making a difference…yes? Valuable post, Mycue.

        • mycue

          April 7, 2010 at 3:40 pm

          Gwen, my dear, I have no doubt that you do a great many things to make this world a better place. I just wish the rest of us would follow your example.

  9. osori

    April 6, 2010 at 10:38 pm

    Excellent and well-thought out post.Even more commendable is your strong concern for education, and you mention you aren’t a parent.It’s the way everyone should be, caring about our children and our future.
    It’s my experience teachers are underpaid,underappreciated and overworked. So many have to pay for little things out of their own pocket.Yet virtually all of my kids teachers cared.And these were not what most people would consider the best of schools yet the teachers always made a good effort.

  10. Vigilante

    April 7, 2010 at 12:10 am

    As an ex-teacher and retired parent, I say parents are to blame for having more kids than they can supervise. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

    • MadMike

      April 7, 2010 at 8:39 am

      As a current teacher and retired parent I am with Vigil.

      • Mother Hen

        April 8, 2010 at 9:53 pm

        Definitely a lot of the problems within the classroom could be helped if each teacher had a personal bouncer present in the room- an enforcer if you will. No discipline at home makes trouble for everyone at school which is the only place some of these kids hear “no”. You can throw all the money and fancy computers you want at some districts and nothing will change until the attitudes of the kids do.

  11. Bee

    April 7, 2010 at 7:39 am

    This was an excellent post, MyCue, and I have nothing whatsoever to add to it. Good job indeed!

  12. Lazersedge

    April 7, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    Great post Mycue. It is a bit strange though that growing up in the 40’s and 50’s in poverty myself we all had little but seemed to make the most of what we had. I think we need to add technology to part of the problems with children getting educated today. Today children rarely go to libraries, read, or have actually solve problems themselves. Instead they surf the internet, watch TV, and use computers instead of learning to think. Many of those who are retiring professors from our universities and colleges grew up without all the technology and educated many of our great scientists of today. I do understand your point and think it is a valid one but at the same time we should consider how we were able to arrive at this educational level to begin with.

    • mycue

      April 7, 2010 at 2:53 pm

      Every succeding generation in the past century has had some form of new technology that was supposed to make our children morally bankrupt. Radio, movies, TV, boom boxes, walkmen, video games, computers, etc. I don’t think that the technology is the problem. Access to technology that can help the learning process is a problem, but I think that every generation thinks that the following one is somehow wasting more of their time with technology. I remember the dire predictions of how the walkman signaled the end of conversation. Children will learn, regardless of the distractions that technology provides, however they have to be given the opportunity to learn in an environment that nurtures their intellectual curiosity.
      I think the main problem is one of passing the buck. Parents blame teachers, teachers blame administrators, adminstrators blame the politicians, politicians blame the economic situation and budget restrictions, and taxpayers don’t care about the kid one district over because they can afford to live in a district with “good” schools. Of course at the end of the day, the kid who lives in that district with not so “good” schools is the one that suffers and the one who has no one to speak for them.

  13. Vigilante

    April 9, 2010 at 12:11 am

    Mycue, I will pass your buck.

    The teachers (high school) I worked with were perfectly capable of working as their own bouncers. The only problem were school administers were deathly afraid of district administrators who were themselves deathly fearful of LAW SUITS. The results from that kind of culture is systematic appeasement of unschoolable and disruptive students.

    • Mother Hen

      April 9, 2010 at 7:42 am

      Very very good point. Too many CYA rules stifle both discipline and creativity. Teachers spend their time teaching to the latest government-mandated test or ineffectively trying discipline that won’t scratch the rub off card of the lawsuit lottery. There are some horror stories of bad discipline out there, but when it gets to the point where you fear to hug a kid who needs it, or you can’t mention to a student that her bra strap is showing without being accused of harassment, something is very very wrong.