Public education has been through the wringer. Since the release of A Nation At Risk, public education has been barraged by reforms and attacks. From Clinton to Bush to Obama to Trump, there has been no major change in the direction in the direction of education policy. The last four years, during which Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos displayed barely-and-often-unsuccessfully-concealed contempt and distaste for the public school system, have simply been the crescendo of a long-played symphony.
With the Biden presidency, there is an opportunity to change direction, or at least repair some of the damage of the last few decades. Here’s what needs to be done.
Get schools out from under the pandemic.
The most immediate issue is the hammering of schools by the pandemic, and the national mess of a response to it. It was clear from the beginning that policymakers would have to spend a lot of money and address a variety of practical concerns to reopen school buildings safely and successfully (or conduct remote schooling effectively). Mostly, they didn’t, but instead left classroom teachers to somehow sort things out. Federal and state authorities have offered little guidance or assistance, and plans have been wildly varied and led to wags asking if they could hold school if they did it in a big box retail store or a bar. And so, every problem that public schools ever had has now been exacerbated.
The rollout of a vaccine may well make it more likely that the new plan will be “Just hang in there till everyone gets a shot,” which may mean that the rest of the year will be pandemicized. Still, districts need a plan. Plans have to be specific and local, because every school situation is different. What should happen is that local educators, who know the specifics of the school buildings and students, and medical specialists, who know the specifics of the disease, should get together. Politicians should say, “Figure out what you need, and we’ll get it for you.” And nothing else. In some places, particularly those in which trust is already worn thin, this will not be easy.
Fix the buildings.
The pandemic has underlined what plenty of folks already knew—the physical infrastructure of our education system needs help. Alarm bells were sounding way back in 1999, when the National Center for Education Statistics found that the average age of U.S. school buildings was 42 years. By 2014, that figure was 45 years. A 2016 report estimated that it would take yearly expenditures of $145 billion to properly repair and maintain U.S. schools. Meanwhile, we see periodic stories highlighting the appalling conditions in many school buildings.
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Going to school in a crumbling building is hazardous to student health. It also sends a steady, daily message to those students that they aren’t important enough to have a decent place to get an education. Every student in every zip code should be able to attend school in a clean, safe, attractive building—preferably one that looks as if it’s from this century.
Rebuild the teacher corps.
Schools in the U.S. have increasingly had trouble filling teaching positions, a problem that started well before the pandemic. It’s not a shortage, any more than my inability to buy a home in the Hamptons for $150 signals a housing shortage. Covid has not helped. But while folks were alarmed to read a recent survey indicating that 27% of teachers are considering leaving over pandemic conditions, last year’s pre-pandemic survey by PDK showed that 50% of teachers have seriously considered leaving the profession. Meanwhile over the last decade, the number of students enrolling in and completing teacher preparation programs has been dropping steadily.
The ranks of the profession have been beaten down by the steady, grinding erosion of the factors that once made teaching an attractive field for so many. Salaries have dropped in real dollars since the turn of the century. A variety of education reforms have been pushed on the premise that everything wrong with education is teachers’ fault, or at the very least, teachers’ jobs to fix. Poverty and racism are holding students back? Arne Duncan says that teachers should fix that. There’s a problem with school shooters? Betsy DeVos says that teachers should shoot back. High stakes testing has created test-centric schooling, where teachers’ main job has been defined as “Raise student scores on a single annual test.” Top-down policies have stripped teachers of autonomy.
Meanwhile, the steady drumbeat that U.S. schools are failing, a piece of conventional wisdom widely accepted as truth even though the evidence is sketchy and there is plenty of counter-evidence available. And somehow, when considering the schools that have not made good on the promise of U.S. education, we rarely discuss the policymakers who have failed to provide those schools with the resources and support they need.
Entry to the profession has gotten both more difficult (barriers to certification like edTPA) and less difficult (many states allow teaching jobs to be filled by folks with no certification at all, because anybody can do that job). At the same time, there has been a steady push against the teachers unions and a roll back of collective bargaining and teacher job protections in many states.
The teaching profession is unique in that virtually every potential teacher in the country has about twelve years to see what the job looks like. For the past several decades, fewer and fewer young people have seen a profession that attracts them, even if they happen to respect the people they see working through it.
It is past time for the profession to be built back up. Decent pay, job security, good working conditions, respect, and perhaps most critical, the chance to feel that you are doing important work that engages your own skills, passion and creativity—these need to be the hallmark of teaching again. At the same time, there is a desperate need for teachers of color in the field (for example, new research shows that in Pennsylvania, 37% of school districts employ only white teachers).
Provide teachers with respect, support, and the conditions they need to do a good job. Pay them well; treat them well.
All of this costs money.
There are other areas of public education that need to be addressed, but these three issues are foundational. All of them cost money, so perhaps a subheading for all of these is to start spending money on fulfilling the promise of U.S. universal public education instead of trying to subcontract the job. Let’s see if 2021 brings a change in direction.