Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 5
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Redefining the mission of public education

Lawmakers seem to be constantly grappling with our failing education system, so why aren’t they achieving anything? More often than not, they approach the issue in terms of money. One might say, “In order for the education system to succeed, we need to enact this or that tax so that certain standards can be met.” They think that throwing money at the situation will resolve it. Often they set broad goals behind such spending in justification, but these always sound half-hearted. If a goal is unspecific, it’s bound to be ineffective.

Such a broad approach obviously won’t yield results, but even those who have put some serious thought into how the system should be reformed haven’t managed to propose an effective solution. Many of the ideas generated by this crowd center around supposedly innovative new teaching methods, but these don’t hold any water.

A question that has long been considered answered needs to be re-asked: “What is the purpose of the public education system?” The standard answer is well known: “To educate the public.” But that’s exactly the kind of broad goal that lawmakers have been throwing money at for years without results. It’s time for some change! Too often this issue is seen as overwhelming, prompting lawmakers to keep their distance.

To be more specific: when is a person considered educated through the public school system? In some people’s minds, a person is educated once they can pass certain standardized tests, like the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) in Washington. The problem with these tests is that they don’t require even close to what is required to apply to most colleges, nor what is required for real life. And here in Washington, until this year, a student could even graduate from high school without passing this extremely basic test.

The fact that students are failing this test at all is a testament to the massive failures of the public education system. Often, standards imposed on students (like the WASL) will conflict with standards imposed on the school district, like the No Child Left Behind act (NCLB), which punishes districts in which too many students are unable to meet standards. Students are struggling with the standardized tests while the districts are struggling with the NCLB because the students are failing the standardized tests.

So what happens? Standards fall. Standards are adjusted so that more districts will pass the NCLB, and politicians can pretend that the system is actually improving. Ironically, all this accomplishes is further embarrassment; as standards are lowered, and the districts continue to fail the NCLB, the full extent of the public education system’s failure is exposed.

Others try to define the point when a student is considered educated by his or her ability to be competitive in college admissions. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation takes an extremely optimistic stance when they say, “All students in the United States … must leave [high school] with the skills necessary for college, work and citizenship.”

It would be more reasonable to say that all students must leave high school with the skills necessary for citizenship and work or college. There simply aren’t enough colleges and universities to accommodate 100 percent of high school graduates. The Gates Foundation also needs to realize that not every student (for whatever reason) wants to go to college.

More attention should be given to technical training and vocational programs for students who do not want to or cannot go to college. Just because they’re not interested in the more traditional education that college bound students are receiving doesn’t mean the public education system has to fail them entirely. Students put through a comprehensive technical training program in high school would be more ready and more able to enter the job market than those just completing the traditional requirements for high school graduation.

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