Let’s start with the premise that we all want American schools to be better. In an era when the left and the right are constantly presuming the worst of each other, I really hope that we can all agree that we all want what is best for the school children of our country. The problem is with the question of how we do it.
There are many who come to the conversation of education reform from the premise that American schools are failing. That’s what the results of standardized tests tell us right? Well, not really. Let’s compare ourselves to Finland for instance, the country often considered the gold standard of educating their young people. When you simply look at the surface results of these tests you would see that Finland outperforms the United States by a considerable amount. But, that’s not the whole story. Finland is a country where there are essentially three languages spoken, as opposed to more than 300 in the United States. Child poverty in Finland hovers around 4 percent, while it is around 21 percent in the United States. As you look at the testing data you find that in school districts across the country where child poverty is less than 10 percent, American schools outperform the rest of the world, and not just by a little, but by a lot.
Those statistics tell us that when you compare apples to apples, American schools can stand toe to toe with any system in the world, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges. As a matter of fact it points us to the real challenge, which is that American schools aren’t teaching a homogeneous population. Our students are coming to us with more diverse backgrounds than ever before. Our students are coming to us with more personal challenges than ever before. Our students need more from our schools than ever before. We have to rise to that challenge.
And yet, knowing that the problem isn’t that our schools aren’t able to teach, there are legislators and “reformers” who want to blame our schools and blame our teachers for the challenges that our students are facing. There are those who believe that the silver bullet to better schools lies in beating down teacher unions or creating for-profit charter schools to “compete” for dollars with public schools. Betsy DeVos, the current candidate to become Secretary of the Department of Education, has spent millions of dollars to promote those silver bullets. The problem is that that those aren’t the real problems facing American schools.
In Iowa this week a single legislator introduced bills to encourage school uniforms, eliminate the Common Core (in Iowa it is known as the Iowa Core), make it harder for teacher associations to meet in their own buildings, to eliminate teacher tenure at our public universities, and to eliminate the state Department of Education and create “education savings accounts” in order for more public dollars to go to private schools. In addition, Iowa’s Republican controlled legislature is ready to blow up collective bargaining rights for public employees. The problem is that these bills aren’t getting at the real challenges that Iowa’s schools face. Steering more money to private schools (in Iowa most are religious) by taking money away from public schools isn’t going to make education in Iowa better. Taking away tenure from Iowa’s college professors isn’t going to make our public universities better. Taking rights away from Iowa’s public employees isn’t going to make our schools better.
This is all happening as Iowa is facing $110 million in self-inflicted budget cuts. In recent years Iowa’s legislators have been handing out massive tax breaks for big business while underfunding Iowa’s schools, public safety institutions, mental health institutions, human services and much more. As a matter of fact, Iowa gave almost exactly $110 million dollars in tax breaks to a single Egypt-based company to build a fertilizer plant in our state. After watching Kansas run this playbook unsuccessfully in recent years, why would we jeopardize our public institutions by going down that same path?
If our priorities are truly on solving the real challenges facing America’s schools we have to stop chasing imaginary problems. Teachers are not the problem. Collective bargaining is not the problem. Moving public tax dollars to for-profit private and charter schools is not the solution. Finding ways to lift up all students is the challenge. Finding ways to prevent the pending teacher shortage is the challenge. Helping better support teachers new to the profession is the challenge. Providing access to early childhood education is the challenge. Maybe most importantly, helping families escape poverty is the challenge.
We need to work together to tackle these challenges. We have to honestly assess the issues that face us and work together to find solutions that benefit ALL kids, not just those who already have a leg up. Things won’t improve if we continue to chase problems that don’t exist. The task ahead of us is too important to waste time on those things. What is good for our schools is good for our communities. We need to work together to address the REAL challenges that are facing us.