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What are we going to do about education now?

February 7, 2017

What are we going to do about education now?

 

Although I don't support Betsy Devos as head of the department of education, her appointment does not come as a surprise. Nor is it a pivotal tragedy. Unfortunately her confirmation today represents just a single landmark in the long decline of American public education. There are many long-term issues that led us today but at this time, as always, it is important to remain clear-headed about the real issues in education, and refrain from using dogmatic reasoning or making unfounded statements about the education system or government.

 

No matter what kind of education system we have, research has shown that the single strongest correlation to quality education is parents' income. Yes, there is something that seems inherently virtuous about the idea of a strong, publicly funded education system. The idea of strong public schools aligns with our nation's supposed core values of a free, Democratic, open society. But for years, our public schools (and society at large) have been drifting away from those ideas. It is a fact that today our schools are more segregated, more unequal, and overall performing worse than ever. Teacher quality and pay is low, administrative bloat is high, and conflicts of interest between unions, corporations, politicians, and parents riddle the system.

 

It's hard to be reasonable and optimistic about the future of education in America. Overall the system is a self-feeding loop, with the shift toward inequality accelerating itself as the poor students who graduate have fewer opportunities than their wealthy peers, (I use the term "peer" loosely- in reality there is very little interaction between the two groups) and consequently live in poorer areas and then go on to provide their children with poorer education. Major shifts in the nation's demographics, such as the increase in childhood poverty and population explosion of impoverished urban non-English speakers, and the increasing popularity of exclusive, self-selected communities of wealthy individuals, have exacerbated this inequality trend. Having read about the situation extensively, not to mention having worked in both kinds of schools, I believe the system is quickly creating a society of mostly "haves" and "have-nots," that must be corrected quickly, or else we place our democracy in a situation of great existential peril. Perhaps we have already crossed the threshold, but there is reason to have hope.

 

There are many possible solutions our institutions have at their disposal to fix the problem. Some nations, such as Singapore, have strongly intervened in their societies by placing neighborhood ethnicity caps, as well as shifting the emphasis of their education system from a front loaded model similar to the US, where heavy investment is made in young children with decreasing investment over time, to a more equally distributed investment model where the educational effort is allocated to an individual over the course of their lifetime. Chile is the opposite, with an abundance of private and charter schools existing alongside an admittedly weak (although not without its benefits) public education system. I don't know which solution is best, and neither model could be accurately applied to a nation as vast and with as many competing interests as the United States. The left wants to redistribute wealth, and the right wants to let the market have its own way. Neither way is good and there must be some compromise. But without broad, popular support, no change will happen quickly and the trend will continue until there is some counterbalance. My optimism comes from the hope that this will be a moment when our nation will begin to see the realities of this dangerous situation and roll up our sleeves, intent on fixing it. But that moment depends on people like us getting our hands dirty. Every day.

 

So, my perspective on today's news? This is just one moment in a long, complicated, and difficult situation. But when we actively lead those around us with facts, ethics and reason, we slowly fix it.

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