A System in Crisis - It Is Unrealistic to Expect a System Constructed in Nineteenth-Century America to Provice What a Twenty-First-Century America Needs

By Hickok, Eugene W. | The World and I, September 2000 | Go to article overview

A System in Crisis - It Is Unrealistic to Expect a System Constructed in Nineteenth-Century America to Provice What a Twenty-First-Century America Needs


Hickok, Eugene W., The World and I


Job Description: Executive leadership position available. Major organization located in a medium-sized town. Single-largest employer in town, with largest payroll and largest budget. Professional employees all possess at least a college degree. All professional employees have job security for life, receive guaranteed salary increases annually, and are not subject to performance evaluations. This organization has no control over the raw material it receives but has the responsibility of transforming that raw material into the next generation of responsible citizens.

While a bit overstated, the above might well summarize the character of the typical public school district operating in America at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Public education in the United States--a major industry employing nearly 5.3 million people and underwritten by more than 344.2 billion in taxpayer dollars, according to the Department of Education--is profoundly troubled. The depth of the crisis is evident everywhere:

* Scores of fourth, eighth, and twelfth graders show remarkably consistent mediocrity in math according to the National Assessment of Education Progress and score only slightly better in reading;

* American students rank near the bottom in science and math proficiency, according to the Third International Mathematics and Science Study;

* Employers, particularly in technological fields, encounter staggering difficulty in recruiting qualified candidates for even entry-level positions, then spend billions providing employees the education they failed to get in school--money that surely would be better spent on research and development;

* Colleges and universities, even the best of them, are devoting more and more time and money to remedial education.

Ironically, as performance has declined over time, the usual indicators of resources and talent going into the public education system have improved. In 1950, the expenditure per pupil was about $1,461, in 1999 dollars. By 1999, that figure was just under $7,000. In 1961, most teachers were female, middle-aged, and married; they possessed a bachelor's degree and 11 median years of teaching experience. In 1996, teaching was still dominated by married women, but almost 55 percent of teachers possessed a master's degree. Median teaching experience had increased to 15 years.

The length of the school year--180 days of instruction--and the school day have remained about the same. In 1961, the average annual salary for public school teachers was $5,515, the equivalent of $29,676 in 1998 dollars. In 1998, the average salary was $39,385. At a time when the issue of class size seems to dominate the political and educational landscape, it is more than interesting to note that in 1955, the pupil- teacher ratio in the nation's public schools was 30 to 1; in 1998, it was 17 to 1.

Spending more, doing less

Americans invest more in public education than ever before. Our teachers are paid more (whether they are paid enough is very much up for debate), have more formal education and years of experience, and teach, on average, fewer students than ever.

Therein lies the conundrum: Why are we spending more and doing less in public education? Various answers are put forth by politicians and pundits. It's the teachers unions that are to blame, some argue, because they divert too much money to salaries and benefits, leaving little for classroom instruction and equipment. The unions, critics contend, make it nearly impossible to remove bad teachers, putting job security above student success.

Others point to the public school administrators, arguing that they don't hold teachers' feet to the fire regarding job performance or manage schools efficiently. School boards are criticized for taking their direction from school officials and failing to monitor school district operations.

The general public points at these problems and then looks to state, local, and federal officials for more money and answers; still, few citizens bother to vote in school board elections. …

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A System in Crisis - It Is Unrealistic to Expect a System Constructed in Nineteenth-Century America to Provice What a Twenty-First-Century America Needs
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