Why do our public schools never improve?

Why do our public schools never improve?

By Andrew Wilk

Quality public education is, as I have written many times before, the foundation of our society, and our ongoing failure to provide it to all students is a source of continued frustration and confusion for many. Why can't we ensure all of our schools provide a decent education for all of our children, particularly those for whom the K-12 years are their best—and perhaps last—springboard out of difficult life circumstances that have whittled their avenues for personal improvement to a precious few?

Maybe we need to re-think how we look at our public schools and reconcile ourselves to the fact that their educational missions are sometimes tangential to their roles as drivers of local economic activity and reassurance for parents who are nervously eying their children's futures.

Economically speaking, public schools are a big deal on a national level. Moreover, on a local level—particularly when it comes to small to medium sized communities—they are enormously important as sources of jobs, service and construction contracts, and the free daycare they provide for parents. Public schools are, therefore, only able to effect changes to the extent that those changes are not in conflict with their local economic benefits.

Let's face it, there is little coherent reason why a local school superintendent should be paid more than a state's Governor, except insofar as it establishes a top boundary for salaries that pulls everyone else's paycheck just that much higher. Likewise, the need to create and protect local jobs helps to explain why perfectly serviceable school buildings are routinely abandoned to build new ones, little that can be outsourced to a less expensive vendors ever is, and office operations often look like a snapshot from 1990.

There is, added to this, another basic human need: a desire to believe in bright futures for our children. It is unfortunate that one sure-fire way to keep every parent happy is to keep moving their children along toward graduation with as little focus on learning outcomes as possible. This would not be a terrible problem if we were an agrarian society of subsistence farmers, but it is a catastrophe in a complex and interdependent world that places a premium on communication skills, technical expertise, and overall intellectual alacrity. It is, in addition, not fair to have roughly 75% of our high school graduates—if ACT measures of college readiness and the explosion of remedial students in two and four year institutions can be accepted as reasonable indicators—not realize they are unprepared for higher education until they actually step onto the campus. Racing to address core academic deficiencies far past the point when they should have been identified and corrected is extremely difficult.

In addition, as a recent article in The New York Times points out, although we may have still have the best elite universities in the world—as measured by standards that are only distally related to teaching and learning—recent studies seem to indicate that the overall quality of the educational outcomes in our nation's higher education system lags behind our international peers. This should not be surprising. Just as a house tends to sag when the foundation rots, an increase in academically deficient freshman entering colleges and universities corrodes classroom standards and expectations and, as a consequence, results in diplomas being awarded to less proficient graduates.

We need to rebuild the foundation of our nation's educational system, so we need to convince the stakeholders—students, parents, and educators—in our K-12 system to buy into the idea that raising academic standards is essential if we are to avoid slipping ever further behind globally. Each group, however, is likely to resist necessary changes for reasons that perhaps speak to the reasons we can't seem to make any other meaningful but necessary changes in our society.

Students will, as a rule, not be interested in more demanding assignments and grading. Isn't one's youth supposed to be all about play and self-discovery? Parents typically are not going to be all that excited about their children stressing about schoolwork and test scores. Why are you making my children miserable instead of nurturing their self-esteem? Educators find higher academic standards problematic because they tend to expose systemic shortcomings, bring unwanted attention to weak teachers and administrators, and rile up a lot of parents about the failings of their children. Can't we talk about dress codes or building a new school instead?

Andrew Wilk is a former teacher at Urbana High School. His email is amwilk01@comcast.net.


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Lostinspace wrote on July 20, 2014 at 10:07 am

Mr. Wilk nails it.

What is needed is an open-access voluntary track for:

teachers who are well educated, eager to transmit knowledge, and ready to maintain standards;

parents who are ready to let their children "suffer" in the short run for long-run gains;

students who are eager to learn and willing to put study ahead of other activities.

Access does not equal success.

Alexander wrote on July 21, 2014 at 8:07 am

At first I thought "wow, finally an article of Wilk's I can agree with". Usually Wilk's writing is GOP-funded propoganda combined with (or perhaps, defined by) lack of any actual facts. The latter is still more or less the case here -- although who can't agree with the sentiment of his article (their main trick)? However, wait for the other shoe to drop: what is the reason for poor outcomes in public schools? Perhaps the sucking out of support that his GOP puppetmasters have been pushing hard for?

What does he want his conclusion to be? This deliberately(?) obfuscating sentence provides a clue:

"Each group, however, is likely to resist necessary changes for reasons that perhaps speak to the reasons we can't seem to make any other meaningful but necessary changes in our society."

AKA: Koch-like "Local funding" and "Charter schools".

Don't believe me? Search through his confusing mis-mash of sentences and try to find "more national government support for public education" or anything nearly equivalent.

dlgreen50 wrote on July 21, 2014 at 9:07 am

Wilk's columns are various version of right-wing gasbaggery. He never defines his terms, he never provides relevant facts, he never makes a coherent and honestly critical argument. He proceeds with the assumption that he just knows it all. I think the previous commenter has it right in regards to this issue. David Green

SaintClarence27 wrote on July 21, 2014 at 10:07 am

Agreed. My favorite was his fundamental misunderstanding of "freedom of speech."

Lostinspace wrote on July 21, 2014 at 2:07 pm

The other commenters seem to know a lot about Mr. Wilk.  I find nothing in the article that merits the venom.  I wonder what they propose.

As we have discovered, money is not the issue (as it is not the issue with health costs), but the will and courage to buck the complacency and the "best in the world" hype.

SaintClarence27 wrote on July 21, 2014 at 2:07 pm

It's mostly his previous "columns" that have shown that there is no reason to trust that he has any idea as to what he is writing.

Alexander wrote on July 21, 2014 at 3:07 pm

"As we have discovered, money is not the issue..."

Well, I don't claim to be a world expert on this issue, but I would think that it is. Since you don't provide a sentence to explain your claim, I presume you allude to certain statistics that purport high expenditures for what appear to be low return.  Frankly, I'm not confidently versed on this topic at the moment to discuss the complexities of that point. Instead, I'll just note that if we want better teachers, we have to pay more.

Yet the opposite is true -- witness the Koch funded attack on public pensions. You can't say this doesn't have some limiting effect on the number of potentially gifted teachers who go into the profession?

Besides the obvious "we gotta do better and make our kids understand hard work", what is Wilk *really* saying in his opinion? Nothing by code words for the Right.

By the way, I actually *do* think he knows the full purpose of why and about what he is writing (GOP/Koch propoganda). It's exactly for that reason that his sentences (even in this article) are so ambiguous.

I'll call him out: If I'm wrong, why don't you, Mr. Wilk (I know you see this), plainly write "Student outcomes need to improve, and indeed, they have been declining as a function of dropping support, both at the K-12 and university levels. I call on both parties to support education with more $$$ and more government programs to educate all economic groups." 

OR, if he doesn't believe that say:

"I believe, as does the Heritage foundation, or whatever Koch funded group that pays me to write these articles, that public education is no good; we need "government out of our lives". In fact, we should defund public education and work with a "private-public" model, where tax dollars give rise to school coupons that can be used at, say, Christian schools, if the user sees fit."

At least in the latter case, you could respect his honesty, rather than marvel at his trickery of writing paragraphs that say nothing.


billbtri5 wrote on July 21, 2014 at 2:07 pm

being self employed most of my life I tend to look at results or the bottom line, and in this case I have observed the U of I announcing year after year that they have received a "record" number of applications to attend.

based on that it seems that there are a number of students that are successfully  "making it" out of public schools and into the college ranks..