Saturday, February 17, 2018

Why Government Schools Are Unsustainable - By Teresa Mull

I have a handful of friends who are teachers.  Gathering with them over the weekend and hearing about their experiences was eye-opening.
One of my friends teaches at a traditional public school in an impoverished area.  He makes a better than average salary but is completely disenchanted by the experience and plans to quit the profession altogether after this school year.  He has raised his students' proficiency rate to 90 percent – a remarkable accomplishment made possible by his dedication and hard work.  Yet he receives little support from his principal and barely any backup from the students' parents, and his day is so consumed by paperwork and bureaucratic nonsense that he's overwhelmed, frazzled, and exhausted much of the time.
Another friend teaches at a private Catholic school.  Though he teaches almost twice as many classes as the public school teacher I know and earns about half his salary, the private school teacher enjoys his work much more.  His principal is supportive, his fellow teachers are enthusiastic, and the parents and students are engaged in the educational process.  It's a positive, rewarding workplace environment.
Then there are the charter schools.  My Catholic schoolteacher friend told me many people he knows prefer to send their children to their local parochial schools for a religious education, but since quality charter schools are available in the area, they go with the free option instead.
The private school-charter school debate is complex, but it's obvious that the traditional government school system is broken.  The very way it has been set up makes its demise inevitable.  Its doom is a matter of not "if," but "when."  How many students have to suffer and fail before its ultimate downfall becomes reality?
My friend who teaches at the public told me about a truly heartbreaking situation in his classroom.  A 13-year-old he instructs in the 5th grade (5th-graders are usually 10 or 11 years old) can't read a single word.  He was held back one year, then passed out of protocol and on through to higher grades, despite having to sign his name with an "X" because he is almost completely illiterate.  My friend told me that failing a student once is all that's allowed at his government-run school.  And as the boy's teacher, he'll have to give the student a 70 grade and pass him, even though the student does none of the class or homework assignments.
What will become of this student? I shudder to think.  His life, at best, will likely be made up of minimum-wage jobs.  At worst, homelessness and crime.  My teacher friend doesn't know what to do about such an extreme case, and the school district doesn't care.
This circumstance is just one of thousands of similar cases taking place all across the country every day.  The "pass 'em through" mentality of many education administrators who care more about getting funding for their own interest than they do about students results in illiterate 13-year-olds in the 5th grade, many of whom then end up perpetuating a cycle of poverty and crime.  The disheartened, frustrated teachers see their efforts to make a difference fail at the hands of a defective system, and fewer qualified people are attracted to the profession.  What we're left with is the dregs of the education community, who don't care about teaching, do a poor job at it, and continue producing generations of uneducated children who often contribute little, if anything, to their communities.
It can't continue.  Sooner or later, the public school teaching profession will be empty.  No one will be crazy enough to want to step into a classroom environment that is effectively set up for failure.  So few students will be armed with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the real world that the future taxpayer base will dry up, and there will be no one left to fund the welfare state on which they'll all depend.  Or perhaps parents will become so fed up with the current dysfunctional system that lawmakers will have no choice but to hear and respond to families' cries for education freedom.
I pray it's the latter.
Teresa Mull ( is a research fellow in education policy at the Heartland Institute.