Tag Archives: public education

The Educational-Industrial Complex

Sometimes in my academic & research reading, I run across the pejorative term “the military-industrial complex.” I can’t say how long it’s been around; I sense that it hails from the Cold War and the peace-driven protests of the 60s which prompted schools like MIT to withdraw from putting their research efforts into building bigger and better weapons for the nuclear arms race.

I’d like to coin a new pejorative term for what’s happening in education: “The educational-industrial complex.”

How ironic that as postmodernism sweeps away the dusty remnants of Modernist thinking, our schools have become MORE like factories, MORE like assembly lines, MORE like widget-production mills.

As employers bewail the dearth of skilled labor with flexible minds and good problem-solving skills, the federally encouraged and state-mandated testing culture strips our teachers and schools of the time and resources to do anything but test, test, test.

Test now. Test later. Test at the end of every unit, every quarter, every semester. Lose two weeks at the end of the year because you can’t do the big state assessments during the final week of school, but students know nothing really matters once that test is finished….so let’s just party and fill the days with fluff.

When did education become so quantifiable?

When it turned into a multi-billion dollar business.

“Reforming education” isn’t an issue for education professionals to discuss. bringing wisdom from countless hours in classrooms across the nation to bear on difficult problems of today’s educational landscape: like raising the bar for schools in poor neighborhoods, increasing access to education for the underserved, training our teachers better and paying them better, or balancing the arts and sciences in a core curriculum.

It’s now an issue for those who hold the Power.  And Money.

The companies who score the standardized tests pull in millions (billions?) of dollars every year from nearly every state in the nation. Schools who perform better get better funding, so what administrator can refuse the deluge of funds offered if you’re willing to play the game? States see wads of federal cash float before their eyes.

Neighborhoods with good schools and high incomes push against any encroachment in their funding by lesser-served districts of lower socio-economic classes.

If you don’t have the Power, you don’t have much of a voice.

This educational Industrial Revolution isn’t raising everyone’s standard of living or leading to innovation. Like the abuses of the turn of the 20th Century, where labor laws barely protected workers from harm or exploitation, our children and teachers bear the injuries of an educational system that’s now bent on perpetuating itself.

Our desire to make education a science, rather than acknowledging that a good teacher is as much an artist and an alchemist as researcher or scientist, has pushed our priorities down the wrong path.

It’s time to stop.

I’ll make some suggestions….tomorrow.

Yeah, It Really Takes a Village

This article posted on the lovely site Good.Is caught my attention today:

The author suggests that parents really DO make a difference in their local schools when they visit campus, get to know the staff, come to understand the problem, and get involved in solutions.

I see too many good people in Los Angeles who are afraid of our kids. They are afraid to send their kids to an unknown school. All these people really need is to be invited on to campus, take a look around, and put that fear aside. These are our children—why are people afraid?

So if you want to transform education, find a teacher who needs help. Get on to that campus. Have a simple clean up event with teachers, students, and parents all working together. Invite the village. Bring coffee. Tap into the good in people. It’s there, just waiting for an invitation. They are out there, just waiting to be invited.

We all tend to care much more about institutions that we have invested personal effort into maintaining. What is handed to us cost-free, even work-free, is an institution that we feel free to walk away from.
In my MEd coursework at Covenant, we read a book called Is There a Public for Public Schools? The author suggests that local school management, where parents and community members can have a greater say in the particular traditions, setup, and even moral outlook of a given school, has a much better chance of succeeding than a monolithic education policy driven from “above.”
Media coverage of education makes the whole situation sound so dismal. But we really CAN make a difference in our schools. It’ll cost something, of course — the courage to know before we condemn, the willingness to invest in the lives of others, and the determination to focus on finding solutions rather than railing away at problems.
Do I expect public schools to transform into gardens of happiness?  Well, no.
But I’m positive that nothing will change if we don’t actually get involved.
Image source: http://rack.3.mshcdn.com/media/ZgkyMDEyLzEyLzA0LzVkLzkxb2Z0ZWFjaGVyLmIxdi5qcGcKcAl0aHVtYgk5NTB4NTM0IwplCWpwZw/b9dd9846/d40/91-of-teachers-have-computer-access-infographic--3a4b23f933.jpg
Image source: mashable

Thinking out loud: Education Reform

Having Erin, a world history/civics/economics teacher in the public school system, in the house this weekend has spawned some thinking on education. So in the interest of “bouncing around some ideas” …

I think the education system in the US would be far more effective if we . . .

1. Stop expecting the public education system to solve social problems like poverty, the effects of broken families and divorce, abuse or neglect, or cultural ignorance.

No teacher, no matter how gifted, can overcome the accumulated effects on a child of parental neglect, abuse, or ignorance. There is a qualitative difference between parents who pour their lives into enriching the mental development of their kids, and those who don’t (whether from neglect or incapability). From year to year, kids who began the race “behind” will continue to fall behind without significant parental or mentor involvement in their education. The schools cannot ‘fix’ America’s social problems. Helping humans become better people falls in the realm of community organizations, churches, charities, and other nonprofit works (and I’m fine with government funding those organizations to some degree for the good of society as a whole).

2. Stop treating education like the great equalizer of the masses.

While getting an education certainly helps bring underprivileged or disadvantaged kids into new opportunities, an education alone cannot undo years of neglect or lack of opportunities. Life isn’t fair. Those kids who have extraordinary talent in a particular field will probably be noticed and given that opportunity. The rest of us muddle along with what we’ve got. The Declaration of Independence promises us all the opportunity to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. It never promised us a level playing field.

….. I’m not saying we should give up on trying to make life better for those who aren’t doing well. To a large extent, the community at large can and should rally to assist those in need. But we will never reach a point in our nation when everyone is equally successful. Placing that burden on the schools is unfair.  Humans are diverse, unique, specifically-gifted folks. One size will never fit all.

3. Return power over education to the local district level while maintaining a financial “buffer” via statewide distribution of education funding (and money drawn from federal taxes).

Our national and district bureaucracies eat up tons of money and time that should be invested in the classrooms themselves. Pare down district/management staff to the bare minimum and divert those resources to hiring more teachers or aids. Give local districts more power (see below). Return a much larger portion of the money to individual schools (based on student popluation and general school-age population in the county).

….. On the other hand, in order to prevent year-to-year upheavals within the system, a percentage of tax dollars should be guaranteed to educational institutions for the sake of financial stability. I need to think this one through more deeply, but I’m convinced that a mixture of funding sources are necessary for schools to thrive (unlike South Carolina’s current mess of a funding system, which decimated education across the state by basing its budget larges on sales tax revenue, which plummeted in the economic crash).

4. Attach at least half of all state (and federal) spending on individual students to the student herself, so that the money follows the student to whatever school parents choose.

Most people hate voucher systems; I can understand the fears. But some form of economic competition IS necessary or the system will never be reformed. Politicians will never save us from anything, but given enough economic incentive, capitalism + self-interest can accomplish a lot.

The average SC public school receives something like $15,000 per pupil per year. If only half of that money were tagged to the child herself, many parents in SC could actually have true choice in finding a good education for their kids . . . and my salary as a teacher would begin to match my educational level, skill, and experience. New Covenant could begin saving money for that new building we hope to need in the next decade. And happy parents could invest in the schools of their choice.

5. Acknowledge the diversity of America by mirroring that diversity in the schools.

Stop pretending that education money should belong to the public system only. The lines between public and private are blurred as soon as an American citizen puts his child in a private school; as soon as Pennsylvania demanded that public schools provide busing for private school kids; as soon as some districts turned to businesses or charter schools to help them reform their schools.  Let’s attach the funding to the child and let that money drift to the school where the child is being educated.  I don’t think parents will be yanking their kids in and out of schools at a whim. Most of us like continuity. And letting parents have some measure of choice in education, whether choosing among various public schools or electing a private option, will drive change within the system.

6.. Hire qualified, professional educators and give individual schools far more leverage to implement state standards in their own way.

I’ve never yet met a public school teacher who thought No Child Left Behind or Race To the Top (the current administration’s initiative) were good ideas. Trying to measure “educational success” via standardized test scores seems like a good idea only to people who never set foot in a classroom. Anyone familiar with teaching knows that kids are individuals, not widgets. If you want an assembly-line for education, hire computers and get out of the way.  Otherwise, acknowledge that humans will always be more adaptable and intelligent than machines, and get out of the way of the professionals who are trying to help kids suceed.

Along with that, I’d recommend clarifying the hiring/firing standards within a given district and giving schools the power to release bad teachers (based on a portfolio of standards, not just test scores or parent complaints). With additional funding (see #4), teacher salaries might rise high enough to begin demanding master’s degrees of all teachers with at least 5 years’ experience in the classroom . . . which would improve the quality of education overall. A more qualified teaching force would improve curriculum, implementation of standards, and classroom instruction across the board.

7. Offer greater mobility within a county’s school system to offer more opportunities to students gifted in the arts, athletics, or academics.

Opening up funding (by attaching some funding to the child so parents can choose different schools) and giving districts a bigger say in how the state standards are implemented would encourage more schools to focus on particular educational methods — like magnet schools do now. We need to offer more opportunities in the arts, maths & sciences, and vo/tech careers on a “need” basis. It’s OK if some of those needs are supplied by charter schools or private schools.  In fact, bigger districts (urban areas) might be able to create special target schools to assist in remediating students from underprivileged backgrounds — say, hiring a higher number of early-elementary teachers with special training in learning disabilities, and staffing the school with family counselors.

8. Offer more diploma options, with a tech school deferment.

This one will be controversial, but here goes:  Not all high school students want an education. Has anyone noticed that some 16-18 year olds combine stupidity and hard-headedness into a difficult package? When you’re a teen, you think you’ll live forever and that you have the world figured out. Fine. Stop forcing educators to hand-hold the kids who don’t want to be there . . . life (and its consequences) are an amazing teacher.

Allow students to take a tech diploma at age 16 (or after 10th grade) with an optional tech school funding voucher held in their name until they turn 25.  Students can leave school and get a job, or elect to enroll in vocational coursework at a vo-tech college in the state (if they meet basic entrance requirements in reading, writing, and math). The voucher will offer the same funding to the tech college that would have gone to the public school if the student had taken all 4 years of high school. Hopefully, many of the kids who elect to leave high school at 16 will be back in the classroom training for a career by the time they are 25, and wiser. Education would become more of a commodity to be desired and appreciated instead of a handout.  And teachers/schools could stop spending higher-level resources on kids who don’t really care.

9. Stop pretending that education will ever be “neutral.”

No classroom is neutral. A tolerant classroom teaches that all viewpoints have equal footing — which is itself a philosophical viewpoint. Christian schools teach a religious view. Jewish or Catholic families living in the South have no options in education that match their beliefs because they don’t have enough population to merit a separate school, though they might want one.  Let’s top pretending that education itself is an aspect of church-state separation. Let the money follow the student to the school.

10. Require accreditation for all schools (and homeschool associations)

For any of this to work, educators must meet at least a minimum standard.  I realize that many of my home schooling friends will spontaneously combust on this point  but I stand by it. It bothers me that South Carolina doesn’t really know or care what New Covenant School is doing. Every former student I’ve ever polled from the local county high schools tells me that NCS’s classes were far harder than honors courses they’re taking, but who knows? Without at least a basic standard, every man educates as is “right in his own eyes,” and some of those results aren’t pretty.

The battleground over the “standard” of accreditation will be fierce, but I recommed that we choose to implement the two national resources already available to every state:  regional accrediting agencies (like SACS in the South) and nationwise subject standards. Home school associations could derive their accountability from a local public or (more likely) private educational institution — a partnership that would benefit the HSA itselfy by assisting with paperwork or standardized testing and opening up sports teams or school clubs to home schooled students.

The regional accrediting agencies already offer a way for secondary schools to be recognized as “qualifying” after a vigorous investigation based on the school’s own vision/mission statement. The agencies are not trying to force schools into a mold; they want to make sure the schools themselves are turning out graduates in line with their own established standards.

The national subject standards in math, science, English, history, foreign languages, etc were written by professionals in the subject discipline, and are much simpler and clearer than the state public school standards. (If you want your kid in a school that follows the state standards, enroll your kid in the local public school.) In fact, our standardized-test-driven state standards usually work against the best practices recommended by professional writers, historians, scientists, etc.  Teaching toward the big test runs counter to teaching critical thinking.


Set ALL the schools free (public and private) within a framework of accountability to implement the best practices in a way that best fits their particular geography and demographic, in a market affected somewhat by economic factors.  It won’t fix all the problems, but I think we’d have a fighting chance of providing a much better education to a greater number of families.

It’s hard to make theory (or theology) and practice match.

Recent experiences have drawn my thoughts toward the questions of how NCS as a school can better serve minorities, underprivileged, marginalized, and learning disabled students. It’s like the fences just keep getting higher. Everything about the private school model screams NO TRESPASSING.

The classical school movement — and the Christian school movement in general — hasn’t always done the best job reaching out to those who are not “like us.”

Let’s face it: My church has a lot of white, upper-middle-class professionals in it. The religious diversity among the school community represents a few more evangelical traditions, but everybody is still very much “the same.” Nobody has a tattoo or crazy haircut. Most of the minorities are here because they’ve been adopted (and that’s great — don’t get me wrong). But everyone is basically, homogeneously white.

Our mascot should be a gallon of milk. 

How do we explode the fences? So much of Christ’s ministry targeted the poor, the sick, the needy, the helpless.

But He didn’t have to pay a light bill, buy books, maintain a facility, or meet payroll. Our Christian educational ministries suffer from the economic realities of life in this world. A school is expensive (time, money, emotional investment, wear and tear).

Let’s say for argument’s sake that an Andersonian millionaire dies and bequeaths NCS a million dollars for scholarships and student aid.  Great.  But we haven’t removed the barriers just by offering scholarships. 

Some of our scholarship kids live on the “wrong” side of town. What if mom doesn’t have a car or the gas money to run a kid back and forth to school everyday? The main school population doesn’t live on south or west Anderson. Who’s going to get these kids to school and home again?  What busy family is going to leave home 20 minutes early to drive all the way across town to do a favor?

What about extra-curricular activities?

I can relate to this one …. I grew up on top of a mountain in western Pennsylvania surrounded by frightening, stereotypical “mountain” people. My family had one working car, and my mom always had it at work 30 minutes in the wrong direction.  I never participated in any ex/cr things at school because I didn’t have a ride home. At least NCS  has a pretty good tradition of faculty members pitching in to give rides … I remember my 8th grade English teacher driving me home after we went to a Shakespeare play at a local Penn State campus (one of the only two professional, live, theater performances I  saw during my schooling in PA). After the field trip, Mrs Shawley put me in her blue Ford Escort and gingerly picked her way up the winding mountain roads to my house (buried in the middle of the woods — she could probably hear banjo music…. lol).  The whole ordeal seemed SO awkward for her and for me and for my dad, who was embarrassed that he had no way to pick me up after school on his own.

My family was poor. I’ll say it straight up. My dad had a good job at a steel mill an hour away until he woke up one morning half-blind, with no explanation. I was in 2nd grade. He lost his job immediately (but retained a pension). His income was cut by 2/3. My mom became the sole breadwinner, and from that point on I’m not really sure how she paid all the bills or how we had money to eat. I *really* don’t know how they paid for my Christian school tuition. (That’s probably why we didn’t have much to eat. My dad could cook supper for us through an entire week on $30 of groceries.)

Every day at school at NCS brings constant reminders to some of my students that they aren’t privileged enough to own an iPod or have enough spare cash to spring for YoGo’s after school on a whim. The big field trips in October are an insurmountable barrier.  I understand.  My family never went on a single vacation. We couldn’t afford it. And that’s ok. I had a good life, good parents, good friends. But if something cost more than $50, the answer was no. No letter jackets; no class ring; no extra trips.

Simply providing a gateway into the private school full of upper-middle-class kids isn’t enough. We need to rally around whole families to fill in the gaps of a support network that most Christian families just take for granted


What about students set apart by learning disabilities? Again, Christian schools usually can’t afford to hire the necessary special education staff to properly handle kids with significant learning problems. Dyslexia. Dysgraphia. Processing issues. Major reading deficiencies. Kids who don’t ‘get’ math or grammar.

Shouldn’t we be able to craft Christian schools that offer a place to all of the household of faith?  Did God abandon some parents and some kids to wander in an unhelpful  education system because their kids don’t score at the top of the charts?

Praise God, NCS does not follow the popular philosophy of some classical schools to worship “rigor” above humanity, to screen applicants with a standardized test so that only the “A students” remain.  I thank God every day for the C students in my classroom, for the ones who have to struggle and fight for every.little.bit.of.progress — not because I want them to struggle (I hate it), but because those kids are the beautiful feet which will carry the Gospel of peace around the world.

“Smart kids” struggle against laziness and pride and arrogance. Instead, talk to the kid who knows he can’t get math without an extra hour of work. Talk to the kid who knows her reading comprehension is so weak that she will spend hours just trying to grasp a single assignment. You’ll usually find a very hard worker, a student who has learned that determination is worth a lot more than raw talent.  Given a chance to actually learn, those kids will be Kingdom workers worth their weight in gold.

Blessed are the weak, for they will see the strength of God in their weakness.  Shouldn’t our school somehow be a haven for those kids too?

I don’t have any answers here. I’m just rambling.  I’m thankful for the good progress NCS has made on all fronts. I’m glad my classes are as diverse as they are.

But the issue is real.
We need to do more than open our doors and invite the poor, the needy, the struggling, the minorities, the Calvary Home kids to come to school.

We need to cross the road … and pave it.

Has the system failed?

My life as a private school teacher with no kids has, by default, kept me pretty insulated from the public school system.

I don’t have anything against public schools (unlike many people in my circles).  For one thing, a nation has a responsibility to educate its people for the good of society and future growth.  I don’t see Christians busting down the doors to open their schools to community kids (usually), so I think it’s silly for Christians to then sit back and complain about the public schools.  Either take on the burden of fixing what you think is broken, or stop talking about it.  Complaining without taking action to fix (not just flee) reflects an unbliblical position on problem-solving.

So I’m not proud of my lack of real knowledge about education in America beyond the narrow walls of my school, but that’s how my life has been thus far.

Yesterday we took Amber (who lives with us) to a meeting at Tri-County Tech about the Gateway for College program. Sponsored and funded by the Gates Foundation, 18 Gateway sites around the nation are attempting to stem the tide of high school dropouts.  A student who is behind on credits for her age can apply for Gateway and take community college classes to complete her diploma requirements and set aside credits toward a TCT degree. It’s a great deal.  At 18, Amber still has 2 years of high school to complete.  TCT is much more inviting than 2 more years at T L Hanna.

As the student applicants worked through a reading assessment yesterday, one of the program directors called the parents into a separate room for our own meeting. I thought she was going to talk at us about the program, but she simply asked each parent to tell his/her story — why are you at this meeting? why did your child drop out? why do you think this will work?

Hearing those stories (about 30 kids applied yesterday) brought me face to face with the marginalized students in our public system.  The families at the Gateway meeting spanned economic, racial, educational, and geographic boundaries.  Many families were obviously broken and struggling to keep some semblance of support for their children.  Many had tried private school and public school and home schooling, with little success.

Mothers wept as they described their intense desires to see their children live a better life than they have. Others wept as they described tragedies that had ripped their marriages apart and driven their children away from them.  Everyone there seemed dejected, finished, grasping for hope.

Time after time, parents targeted the “drama” of the public high school as enemy #1, closely followed by “the wrong crowd” or “the wrong boyfriend.”  Teens simply stopped going to classes after months or years of unchecked bullying and ridicule. I don’t believe any particular story in its fullness (there’s always another side to a tale), but collectively the trends were hard to ignore:  school administrators ignoring deep-rooted social problems in the school, which then interrupted the academic life for these kids.  Many openly admitted that their kids don’t fit “the mold” of students sitting for hours behind desks doing pencil-and-paper assignments.

Compared to much of what we heard from the families in the room, our story was laughably positive: We had an 18 year old former foster kid living in our home who wants to get her diploma more efficiently and work toward college someday. A few heads twitched when Coart introduced us as private school teachers and mentioned that we had taught Amber for 3 years before inviting her to live with us.  One father in the meeting was representing an adopted son … I think he might have understood.

I have many seed thoughts swirling from yesterday’s encounter.  Here are a few observations:

  • Our public system is monolithically huge. Schools are hampered by fear of litigation and a mindset of ‘equality’ that actually works against biblical fairness or grace.  To educate the masses, you must sacrifice the marginal.
  • Only a few families even considered private high school education for their struggling student despite the fact that many of the middle class families in the room had sent their kids to private elementary schools. I figure that the cost or the perceived poor academic quality of many Christian high schools kept many parents away from private schools.
    …One man’s ex-wife kept switching his daughter between a local public school and a private Christian school that still uses PACE’s. I nearly fainted. No wonder the kid dropped out — neither school would accept the other’s credits.

    And if the teacher is central to education, how on earth are people still using PACEs? [I’ll save that rant for later.]

  • Christian themselves are one of the problems. We gripe about the bad, awful, nastiness of the public system, yet we design schools that are financially out of reach and philosophically unaccessible.

Let me round out that final thought–
I firmly believe in covenantal Christian education.  Parents must be on board philosophically for a school to be successful. NCS requires at least one parent to make a credible profession of faith for a child to be enrolled. I am 100% in support of this.

However, we cannot continue to complain that the government educates badly, yet purposefully close our doors to families and children who want out of the public system.  The tuition costs alone prevent many minorities from applying.  Education remains elitist and cliquish.

I am sure that some of the kids sitting in the Gateway interview yesterday would have been helped by a school like NCS where teachers emphasize God’s law above rules and  personal relationships above ‘fairness.’

I am sure families in that room were ripe for the Gospel to take root in the midst of their tragedies … but they are not interested unless the message is big enough to rescue their children too.

At some point, Christian education must reach beyond its own borders to encompass ‘the world’ too.

… still thinking.