Top ten problems facing public education in America

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama visits a fifth-grade art class at Savoy School, a public elementary school in Anacostia, a neighborhood in D.C. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)
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Brooks Hays

The most essential problems with public education in America are seldom addressed in plain language. Below, GIMBY hones in on public education’s ten most pressing problems.

Poverty

It’s hard to arrive at school each day focused and ready to learn if you’re hungry and your household is struggling to make ends meet. The American Psychiatric Association has found that the dropout rate for teenagers living in poverty is, on average, ten times higher than it is for their more affluent peers. These discrepancies are only getting worse as a result of a struggling economy. According to the 2010 Census, the poverty rate is the highest it has been since the 1960s, at more than 15 percent. Sadly, a large portion of those in poverty are children — 12.9 million by last count. Julia Thompson, a longtime school teacher and author of The First-Year Teacher’s Survival Guide, says the problems of childhood poverty call for a stronger bond between schools, communities, and social services.

Classroom size

America’s population growth is outpacing the nation’s ability to build new schools and hire new staff. Budgets simply can’t keep up, and as a result, class sizes are growing. Study after study after study (here, here, and here) has found a strong correlation between classroom size and student performance. The smaller the class is, the better the education received, and the better students perform. Whether reducing a class from 40 to 35, or from 20 to 15, this truth applies at all age levels and at all levels of achievement. Reducing class size is “one of four educational reforms that the Institute of Education Science [the Education Department’s research arm] says have been proven to work,” said Leonie Haimson, the founder of an advocacy group called Class Size Matters

Technology

Perhaps the only thing changing more rapidly in America than demographics is the world of technology. Mastering IT skills and learning methods will be vitally important for children as they move from and school to college to a competitive job market. However, technology has the potential to be both tremendously empowering and terribly distracting.  Some studies suggest that increased access to internet actually results in students spending less time on their homework, says Jacob Vigdor, professor of public policy and economics at Duke University. “We see that when broadband Internet service comes into a student’s ZIP code, the amount of time they report spending using their computers for school work actually decline[s].” Educators have to find a happy middle ground, introducing new technologies that enhance, not fracture, larger educational goals. The challenge for public school leaders and teachers is be not “if” or “when” to utilize technology but “how.”

Nutrition and Health

Improving access to nutritious foods and providing sustenance for kids who aren’t getting the calories they need at home is an ongoing battle. But it’s a battle educators and policy makers must win. Health and well-being is intrinsically linked with learning. Scientific studies have shown that hunger and certain nutritional deficiencies can lead to poor performance in the classroom, while proper nutrition can move children closer to their intellectual potential. What’s more, problems like obesity can lead to teasing, bullying, and other behaviors detrimental to the emotional well-being of a child, degrading the learning environment for everyone. The solution isn’t as simple as putting more fruits and vegetables in schools, it’s also preaching a message of health and providing kids hands-on experiences. Participation in school gardening programs has been shown to improve a child’s willingness to eat healthier foods.

Curriculum

Are American children in school to become problem solvers — learning how to think? Or are they there to learn the skills that will make them valuable to an evolving workplace? Defining the purpose of America’s schools may seem like an obvious goal, or at least one that should have been answered already. But educators, parents, and policy makers continue to argue over what should and shouldn’t be taught in the nation’s public schools. It’s more common to hear calls for better math and science education (usually referred to as STEM – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), with defenders of the humanities losing out. But some are beginning to question the value of prioritizing technical thinking over social reasoning. A healthy economy and society requires all kinds of reasoning, all kinds of intelligence. It’s up to leaders in education to explain that school curriculums and education don’t have to be a zero-sum game.

Testing

Testing is not going away: it has long been used as the primary tool for measuring educational success. But increasingly, teachers and policy makers are asking whether the current emphasis on standardized tests is too strong. Are too many teachers teaching to the test? Diane Ravitch, one of the minds behind No Child Left Behind – the George W. Bush-era program that linked school funding to testing success – has since become an outspoken opponent of using test scores to measure school and teacher performance and determine funding levels. Ultimately, test scores should not be the end goal, but simply a tool for measuring and improving learning.

Parents, Family

Parent involvement and quality of a child’s home life is another strong predictor of student achievement, often in line with household standards of living. Some parents are hyper-involved — today’s “helicopter parents” — while others are nowhere to be found. The need for more active involvement rings true, since encouragement at home translates to improved learning outcomes at school.  

Violence

Dealing with conflict is part of every child’s maturation process, but limiting the physical consequences of conflict, and channeling tensions towards positive ends, are essential to promoting a healthy school environment. Exposure to violence and bullying not only leads to poor performance in school but can cause anxiety and anti-social behaviors as children mature. The good news is: fighting violence early continues to pay dividends later. Educators must find a way to incorporate violence-reduction and conflict-mediation programs into early childhood education.

Funding

Polling among parents and teachers shows that most Americans pin problems in America’s school systems on one specific problem — funding from federal and state governments. Whether it’s recruiting the best teachers, reducing classroom sizes, keeping after-school programs alive, updating textbooks, incorporating new technologies, building new schools, or keeping art and music programs operational, appropriate funding is essential to solving the problems of American education. But money for public schools continues to be slashed as state governments run into budget shortfalls and Washington, DC remains frozen in debate. Improving schools, and solving the issues listed here, depends in large part on the ability of educators and everyday Americans to convince Washington of the importance of investing in education.

Looking ahead

Across political, racial, and socio-economic lines, Americans believe that improving America’s education system is vital to the nation’s long-term economic, political, and social health. And most Americans agree that America’s schools require more money. Growing numbers of Americans are willing to see tax increases to pay for schools. But this belief has not been appreciated by politicians in Washington, as education spending continues to suffer from slashed budgets and failure to compromise. America’s schools need both money and solutions for children’s sake.  America’s adults need to have a more open and honest discussion about the problems their children are up against — and how to fix them.