This article is the first of a series.
I have always believed that the real energy for change in public affairs and public policy is to provide something that appeals to the voters more than what they already have. Over the past forty years or so, in education, we have seen a lot of new ideas, new fads and fiddling with a car that is already creaky, has defective parts and is long past having the warranty expired. Based on the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores, the predictions can only be more of the same unless our country takes a serious look at how we are providing our children’s education across the country.
When then-President George W. Bush spoke about the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” he signaled an alarm that should have resonated across American classrooms. Children, wherever they arrive each day as they enter America’s classrooms, can learn, want to learn, and have every right to expect paths to reach their ultimate potential.
The most recent NAEP scores should bring us all sorrow. Nationally we have ignored the alarm bell. This is also increasingly evident as we see colleges and universities dropping requirements, lowering standards, and discontinuing the use of standardized tests. While we publish entrance requirements, we signal expectations. When we drop them, we signal no expectations.
It seems we have moved from low expectations to a hard bigotry of no expectations. When we set a low bar, we cease to be better as a society tomorrow than we are today. It is as if we have raised the white flag and signaled the effort is too hard to do, that getting better as a whole is beyond our reach, and that it is just fine with us that students do not need to achieve more than we see now.
Yes, the real energy for change has to be presenting something better than we have, but based on the scores, this should not be hard. I have been involved in educational policy for more than three decades. Do I think we are better now than we were back when I was still a student? I am not sure if we are on the learning end, but I am sure we are on the sociological end. However, all those social progress variables weaken when we lose focus on the needs of every student, no matter where they start from or where they return to after school each day, deserves our best efforts at lifting them up, building their knowledge base and allowing them to be all they can be. We need for all of this to happen. We cannot afford as a society to have as many as two-thirds of students tested not being at grade level.
Education reform. Now that is a phrase we have all heard over the decades, maybe to the point of redundancy. When the phrase was used more than three decades ago, it likely referred to curriculum revisions or changes in instructional requirements in the preparation of teaching personnel. We all recall such timeless favorites as ‘”Writing to Read,” “New Math,” “Hooked on Phonics, “ and the list is long. My favorite was “Writing to Read,” because it assured me that when my kids got older, they would be as bad a speller as their dad is. Thank goodness for spell-check. Historically speaking, the larger, more structurally focused changes have had the greatest effect on advancing education access for all, and yet, our test scores languish. Changes in curriculum formats and styles have blended in and out through the ages, as have the tools used to convey materials in the classrooms, but the larger, more broadly applied, sociological changes have had the greatest effects on learning in America. We take for granted the easy access to public school systems that are available to every child in the U.S. In some respects, they have become like the fast-food options, the drug stores, and the mattress stores that are ubiquitous and visible to us as we go about our daily business.
Once you no longer have children in the schools, they usually just become a part of the neighborhood landscape, except when you receive your annual property tax bill and catch a glimpse of that line item. For a brief moment in time, the schools matter, and then your busy life gets in the way. We forget just how important our schools have been in the advancement and development of our modern society and how, over time, they became the necessary ladders to success for everyone, no matter your economic status. We are now deep into the fall season and our students are once again back to face-to-face learning.
As Florida’s students return to class, more than the bells for the start of the day are ringing. Alarm bells are ringing about a very serious public policy problem; the continuing and increasing shortage of qualified teachers in every classroom. Recent estimates indicate as many as 9,000 classrooms are lacking a certified, full-time, qualified subject matter teacher. We have long struggled to place teachers in complex subjects such as physics, chemistry, and advanced math, but the problem has expanded. This is not just a rural problem. It is a statewide problem. Certainly some of the obstacles and issues might vary, but the net results are the same; not enough teachers and even fewer taking course loads in colleges across our state in preparation for a teaching career.
Housing costs in our more urban communities are vastly different than one might find in the more rural counties, but availability might still be an issue. Teachers are leaving the profession in greater numbers for many reasons. This has been a long time coming and, in part, can be attributed to the common discourse about education. We place the blame on the classrooms without thinking through the much larger picture of causations. I have been engaged in education policy and related issues for many years and many fads. I chaired a state study commission two decades ago on the issues of teachers and the teaching profession. Two decades have not changed the discourse, in fact, it has gotten worse and the recruitment and retention of teachers has now reached a point where the state needs to take a hard look at what changes must be made and how soon. Florida is not alone in this dilemma but, in my view, we have a chance right now to take a national lead in making changes to alter the state of the classrooms across our state.
Take the time to go back over the history of public education in America. It has not always been there, and for so many, it was a very long time coming. Massachusetts, under the persistent efforts of one Horace Mann, began the very first public school system. He became the very first State Superintendent of Schools and made it his life’s work to create access for the children of Massachusetts. It took centuries for access to be available for young males from across the economic spectrum alone in the various states. We have seen tremendous changes in access for all children, starting with access for females to all aspects of education in the early 20th Century, and then later—with the passage of Title IX—all races, all national origins, etc. Many Eastern Seaboard cities saw the creation and expansion of parochial systems, at first in reaction to the waves of Irish immigrating in the mid-to late 1800s, and then huge numbers of other European immigrants in the 30 years from 1890- 1920. It was not that long ago that poorly directed nationalistic attitudes combined with outright bigotry limited even many “white” children from receiving proper instruction. The 1950s and Brown vs. Board of Education opened the doors even wider and even with that it took another 15 or more years for schools to be schools, not black or white schools.
All of these sociological changes fell heavily upon the public and parochial school systems to manage. When bricks fall upon a school, the teachers have to lift and carry those bricks. We have asked much of our teaching professionals, all the while being a highly critical society. It is one aspect of our lives where we all form opinions; after all, most all of us spent at least 12 years of our lives experiencing it. However, that does not make us experts. Far from it.
My view is that even the so-called experts do not have a true handle on where we go now. We are in a period of the most rapid changes society has ever seen. I hesitate to write this, but the reality is that students starting college this fall will more than likely be preparing themselves for a workforce filled with jobs that have yet to be created. This is why I cringe when I hear politicians calling for a focus more on specific jobs rather than on the value of learning for learning’s sake. If you are 20 today, you had better be preparing yourself for a lifetime of learning, and the re-creation of who you are and what role you will play in a constantly changing economy.
This is the first article in a series which is taken in part from a piece this author wrote for the Journal of the James Madison Institute published in Fall 2022.
- Dr. Ed Moore: The Future of Education Will Be About Choice - November 11, 2022, 10:00 am
- Dr. Ed Moore: An American Agenda - November 7, 2022, 12:00 pm
- The Body Of Knowledge Grows Exponentially While We Slumber - November 4, 2022, 10:00 am