An Educator's Lament: Part II -- Causes of Our Educational Demise

"Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire." -- Wm. Butler Yeats

In the previous two posts -- In Defense of Light and Magic and An Educator's Lament: Part I -- I argued that education is 1) the guardian of liberty, 2) the cornerstone of democracy, and 3) under siege in America. Today, we'll delve into why. The primary culprits include neglect, austerity, anti-intellectual/anti-science attitudes, good intentions gone awry, and malevolence aforethought.

Neglect. Education is our democratic infrastructure, and like all infrastructure in the US, it's crumbling from neglect. In America, teaching is undervalued and teachers are underappreciated. Not so in China, for example, where teachers are as revered as doctors. Here it's oft expressed, "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach." As one whose career includes 10 productive years in aerospace research and development and 25 years of teaching, I bristle at the adage. On my best days in the aerospace industry, I wondered: What's the benefit to society of what I'm doing? On my worst days in the classroom, that niggling doubt is mute. I bristle also when I think of the gifted students I've taught, who could do anything they damn well please, yet choose to teach. One remarkable young woman, who just accepted a high-school teaching position, graduated in mathematics as valedictorian of her class of 4000.

If salaries reflected service to society, kindergarten and first-grade teachers would be at the top of the heap. Everybody else would fall in line behind teachers.

Austerity. Public education takes the first hit in times of austerity, both at the K-12 and university levels. Anyone with a college-age child knows that college costs have risen astronomically fast, outpacing medical costs. It isn't because college teachers are overpaid. Virginia's university professors have been denied raises for five consecutive years. The causes of skyrocketing college costs are many, including bloated administrative costs and the expansion of services such as counseling. But the primary reason is that states facing recurrent budget shortfalls have slashed funding for higher education. A Pew Research poll of 2013 found that fully 75% of Americans now believe that college is too expensive to afford. The consequences are devastating. The diploma of the average graduate of the class of 2014 comes wrapped with $33,000 of college-loan debt. As education champion Senator Elizabeth Warren notes: "Forty million Americans carry more than $1.2 trillion in student debt, far more than at any other point in history. This is not ordinary debt." It is high-interest debt that cannot be dismissed through bankruptcy if the graduate is unable to find work in a tight job market. Worse, draconian penalties can increase the debt load faster than the graduate's ability to pay it off. By slashing funds for public education and allowing predatory lenders to saddle students with debt-servitude, America is robbing its young of their futures.

Anti-Intellectualism/Anti-Science. A undercurrent of anti-intellectualism flows through our body politic. It's particularly virile in the anti-science bent of conservatives. Americans remain in awe of the "rocket science" that put men on the moon and turned the tide of the Second World War by inventing radar and the digital computer. But when scientists tell us yes, humans are changing the climate, and no, the Earth was not created a mere 6,000 years ago, we accuse them of conspiracy, godlessness, or both.

Last week Fox News rolled out its all-star panel of conservative pundits to debunk the new National Climate Assessment, which opens: "Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present." Bottom line: the climate scientists have been right all along; the data are in; the future is now. In attempting to refute this damning report, conservative commentators George F. Will and Charles Krauthammer undertook logical contortions that could have made Henry Houdini marvel. Most appalling was Will's response when challenged about the 97% consensus among climate scientists: "Who measured it? Where did that figure come from? They pluck these things from the ether. I do not." Will, considered an intellectual, should know better. The figure comes from a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of June 21, 2010, and easily available in the public domain. The NAS, by the way, is America's most prestigious scientific body.

Science and science education in America are under continual attack by those who would make science subservient to ideology. It's the same spirit that consigned Giordano Bruno to the flames in 1600 and hauled Galileo before the Inquisition, both for promoting the Copernican worldview that the Earth orbits the sun.

Good Intentions Gone Awry. On January 8, 2002, with the support of well-intentioned liberals such as Ted Kennedy, President George W. Bush signed into law his signature educational reform: No Child Left Behind. The law mandates statewide educational assessment for all public schools that receive federal education dollars. In Virginia, these tests are implemented as the Standards of Learning (SOLs). To many educators, SOLs have been an unmitigated disaster.

First, the tests assess only rote learning. I previously reported a personal classroom observation that today's students are "more docile, less attentive, and less engaged than those of a decade ago." If this perceived trend is genuine, then most likely it can be attributed to the numbing effects of SOLs on Virginia's public education.

Second, such high-stakes tests are used as report cards for school districts and teachers. Teachers therefore devote an inordinate amount of time "teaching to the test," squelching creativity. I've yet to meet a creative teacher who thinks SOLs are beneficial.

Third, the original No Child law required the bar to be raised each year until 2014, when the mandated success rate topped out at 100%. Because absolute perfection is a virtual impossibility in any endeavor, the law essentially doomed all public schools and teachers to failure. The cynical view is that No Child was an educational Trojan Horse. Mercifully, as reported in YES! (Spring 2014), backlash against high-stakes testing came to a head in 2012 when 875 Texas school districts issued a resolution that such tests are "strangling education." The Obama Administration has moved to soften the law, but high-stakes assessment remains the corrosive norm.

(Just to be clear: I'm all for assessment, so long as it tests more than rote understanding and is used diagnostically rather than punitively.)

Malevolence Aforethought. It might seem that hostile forces have gathered more or less by accident to place public education under siege. The truth is far more sinister. Here's how YES! (Spring 2014) summarizes social activist Naomi Klein:

Underfund schools. Overcrowd classrooms. Mandate standardized tests sold by private-sector firms that "prove" these schools are failures. Blame teachers and their unions for awful test scores. In the bargain, weaken those unions, the largest labor organizations remaining in the United States. Push nonunion, profit-oriented charter schools as a solution.

If Klein's view seems too conspiratorial, consider that the billionaire Koch Brothers and other corporate giants such as ExxonMobil have poured millions into front groups with innocuous-sounding names like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Americans for Prosperity (AFP). The stated mission of ALEC's Educational Task Force is to enact legislation to "promote excellence in the nation's educational system." The unstated aim is to privatize education. Should there be any doubt as to the sinister aims of these organizations,
consider the case of Wake County, NC, where a local AFP affiliate commandeered the school board in 2009 and immediately effected policies to re-segregate the school system.

A convincing argument that today's assault on education is orchestrated rather than accidental can be found in Henry Giroux' new book Neoliberalism's War on Higher Education. The final post in this series will consider what's at stake if public education remains under siege.