An Insiders View of Public Education

The vessel in question, the  Public School System, a victim of rough seas, conflicting winds and, at times, absent or unfounded navigation, is still afloat but listing hard to Port, to contentious infighting and loss of objective. She is in worse shape than she was ten years ago and, without the necessary overhaul and reconstruction, will join the Titanic, a sister ship taken down by the same “indestructible” fantasy, at the bottom of the sea. Poetic license aside,public education is, in the opinion of the author, at least as deficient if not more so than it was ten years ago. That statement is based, in addition to review of current diversified studies, on 10 years of personal experience in three states as a certified science teacher, school based substitute and student behavior manager.

As an alternative to a lengthy rewrite of the particular pieces of research found relevant to this discussion, it is recommended that the reader digest the following: “Why Students in Some Countries Do Better, International evidence on the importance of education policy” by Ludger Woessman, published on the Education Matters (edmatters.org) website; “Biggest Changes in a Decade Greet Students, Some Teachers, Parents Push Back on New Standards” by Stephanie Banchero and Arian Campo-Flores in the August 26, 2013 U.S. News section of The Wall Street Journal. In addition to the issues illuminated by these two excellent pieces of work, this author wishes to underline one specific issue in the U.S. Public School System that seems to have escaped real focus, especially when U.S. Public School performance is compared to that of other countries. That issue is diversity, ethnic and skill based diversity, in the classroom.

Urban public schools in the U.S. face very high levels of diversity in terms of ethnic origin. The related ESOL issues can and do produce considerable strain on the teaching process. Ethnic diversity is compounded by a broad spectrum of education levels at home and, significantly, levels of income. Add to this mixture a factor that is referred to as “the street”, the so called gang mentality, and it begins to become apparent that most public school classrooms are far from stable.

The “teaching process” is and should be the central focus of this article as it should be the central and driving force behind the development of methodology in any one of the public schools in the U.S. It has been suggested elsewhere that the methods and standards of Project Management should be introduced and implemented globally in the public school system at all levels in an effort to organize the whole process around a consistent set of objectives. If the “teaching process” in any classroom is viewed through the lens of project management, it will be quickly seen that a teacher, given the diversity mentioned earlier, is presented with the task of isolating specific course related objectives for each student based on individual levels of knowledge, basis reading and writing skills, language and other barriers, very importantly, family or attitudinal obstacles that may be present. Another way of stating this is to refer to student based or student centered teaching. These terms have been well stated and advocated but infrequently implemented on a broad enough scale to make a real difference.

The arguments continue to rage about teachers pay, tenure, the standards and the whole array of contemporary problems. The fact remains that the public schools nationwide are in many ways far more diverse than the system is now able to handle. A sad result has been the off loading of low performing students to “special” classes designed to protect the tenured teachers and the high performing students but which in most cases provide little support for the “special” students.

It will take a broad based change in perspective on the part of the politicians and educators who directly affect the U.S. public school system before any real positive changes can be made. The first of those changes is to realize the underlying meaning of the term “no child left behind”. No teacher should be placed in the untenable position of turning all students into advanced placement candidates. Rather, all teachers should be presented with the project based objective of using any means available to convince all students of their own ability and provide each with a real opportunity to learn. In the case of ethnic diversity or low levels of education at home, this might mean using every means available to get the parents and other family members involved in the learning process.

Without doubt, the public school system can and should be improved. It is the most important element in the ongoing success of this country and must be supported by everyone involved. Extreme care must be taken to ensure that the overall objective of the education project is to apply a student centered teaching process such that each student is able to make whatever gains they are capable of. In order for that objective to be achieved, every teacher must have the right and ability to structure the teaching process for each student and they should be judged not on the basis of sometimes unachievable standards but on the successful maximum growth of each student in their care.