What's wrong with public education, how do we fix it, and how do we pay for it?

I’ve heard and read many complaints about public education. Public Education gets lots of potshots taken against it, on these boards and elsewhere.

So, what exactly is wrong with PubEd?
How can we fix it?
How do we pay for it?

I’m a math instructor at a Florida high school, and would genuinely like to know your thoughts, experiences and solutions. Here are two germs of ideas I have:

  1. We need more “real-world” education. Vocational Ed is a good thing.

  2. We need to, as a culture, place a greater emphasis on personal responsibility. Encourage people to take care of themselves, rather than demanding that others pick up slack.

These idea-germs are pretty vague, I admit. Would someone care to help work towards a plan for improved education?

IMHO its the parents AND the kids fault. The parents need to start dropping the hammer on these kids when they are young and FORCE them to do homework, read with them, etc…

Once they are in high school though I think that the responsibilty lies more on the kids. These kids are old enough to take responsibility for not doing homework or not going to class. As a young child I think that the teachers have a responsibilty to motivate the kids to want to learn.

Once these kids reach high school this responsibility shifts to actually teaching, what can be, more difficult material. Its the kids responsibility to motivate themselves. I am sure that it is difficult to teach Trig to a class with 20 kids in it when only 12 want to be there. If they spend the whole time trying to control or motivate the other 8 then the 12 lose out.

I am not saying that the system is perfect, but lets all own up to the fact that a 14yr old is hardly a “child” anymore. Stop wiping their asses for them and make them take responsibility for their actions. Fail them if they don’t make the grades.

Get rid of the teacher’s unions.

First, determine which county, town, or school board district you’re describing. The United States doesn’t have a national education system and most, if not all, states give great authority to local school boards.

Second, determine if the particular area you’re describing actually has failing schools. There are, after all, some areas with great public schools.

Third, don’t make generalizations to describe an entire nation based on knee-jerk reactions. All three of the suggested solutions in the OP were in place in my public school in Virginia in the 1970s and are still in place in the same school today.

Thanks for the input.

In a way, I agree with Phlip. I think one of the problems in our county is that our schools often pass kids through, even if they don’t meet the basic standards. But another question arises – what should the basic standards be?

What effect would this have? And how would doing this improve the schools in any given district? I belong to a teacher’s union (Lake County Education Association – NEA), and feel that we represent the best interests of the kids and teachers. I’d appreciate outsider opinions on what we union members do to help/harm our schools.

Monty, of course, is right. Each district is different. I do wonder how we can define “failing” schools. Do we look at test scores? Graduation rates? Percentage of students who enter college? Percentage of students who successfully enter the work force? Percentage of students who enter the military?

How were my vague suggestions implemented in your school, Monty?

My wife is a teacher, and her friends are teachers in Texas. The problems and fixes are as AlbertRose describes-- the inmates are running the asylum. There is a big problem with kids who “know their rights” i.e. you can’t tell them what to do, and parents who at best only get little Johnny’s story of how the big mean teacher picks on them. The parents are only to eager to sue for damage to L.J.'s “self esteem” when rules are enforced. She also has problems with a principal who caves into the parents constantly, and a district that automatically settles out of court. And she wonders why I don’t want to be a teacher. She also thinks there should be a vocational track for those kids unable/unwilling to go to college.

Step 1: National standardized testing required upon graduation but not for graduation.
Step 2: Analyze data looking for correclation based on class size, teachers’ background (average school systems, not on a teacher-by-teacher basis), number of parents, approximate income of parents, and hours of after-school work (extra-curricular or income-based) student performed.
Step 3: After finding (again) a striking trend toward economic status as an indicator of school performance (;)), work hard on a state and national level to subsidize a more comprehensive form of welfare for schools with (for example) meal programs and extra staff for sponsoring after-school activities where students can work on their homework with educated staff for help, thus keeping them in a learning environment when they are supposed to be learning.
Step 4: After finding a striking trend toward class size as an indicator of school performance, throw more money at schools that must be used to hire more teachers in an effort to reduce class size, helping (hopefully) reduce the number of classes that take 20 minutes to get under control in order to teach
Step 5: A miracle occurs
Step 6: in One generation our education system is a shining standard of excellence
(step optional, but probably important: encourage businesses to focus hiring based on skill level, not arbitrary course requirements—you don’t need a diploma to work at the local convenient store!)

[ul][] The raison d’être of university and government education departments is promoting new educational approaches. They would have nothing to do if they if they simply recommended maintaining the approaches that work. []Constituiencies have grown up. They protect their turf, even after it’s discredited, e.g., new math, bilingual education, whole word reading method.[]Groups like the teachers’ union and the janitors strive for their own benefit. E.g., I have read that in New York City, the janitors nearly “own” the buildings. Summer school and late afternoon school are difficult and expensive to arrange, because the janitors have a veto. []Court decisions, fear of lawsuits, and general fecklessness have taken away much of a teacher’s ability to discipline a class. []It’s quite difficult to expel a disruptive student, even though he may destroy the value of the class for 30 other students. []It’s difficult to get rid of an incompetent teacher, due to tenure. []Few principals, administrators or teachers are evaluated on the basis of how much the children have learned. []The 4 R’s: A proliferation of federal and state rules, regulations, retrictions, and reports leave less and less time and attention for the principal and teachers to focus on what’s best for the kids in front of them[/ul] We fix the problem by the use of vouchers. Only competition can force public schools to improve, because a real fix will require butchering the sacred cows.

While throwing more money at schools seems to be a good idea, where does the money come from? There are here in El Paso schools with THIRTY portable classrooms outside them. Why, you may ask. Because the parents repeatedly vote down the bond election that would permit the construction of new schools, that’s why.

The number one problem with the education system is the parents, who are too busy, lazy, cheap, or whatever to get involved in their children’s education, and are unwilling to do anything about it. They dump their kids off for seven hours a day, and then bitch any time the school complains about discipline, money, etc. It is state-funded day care to them.

NOTE: This is not meant to be a diatribe on unions in general but rather the teacher’s unions in particular.

For some reading on this subject you might try the following:
The Teacher Unions : How They Sabotage Educational Reform and Why by: Myron Lieberman
Power Grab : How the National Education Association Is Betraying Our Children by: C. Gregory Moo
Nea : Trojan Horse in American Education by: Samuel M. Blumenfeld

Conflicting Missions?: Teachers Unions and Educational Reform by: Tom Loveless

Those are just a few books on the subject. In short, the premise is that the school unions’ (NEA and AFT) primary purpose in life is protecting the unions’ interests first, the teachers’ interests second and have almost no regard for the students they claim to be so concerned about.

Certainly the school unions have been vehement opponents to school reform…most notably school voucher/school choice programs (it is another debate on whether such programs are actually good but I don’t feel any compelling evidence showing them to be patently bad as the unions would have us believe is present). I haven’t read the other books but the first listed above and Lieberman points out that it is in the unions’ interest to maintain the status quo. They collect in excess of $1 billion per year. Over 3,000 people working for both unions earn in excess of $100,000 per year. The two unions also maintain more political activists than the Republican and Democrat national parties combined.

I agree that teachers in general should be paid more. However, the tax base supporting schools has grown as has the overall total amount of money being spent on education. Where is all the money going? Also, unlike most everyone else in the business world, teachers are not held to merit based raises or promotion. Indeed, there is no incentive for a teacher to bust their butt performing better than another since they get paid on the same scale regardless of performance.

The unions also regularly maintain they are on the side of the parents and students as well. In fact their policies tend to block parental involvement. The National Congress of Parents and Teachers almost never seems to take a stand againt the NEA and AFT and play much more like political lackeys. Am I to believe that this organization never is at odds with the NEA/AFT? The PTA is even less an issue in strongly fighting for student/parent rights.

All of that and more can be laid at the feet of teachers’ unions. I have no problem with the notion of teachers banding together to better represent their interests but the NEA and AFT are actively standing in the way of a bevvy of needed reforms. As such I whole heartedly stand behind my earlier quip that the answer to the question posed in the title of this thread is to get rid of teacher unions.

1.) So, what exactly is wrong with PubEd?

a.) Well, I think the primary problem is that we have folks who don’t know much about teaching and who haven’t spent that much time in the classroom making decisions about how to put bandaids (this push for charter schools, school vouchers, and standardized tests) on the problem of failing public schools. The best case scenario is if administrators actually spent some time teaching in the classroom so that they can see firsthand what it’s like, but I doubt if that will ever happen. Administrators, teachers, students, and parents need a healthy dose of reality and common sense to be infused into the decision-making process at the upper levels of administration.

b.) There is no support for teachers in the schools. It’s like Payne N. Diaz was telling us about how the school administrators where his wife works will do whatever it takes to appease parents, rather than deal with disciplining the problem students and supporting teachers so that they can have an atmosphere conducive to teaching. There should also be some time of mentoring program pairing more experienced teachers with new teachers. The experienced teachers can provide advice, support, and strategies for new teachers to employ in the classroom.

c.) There is no effective discipline in place to get disruptive students to behave. What is the point of having a student remain in class if s/he doesn’t want to learn and/or is preventing the students who do want to learn from doing so? I have told students who thought to question my authority or to disrupt class for other students, that if they have nothing constructive to contribute to the class discussion that they should either shut up or leave. Oh, and don’t let me have to ask those students to leave. Needless to say, I haven’t had any problems with making my position on disruptions in the classroom clear to students, parents, and administrators. I simply won’t have it.

d.) Parents are not active participants in their children’s educations. Speaking personally, I would not have gotten to where I am if it wasn’t for my parents. I knew that if I misbehaved in school, not only would I be punished at school, but I also would be getting a spanking and/or scolding at home. I knew also that when I got home, I was expected to do my homework before I could play.
2.) How can we fix it?

a.) School administrators, politicians, and generally those in positions to have a say in deciding where and how educational resources should be allocated need to get more of a clue, start talking more to teachers who are working in the trenches trying to teach to the best of their ability with little to no support from administrators or parents. The best way to support teachers is to listen to them and then try to meet their needs. They will tell you what problems they have and what they need, and a lot of times they have wonderful ideas on how to fix things. Instead of shunting money off into designing standardized tests and providing school vouchers, pay teachers a livable, competitive wage. Many folks who would make wonderful teachers opt not to do so because they can’t afford to.

b.) I truly don’t understand this focus on standardized tests. Not everyone tests well, and it seems to me that all these standardized tests test is how well students take a particular test. Standardized tests are not a valid use of time or resources. How can anyone decide that one test, as opposed to instructors who’ve dealt with students over a period of time, is a more reliable judge of how well-educated or competent a student is?

c.) I’m not sure what kind of discipline public schools should have in place, but the focus should be on teaching students to be responsible for their actions. When I was coming along–going to private schools–there was corporal punishment. I only had to get spanked once in pre-school to understand that there would be consequences for my actions, and it was a valuable lesson that I learned. Parents should take an active role in disciplining their children to teach them that there are consequences for their actions and that each child is ultimately responsible for his/her actions. Blaming the teacher when it was the student’s poor study habits that resulted in poor performance is not a viable course of action to take.

d.) Revise the education major curriculum so that teachers learn more in the content area so that they can provide more of a comprehensive view of the subject, not just teach students what they immediately need to know and that’s all. One of the things that frustrated me with math was that teachers focused on the process. They focused on teaching me steps and formulas, and I wanted to know why I had to learn all those stupid formulas. What would I be using that stuff for? Teachers wouldn’t or couldn’t answer the more to my mind substantive concerns I had about what was I going to do with the Pythagorean theorem.

e.) Revise the education curriculum so that built into teacher development is an ongoing effort/opportunity for teachers to educate themselves on cultural diversity. Teachers need to understand where their students are coming from culturally so that they can better relate to these students and find ways to communicate more effectively with those students.

f.) There also needs to be effective guidance counseling in place so that life beyond high school can be demystified a little. I don’t think some students understand what options they have available to them. Not everyone needs to go to a four-year college in order to get a decent job that s/he could do well. The option for some students may be a two-year college degree in a particular vocation. Or some students might need to graduate from high school with a diploma, work somewhere for a while, maybe enlist in the military, and then consider some kind of college education at a later date. Certainly students should be counseled on what kind of employment they can expect to get with and without a high school diploma. If the student opts to go to a four-year college, then what kinds of courses does s/he need to take? You’d be surprised at the things I hear from students about the lack of counseling they get in high school. [sigh] Also counseling must take place as early as possible, say in junior high school, to give students time to choose a path and to act on the advice given.

g.) Parents, students, administrators, and sometimes teachers too need to stop thinking of school as a place where students go to be babysat. They are there to learn, and learning requires active participation on everyone’s part.

3.) How do we pay for it?

Well, that’s always a good question. I’m terrible at math, but I imagine that if folks get their priorities straight, the money can be found. Whether it’s through raising taxes, cutting exorbitant salaries of higher level administrators, seeking out corporate investments, or working in conjunction with existing non-profit organizations specializing in counseling or tutoring, ways can be found to address the concerns I’ve listed.

This list is certainly not comprehensive, but it’s a start.

I’ve spoken to some public school employees who advocate moderate dress codes. They found that dress codes can greatly reduce disciplinary problems and improve student performance.

This subject has been discussed here before. Unfortunately, some students view these dress codes as an infringement of their basic rights (sigh). As Payne N. Diaz said, there are many students who claim to know what their rights are, which makes it difficult to enforce any sort of rules.


Amen, sister!


My wife’s school has uniforms–it may help, but not enough. Parents still whine when little Johnny has to run a lap, do a pushup, or God forbid, have a test on the rules of a sport. Parents have called to complain about their kid’s getting a 94 in PE! Half of the kids couldn’t be bothered to dress out on any given day. I think she fails close to half of the kids for not dressing, not studying for tests, etc. My kids, ages 9 and 11, get higher on her PE tests on rules than the kids in her classes. They just don’t care, and neither do the parents until you call them on something. They (parents and kids) just expect PE to be nothing more than sitting on their butts for an A, and they’re surprised when it’s not.

BTW, she teaches middle school PE, if you haven’t guessed by now.

I wanted to reply, but erislover and Celestins already said everything I wanted to say when I opened this thread.

There is no “one root cause” for the problems with public education, nor is there a “magic bullet” solution.

That said, I do honestly believe that a large number of the problems in PE is a lack of money - money to attract better teachers, money for school construction/repair, money for textbooks and equipment, etc. You never hear anyone complain about the quality of public education in Beverly Hills or Palo Alto, do you?

And no, I don’t claim to know where to get that money from – though I have voted for school-supportive bonds and tax increases in the past, and will continue to do so.

Note: Number 2 in the OP is really two suggestions: Number 2 and Number 3 in my listing below.

My high school had vocational education of two kinds: (a) work credit–granted to the student for hours worked at a real job related to the student’s declared field of interest, and (b) in-class education in the student’s declared field of interest–examples of this are First Aid classes for those who wish to work as Paramedics or Journalism classes, taught in coordination with a local real world newspaper staff for those interested in being Reporters.

The local news media celebrated quite a number of academic achievements for all of the schools. This was in the days before cable television, but I really don’t think that it was just a “we must fill the air” issue with the television and radio stations. Local businesses ran a good number of benefit programs for students with great or even good academic records. The sports teams didn’t get automatic good grades, but had to earn their grades to stay on the teams.

To graduate from that high school now, a student must complete a Senior Project, complete with thesis, academic advisor, and independent and verifiable research without plagiarism. In my day (that makes me sound so old!), there was just talk of that; however, most teachers required serious independent work. Those who didn’t provide that failed. Those who plagiarized were given a failing grade for the class–NOT just on the plagiarized assignment!–and the Student Honor Court determined if the violation was so serious to require a recommendation for expulsion or suspension in addition to the failing grade. There was no “slack” handed out by anyone in the education administration and apparently none now.

When it comes to teacher pay vs hours worked I see the opposite.[ul][li]Average private sector / civil servant employee: 40Hrs x 50 weeks = 2000 hrs.[/li][li]Average Teacher (My area of the US) 35Hrs x 40 weeks = 1400 hrs.[/ul][/li]That’s not even figuring in the fact teachers only work 5 out of 8 periods during their 7 hr. day (plenty of time to grade papers etc.)
Nor does it take into account very lucritive pension plans, benefits, overtime for extra-curricular activities, overly-generous number of sick days, sabbaticals etc. etc.
Where this propaganda came from I do not know.
Local taxpayers should be required to pay educators 70% of what other full time civil servants earn. And while they’re at it, demand school boards fire 90% of the administrative staff.

I’d love to hear an honest reason why private schools need approximately 1/2 the money public schools do to turn out worse prepared students. I think it has very little to do with their favorite scapegoats; the developmentally disabled and high-needs students.

Oh, I’m absolutely sure that’s true! There’s doubtlessly a multitude of problems that must be addressed. As rjung said, there’s no single root cause, and no single solution.

At the high school level, we shouldn’t be holding kids’ hands. Teachers should not be the only people responsible for kids’ succcess. The kids must take some responsibility.

At the college level, if a kid wants to screw around and fail… he can. Nobody (besides his parents maybe) is going to slap his wrist or stand over him and make him study.

I think something of the sort should happen in high school too. We can’t MAKE kids that age do much of anything if they don’t want to. And why should we? Nobody is going to learn anything until they want to.

That’s just a small piece of the puzzle. Lots more that has to be done, but I think this bit is important.

rjung: And no, I don’t claim to know where to get that money from

I think that one of the things we’re ultimately going to have to do to address the problems not just of public schools, but of urban areas in general, is “regionalizing” municipal tax bases. As you point out, there are many public schools that are very good, but they are more likely to be in affluent suburbs with a healthy tax base than in center cities. Since the suburban areas tend to be incorporated as separate municipalities, the more affluent suburbanites are paying lower local taxes while the cities themselves have to do what they can on a diminishing tax base of increasingly poorer people. Regional tax base sharing for both city and suburbs will help “contain the drain” by reducing the disparity between urban and suburban tax rates, and will also funnel desperately needed money to urban schools. Shifting the school funding mechanism from local property taxes to statewide income taxes, and allocating funds on the basis of need and not according to local levels of affluence, could also help.

JBW: I’d love to hear an honest reason why private schools need approximately 1/2 the money public schools do

? Where’d that figure come from? If you’re comparing private school tuition costs to per-pupil expenditures for public schools, don’t forget that private schools generally have other sources of income besides tuition.