The State of Our Schools

Institutions, no matter how old, uniquely designed or important, do not survive if they are more concerned with self-preservation than with changing to meet constituent needs. There is no better example of this than America’s century-old public school system, an institution on the brink of collapse. This is the state of American public schools today:

  • America can barely graduate half of its high school students;
  • More than half of all students going to community colleges drop out after the first year – despite strong remedial programs;
  • As many as 80% of our middle school children are below grade level and cannot do the work expected of them;
  • Two-thirds of our third grade students cannot read at grade level;
  • More than 50% of our children leave kindergarten unprepared to do first grade work;
  • Only one in five of our public school teachers believes that they are adequately prepared to teach in their classrooms;
  • The New York City school system will need 54,000 new teachers in the next five years because of retirements and transfers. That number is equivalent to more than half of today’s teaching staff. No one in any area of education can say where those teachers will come from;
  • 10,000 New York City teachers are not certified to teach; additional thousands are teaching subjects for which they weren’t trained;
  • 55% of new teachers in New York leave the system before their sixth year of teaching. Across America in cities like Austin, Texas, 50% leave the profession every year;
  • For many and differing reasons, bilingual education and HeadStart, both begun as works programs for Hispanic and African Americans, do not prepare students to succeed in school. Despite criticism and efforts to make them better, they persist with little change… or lasting results.

All of these difficulties add up to a failure that is the plague of New York — and of every other community in America. What happened to a public school system once considered so successful that many believe it made the 20th Century the “American Century”?

A Growing History of Failure

The failure rate of America schools in the last quarter of the century, is driven by four incontrovertible facts: the formula that made our schools so successful in the first half of this century – teachers + parents + students = success – no longer exists because ‘parents’ are no longer part of it; children come to school unprepared for Kindergarten and never catch up; schools can no longer teach children to read; it has been years since Schools of Education properly prepared teachers to teach.

The extraordinary system of public education that we have built since the turn of the 20th Century, depended for its success upon an unstated but existing ‘arrangement’ which worked like this: Teachers + parents + students = success in school. The arrangement began to fall part in the 1960’s — first because of the cultural and socio-economic changes in the role of women, then in the number of out-of-wedlock births and the unprecedented number of single parents, and finally because in two parent families, both work.

Today, 75% of American women are in the workplace; 55% of Moms with children less than a year old are working. Whether there’s a single parent or two working parents in a family, they are not home with their children. Instead, Americans are sending ten of millions of children to some form of ‘day care’ every day. And now, a report from the Carnegie Foundation inform us that 60% of all child care facilities are ill-equipped to provide early childhood development and are actually harming the ability of children to learn in school.

Because parents are no longer part of the formula for success, schools no longer perform.

Students: Unprepared
What important part do (did) parents play?

Research studies of the brain reveal how much a child is capable of learning from birth to three years. Research studies reveal that children who are able to work with an adult for about 15 minutes a day during their earliest years enter Kindergarten at five years of age with three thousands hours of preparation.

It is difficult to over-emphasize the importance of these three thousand hours to a child’s development. They are indispensable to a child’s future learning. Studies indicate measurable differences between children having accumulated this amount of learning time and children who have had but two or one thousand hours. These differences grow markedly as children have less and less time to experience this informal, very early childhood development.

Traditionally, the adult working with the child was a parent. Quietly, without a preconceived plan, Mom, Dad and little child were working in the most important learning years in a child’s life. When it was time for Kindergarten, children were generally ready to meet the expectations of a Kindergarten teacher and the teachers were trained to work with those children.

What did the child learn prior to entering school? Much of what Kindergarten expects them to know when they arrive: the recognition by sight and sound of many of the letters and numbers; a recognition of colors; of sounds and rhythms; an ability to take direction and an understanding of his/her “place” in the world. Children starting with this background were taught to succeed in Kindergarten, went on to first grade and could read by second grade, at least.

Here are the three aspects that we must acknowledge if we are to understand why millions and millions of children can’t read, write or do arithmetic: They have come to school without those hours of preparation and our schools have been unable to make up those missing three thousand hours. Schools of Education have not trained teachers to teach children who are not “ready.”

In the late 1960’s and early ’70’s, reading and language teachers found that while phonics taught children to read well, their comprehension skills didn’t match their reading skills. Rather than adding new methods of teaching comprehension skills to the successful phonics model, the school gurus’ threw-out the phonics model and introduced an entirely new teaching method. They called it reading “the whole word”. This approach – begun in California – was based on the idea that children would learn to read a word by (eventually) recognizing it without learning how to “sound out the letters”. Year after year this method worked its way across the country until in state after state, teachers could no longer teach children to read! California is now last among all states in reading scores!!!

It cannot be news to anyone that reading is fundamental to schooling. The reading (and writing) problems in America are now so severe that even math teachers struggle to teach math to children who understand the math principles, but cannot read the math problems.

Now with the computer-assisted reading programs leading the way, there is talk about returning to a phonics-based approach to teaching the mechanics of reading. The talk continues with most schools not yet ready to make those changes. In the meantime, there are several generations of people from all walks of life, who do not read and write as well as they should.

Schools of Education
The combination of culturally driven changes in the socio-economic status of families, and the changes in the way children are taught to read, have resulted in changes of enormous significance in the classroom. Withal the need for and talk of reform, these changes have been essentially ignored by the public schools and Schools of Education. The entire system – teachers, principals, superintendents, Boards – has known for years that teachers are ill prepared to face the children in their classroom. Sound proposals for change have been developed, published, discussed and acknowledged; yet, nothing has changed. As employers, school systems have had the power to insist that Schools of Education make major changes in the way teachers are trained, yet no such demands have been heard. Nothing has changed.

While recognizing the national failure in schools, Schools of Education have been explaining away their responsibility for this crisis. They have refused to change what they are teaching no matter how ill prepared their graduate teachers continue to be. Instead, many schools have extended the time that teachers-in-training must be in school to earn their degrees, from four to five years. Among their excuses for poor performance is that the smart, capable students (women) who used to choose teaching as a career, now prefer lucrative careers in investment banking, law, medicine, etc. True or not, the facts are that tenured professors at Schools of Education apparently refuse to learn – and then teach – new ways of reaching children. Further, despite the clearly apparent failure to teach subject content, most Schools of Education insist that all subject content can be learned at the education school rather than through links with the subject departments at their/a Liberal Arts or graduate school.

The Solutions to the Problem

Teachers can neither provide each of the 15, 25 or 30 children in a kindergarten class with the individual attention they need, nor with the amount of work that will help children make up the hours of preparation that they never had.

What is even more troubling are the studies that show that no teacher working with a traditional curriculum and traditional ‘tools’ in any grade will ever be able to make up those “lost hours” as a child moves through elementary, middle and secondary school.

This status quo is as true in New York as it is across the country despite the size of school budgets and the fact that Federal Government is spending $7.3 billion in Title 1 funds this year alone to “fix” the problems. No matter what the schools try to do, they continue to complain that there is “no money” for significant changes. But money is not the real problem. The real problem is how the money is spent.

Here then are our recommendations for solutions that will work:

New Teacher Training Approaches
“Once upon a time… in the large metropolitan hospitals, there were emergency rooms full of poor, homeless, and indigent people seeking primary care for recurrent illness.

The reports from these hospitals seemed startling at first: 20% of the babies being born -one in five- were dying in childbirth or were permanently disfigured or disabled. When statistical analysis then showed that those events were only a little greater than the norm for that population, little notice was taken.

In time, the number of deaths and disabilities grew. Answers were sought – and found: Poverty was the problem. There was little or no patient compliance. Our healthcare system was unable to overcome prevailing socio-economic conditions.

Then in the last quarter of the century, the problems grew beyond the metropolitan population-in-poverty and spread throughout every city, town and village in the nation. The babies who were dying or disabled in childbirth were no longer just the children of the poor, but of the greater middle class. And now it was fifty percent, not 20%, of babies dying in childbirth, or born disfigured or disabled.

The problem had become so serious that American business and corporate leaders forecast serious shortages of workers and executive personnel. Colleges and technical schools reported thousands of empty classrooms. Politicians made solving this problem first among their priorities.

More money was provided to fix what were serious problems. Diagnostic computers were added to the technological mix. Special hospital programs were ‘chartered’ to try new obstetrical techniques. New ‘voucher’ programs sought to give financial incentives to those who would go to Catholic or other sectarian hospitals for childbirth. Emergency rooms were kept open later. Physicians were limited in the number of patients they could see.

Nothing helped. Something was fundamentally wrong, but what was it?

And then it was revealed than an enormous, uncountable number of physicians had not been trained to deliver babies safety. Despite degrees from recognized professional schools, internships, success on requisite tests, licenses and certification, thousands of physicians could not prevent half the babies from dying in childbirth or from being born deformed or permanently disabled.

Suppose this parable had been the case in America for the past thirty years? Would we have waited, struggled, experimented and still failed to solve the problem with all of this “death and disability”? Would it have taken thirty years to learn that medical schools were not teaching physicians-in-training to deliver babies safely? Doubtful.

And yet, that’s what we’ve done in education for the last thirty years: refused to recognize that the majority of teachers don’t know how to teach our children because schools of education failed to prepare them properly!

Charter schools, voucher programs, longer school days, smaller classes, summer school, ‘better’ standardized tests that will force higher standards, the end of social promotion… are all “experiments” with some worth, but experiments just the same. None of them deal with the cause of failure, the “disease” itself: the failure of teachers to teach and the failure of their professional schools to prepare them to teach.

Calling for “more money” for more teachers, who are unprepared to teach no matter how small the class, seems as destructive – and ridiculous – as calling for “more money” for child care facilities which impair our children’s ability to learn in school.

And yet recent statewide tests which have been designed to indicate how our students are doing with higher standards of learning, indicate that the students in our NY State public schools have not learned enough to pass the tests. These terrible results throughout the larger cities and in all the suburban towns and villages across the State clearly indicate that teachers are not yet doing the job expected of them.

To the question “Why not” comes the answer that Schools of Education refuse to change their ways of teaching. Education faculty refuses to learn new techniques to help teachers teach today’s children. In universities throughout the country, tenure is protecting these faculty people from having to learn new material using the latest information about learning and combining that information with new ways of teaching their students to become effective teachers.

New models exist. Old models which have never been seriously employed, still exist. There are Deans of Education who know and understand the problem and are committed to change. Most cannot overcome the fierce resistance on the part of tenured faculty. They then choose to leave, to stay and quietly give up the struggle or often, wait impatiently for that aging faculty to retire or give-in to the pressures for change. In the meantime, new teachers continue to come into public school systems without being able to teach.

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has developed nationally acclaimed, enthusiastically sought-after certification programs in a number of very important teaching areas. These models alone would be worthy of total absorption by every School of Education in the country. Has it happened? No. Will it? Not by “magic.”

The American Council on Education, the country’s largest association of colleges and universities, has published a very harsh critique of American teachers… and of the Schools of Education they have attended. It proposes that an outside agency audits each of the 1,3000 teacher education programs in the country, an oversight that is required in each of the nation’s medical and law schools.

It also urges college and university presidents to place the education of teachers at the top of their agenda. The report says that if teacher training cannot become the responsibility of the entire university, then universities should get rid of their program entirely because these programs – and perhaps the university – will lose its accreditation.

Increasingly, there are reports that States are pressuring schools of education to improve their teaching, or risk losing their accreditation. No such losses have been reported to date.

The Solutions that Work: Electronic Education

No matter the techniques used in the golden days of public schools to fairly place children in classes so that teachers could get the best out of them, the ‘given’ was that almost all of the children in a grade essentially knew the work at the level they were in.

Today there is no such ‘given’. We know that few children work at their grade level. Instead teachers face classrooms of 30 children who are at totally different levels. Many are as far behind as the number of years they have been in school (fourth graders who are four years behind). Teachers simply do not know what to do with these children. They can’t give them the individual attention that might make a difference. They can’t give them the amount of work that they need to catch up.

What can electronic education do that teachers can’t do? It can take that fourth grade class and provide each child with work at his/her real educational level and start them on the path towards a single grade level curriculum. It can provide all the work necessary to begin the process of ‘catch up’.

Our hypothetical fourth grader must learn social studies, as well as science, math and literature. But because he cannot read at grade level he can’t keep up in those subjects. If he could spend a large portion of his day working with the computer software programs in all these subjects, they could be presented at his reading level. While much of the work would be remedial, it would also begin to help him close the grade level gap.

With so much work to be done, the amount of daily computer time is fairly substantial. And yet while none of the other remedial strategies has made a dent… the computer software will make the difference.

On the other hand, if we use electronic education to introduce reading to children in Kindergarten – especially those who have had much less than those 3,000 hours of preparation for school – changes in what they learn will be startling. Just 15 minutes a day of songs, poems and colorful moving images, along with take-home books, videocassettes and audiotapes, would help teach reading and so make all that remedial work unnecessary.

The individualization of level and pace, the almost endless amount of work that the computer can provide, make all the difference in outcome. It is as if each child has its own personal teacher for hours each day with the classroom teacher available to answer questions and put all of the information in the context of learning.

Schools are trying. Unfortunately, the attempt at reforms being made by schools are essentially experiments with very little total commitment to any of them. Those being discussed by politicians, educators, parents, media, are all about changing the settings. They have little or nothing to do with changing the interaction in the classroom. If school is to succeed, teachers must teach differently, students must receive information differently, and the right kind of remedial strategies must be used to help millions of children reach their correct grade level.

Unfortunately, none of the ‘reforms’ that follow are about changes like that.

-Charter Schools are special within a school district, avoiding curriculum choices set by a school district board, and (often) with their pick of the “best” teachers and the “best” students.

Since the first one in 1992, more than 250,000 students have enrolled in more than 1,200 charter schools in most communities throughout the nation. Not one of these schools has become a model for a community’s entire school system, despite that advertised ‘promise’ behind their development. In fact, most charter schools are in an adversarial relationship with their school system because ‘institutional’ bureaucracies view them as being imposed by politicians and reformers and not as potential models of excellence. These schools have not produced the special results that people expect because despite the selection of teachers and students, and the introduction of a ‘special curriculum’ the very essence of classroom work is essentially unchanged. If the relationship between information, teacher and students does not change, the desired results will not be obtained.

-Vouchers, are opportunities for a parent to have a choice between the school that a child is attending and the better school in the district. Yet, vouchers are not being brought to the ‘best’ public schools in a district or system, but to Catholic schools where the system of teaching/learning is very traditional… and so thought to be ‘best’. Despite high hopes and real effort, early gains measured in test scores of ‘voucher children’ are lost as the school year proceeds. The results of standardized tests taken by public and parochial school children show little difference between them, though larger differences were expected. Yet, vouchers continue to be used because parents-in-poverty appreciate what they regard as a superior attitude towards learning in the sectarian school and because political forces insist that poor people should have the same ‘choices’ about schooling for children as wealthier people.

What is true about ‘choice’ is rarely discussed: that guidelines have not been developed to help parents decide what “best” means. How many parents-in-poverty eligible for vouchers have the knowledge and the experience to realistically compare schools and decide which is a “best” school? If they are not educated consumers, are they choosing or guessing, or just trying to get their children out of one school and into what they’ve been told is a better school? The fact that vouchers might be found to violate America’s constitutional principles of separation of church and state has not yet stopped its advocates.

– While everyone urges higher standards, Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers and Randi Weingarten, president of the New York United Federation, question the ability of their teachers to teach to higher standards. They know that the only help that teachers have received from State Departments of Education – after years of work and millions of dollars expended – are new, tougher tests. Looking at the failure rate scored on these tests, this leadership also questions the ability of the children to attain higher standards.

Instead, teacher union leadership is rightly urging better teacher training and much better pupil preparation, along with its expected push for higher salaries and fully equipped and safe classrooms.

– Genuinely ending social promotion will involve the holding back of so many children that classroom space and teachers will be difficult to find. As the new school year began in 1999 in New York City, there were so many failing children that the idea of 20 students in a classroom (the newly heralded ‘smaller class-sizes’) was abandoned. Further, while the practice of social promotion is repugnant, what is true is even more troubling. Studies show that holding a child back to redo any of the first four grades doesn’t produce success; and that the number of “drop outs” increase in the later grades. Troubling reports in daily newspapers indicate that despite promises to the contrary, there is widespread promotion of children despite their clear inability to do the work.

While some students learn enough to pass the tests and move on, most don’t. What is universally true is that principals, teachers, academics, professional educators and Mayoral aids in cities across the country, now say that tests are ‘better’ because they demand new higher standards of performance. They claim that “teaching the test” is in fact the best way of getting “knowledge” across to students. It is ironic that though these tests are supposed to inspire schools to ‘raise standards’, dismal test results prove that students at every academic level are not receiving the education they deserve. Once upon a time another time, the practice of ‘teaching the test’ was thought to be the most unethical, unprofessional, intellectually dishonest thing a teacher could do. Times have changed.

One hundred years after its establishment, public schools are at last able to do what the system has always wanted to do for its students – individualize their education. Until now, teachers have neither had the tools nor the knowledge to do that. Today, with the right kind of education and training and with the technology, a teacher could reach each of the students in a classroom. But first, the teacher must learn how to understand the educational needs of each student, must know how to meet those needs — and how to best use the technology. Will it take another hundred years for teachers to reach that level of professionalism – and with it, the status they deserve? If it does, America will have given up its system of public education.