Imagine: Education for the New Millennium
By Ralph E. “Gene” Cash
“We do not need magic to change the world; we carry all the power we need inside ourselves: we have the power to imagine better.” —J. K. Rowling
Public education has not served all students equally, nor has it even approximated its stated goal of equality of educational opportunity. Attempts to remedy the inequities, such as the Education of All Handicapped Act and its IDEA iterations, as well as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and its successor, No Child Left Behind, have met with limited success. However, these laws have failed miserably at achieving the most basic objectives of public education: ensuring that it is completed and that all who obtain a diploma are economically competitive (Heckman & LaFontaine, 2008). Many possible causes of this increasing failure to educate an alarming percentage of our youth could be postulated—larger enrollments of students with disabilities, greater numbers of English language learners, increased societal stress, proliferation of substance abuse, the rise in developmental and emotional handicaps, the flight to private schools, disintegrating family structure, etc. However, blaming these extrasystemic factors, no matter how valid the cause–effect relationships, is counterproductive to positive change in public education.
There are two causes of the decline in our educational system that can be changed directly. The first results from the fact that bright, capable women subsidized education in this country for much of the last century. They took teaching positions for which they were chronically underpaid and underutilized because they believed in the profession of teaching, there was status in being an educator, they were denied opportunities for higher status jobs, and they were not usually primary breadwinners. All four of those reasons for women’s sacrifices on behalf of education have evaporated. Well-paid, year-round jobs have become available to the majority of female workers in other sectors of the economy. Teaching is no longer a high-status profession. Many, if not most women, especially single mothers, must now work full-time to make ends meet. The brightest and most capable women of our country are, in large measure, no longer willing to underwrite our government’s lack of determination to make education a priority.
The other systemic, modifiable reason for public education’s decline is the summer vacation. This vestige of an agrarian American economy has been devastating to the modernization of our educational system. Research has repeatedly demonstrated that time on task predicts educational outcomes and that the slowest learners suffer the greatest achievement losses during prolonged vacations and absences from school. Why do so many students fall behind and drop out? That’s partly because the poorest children can’t afford extended numbers of school days and extracurricular academic enrichment. Why do we have a shortage of qualified teachers? It’s due in part to the fact that we only pay them and utilize their services for 9 months per year. Why must we build more and more expensive school facilities? That’s because we utilize most school buildings and grounds from September until June instead of using them year round and having fewer students in them at any given time. Why do so many children roam the streets unsupervised during the summer months? That’s because many of their parents can’t afford to send them to expensive summer camps while they are at work. Could this be one of the links that explains the unfortunate relationship between poverty and involvement with the juvenile justice system?
The solution to the declining test scores and growing dropout rate in the U.S. is not punishing poorly performing schools, retaining children grade after grade, frightening students and teachers with high-stakes testing, or overhauling teaching strategies. A substantial part of the solution lies in dispensing with the anachronisms. In order to attract bright, capable, dedicated teachers (and school psychologists) consistently, we must make a national commitment to pay them competitive wages. In order for wages to become more competitive, we must ask for a full year’s work for a full year’s pay. To prevent students from dropping out, we must help them to feel competent. In order for students to feel competent, they must have adequate amounts of time to master material, have their progress monitored to mastery, and be taught that failure is not an option; they will move on in each subject just as soon as the material is mastered. As a result, many students will require more than the traditional 180 school days annually to make a year’s progress; it is incumbent upon us to ensure that they have the time, the support, and the consistency they need. Attempting to find the extra time within the traditional school year is simply robbing Peter to pay Paul. Finding it through grade retention is hardly an evidence-based alternative. We don’t need magic to change the world; we need imagination. We can make a difference by ridding ourselves of 20th century thinking.
Heckman, James, J., & LaFontaine, Paul A. (2008). The declining American high school graduation rate: Evidence, sources, and consequences. National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) Reporter: Research Summary 2008 Number 1.
Gene Cash, PhD, NCSP, is a Florida licensed psychologist and a faculty member at the Nova Southeastern University Center for Psychological Studies in Ft. Lauderdale, FL.