Madeleine Clays has been a public school teacher in the U.S. for twenty years. She is passionate about education.
Throughout my almost twenty years as a public education teacher in grades K-12, I have taught students in various states across the United States and from all walks of life and socioeconomic backgrounds. I have taught in Title I schools, in affluent schools, in rural schools and in urban ones.
As a teacher who is passionate about kids and about education, it pains me to see how public education works against students every single day across schools in my country.
How Public Education Works Against Students
- Too Much Technology
- Too Many Programs
- Excessive Testing
- Large Class Sizes
1. Too Much Technology
21st Century Skills
Teachers across the U.S. are drilled to teach their students “21st Century Skills”—skills that will enable them to succeed in college and in the workforce. A main component of these are technology skills. The idea is that students need to become digital citizens so that they can compete in today’s competitive global economy.
Students are expected to learn to use computer programs as early as elementary school and they spend a significant amount of school time on electronic devices such as desktops, laptops, and iPads. In some schools, students even have their own device to use throughout the school day.
Given the demand for high tech skills in virtually all career fields today, it’s hard to argue that these shouldn’t be a critical component of any school’s curriculum.
Moreover, for students with communication challenges, such as autistic students who are nonverbal or have difficulty speaking, technology is a tremendous assett in enabling them to express themselves.
The downside of kids spending long periods of school time on electronic devices is that it negatively impacts their social skills. Let’s not forget that many of these same kids are already spending hours outside of school on their phones and computers—texting, emailing, playing video games, and surfing the internet.
When kids are glued to their screens, they’re not learning valuable social skills they’ll need not just to hold jobs in the future but also to navigate life successfully.
Many kids don’t know how to interact with one another in person. That’s because instead of speaking to one another by phone, they text each other. Rather than getting together to play outside or visit each other’s homes, they play video games remotely with each other, thereby avoiding any kind of face-to-face communication.
Many can’t hold a conversation or even sustain eye contact for any length of time.
Excessive use of technology in the classroom at the expense of social interactions hurts our kids.
- Incorporate more teacher-guided discussions in class, involving all students in the dialogue. For example, reading novels or stories as a class opens up many opportunities for discussion and for listening to others’ viewpoints.
- Encourage students to work more often in pairs or small groups for class projects and assignments.
2. Students are Continually Labeled
Thanks to federal legislation, special education programs entitle students with disabilities to receive an appropriate education that meets their unique educational needs. This is a very good thing.
However, it is highly concerning that an increasing number of students in schools across America are being diagnosed with ADHD, learning disabilities, or “other health impairments”, which is basically the category they’re placed in when they're not performing "up to par" but don’t fit the criteria for any of the other categories.
Disability or Difference?
The concern is that the behaviors we see in many of the children who end up getting these labels are often not necessarily problems.
They may be problems for the public school system, but not intrinsic problems in the children.
Many of these kids are slower processors, have alternative learning styles, or happen to be very high energy. These are only problems because they interfere with how the public school system operates.
Public education has little tolerance for individual differences among students. If kids don’t fit the mold, meaning they don’t behave, learn, or progress academically as expected for their grade level, they are almost without exception marginalized by ending up in a “special” class.
Our cookie cutter public education system brands kids with labels that imply they are in some way deficient or below par. We essentially tell them there is something wrong with them. They are not “normal” and thereby need to be slapped with a “special” label. This inevitably impacts their self-confidence and self-image.
Many English language learners end up qualifying for special education services when, in many cases, they simply need more time to learn the English language!
Who is Gifted?
The “gifted” or “gifted and talented” program poses another cause for concern in our educational system. These programs are for students who are supposedly more intelligent and more capable than our “average” students.
In most cases, students in this program come from affluent homes and their parents pushed for their kids to qualify.
The very name "gifted and talented" implies that students who aren’t in this program don’t have gifts or talents. It sends the message that those in the "gifted program" are special and those who aren’t in the program are ordinary.
- Allow for learning differences among students. Rather than slapping a label on them, offer a variety of classes for reading and math support to students who need it.
- Decrease class sizes to enable teachers to offer more support to students who need it. This will likely significantly reduce the number of students who fall behind and who end up being labeled needlessly.
- Why not call the "gifted program" an "enrichment program"? This allows for students who need to be challenged at a higher level to receive the services they need without a label that screams, “You are more special than other students.”
The academic expectations at each grade level keep rising across the U.S. This means that students who are already slower learners or have alternative learning styles are at risk of falling increasingly behind.
3. Too Many Programs
The number of programs and activities most U.S. schools offer, particularly in middle school and high school, is through the roof.
Many of these programs are academic, such as the yearly “Book Challenge” which dares kids to read as many books as possible throughout the course of the school year. Prizes are awarded to motivate kids to read away all year long, and teachers’ heads spin as they try to keep up with placing reward stickers—one for each book read—beside each student's name on the huge chart displayed on the classroom wall.
We never really know if our kids actually read these books.
Online reading programs like Achieve3000 also encourage students to earn points and rewards for obtaining high scores on their quizzes.
Subject area curriculums keep changing—particularly for Reading and Math—because of the “newer and better” ones districts are pressured to adopt. This means that teachers have to be trained in the new programs every few years.
Apart from academics, there are sports, clubs and other activities after school which offer students opportunities to pursue their interests and develop their skills and talents.
Most public schools in America today resemble something between a YMCA and a 5-ring circus.
Usually the number of programs in a school is driven entirely by parental demands. Normally the more affluent the parents, the more pressure administrators are under to comply with their requests.
What parents often don’t realize is how much these programs interfere with their kids’ education. Too many activities to choose from can be stressful for students, and being involved in too many can be distracting and interfere with their academics.
In addition, teachers are often asked and even pressured to sponsor or coach these activities after school, which can be very difficult for them, since they already have their hands full with their teaching demands.
- Stop adopting a new Reading or Math curriculum every other year. Use this money to hire more teachers and reduce class sizes.
- Put a cap on the number of extracurricular activities offered at your school.
- Just say no to parents. Refer them to their local YMCA or give them a list of community programs and clubs.
4. Excessive Testing
We know we need to assess our students to help guide our instruction and to measure their academic progress.
However, too much testing is harmful for kids.
In my school, one teacher created t-shirts for staff with the phrase, “You Are More Than a Number”—implying that students’ value as human beings is greater than their standardized test scores.
Yet by the very act of wearing these shirts, we were actually telling our students that their scores DO matter, and they matter A LOT.
The truth is, schools are judged by their student test scores, and so are teachers.
Some schools even have a teacher pay for performance model which means teacher salaries are greatly influenced by their students’ standardized assessment scores.
English language learners (ELLs) have to take the state assessments in each of the four language domains: speaking, listening, reading, and writing and are also expected to take most if not all of the state assessments their non-ELL classmates take in the various subject areas.
Excessive focus on state assessments is unhealthy and unreasonable for students and teachers as it places too much emphasis on one big test on one given day of the year for each subject area.
Students who are more prone to anxiety and stress often end up performing poorly on state assessments due to the intense pressure they're under.
- Place more emphasis on curriculum-based assessment, as long as the curriculum is aligned with the state standards.
- Eliminate the teacher pay for performance model, as it places tremendous pressure on teachers to hyper-focus on student test scores. It also creates a school culture that encourages competition rather than collaboration among teachers.
If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.
— A Nation at Risk, April, 1983
5. Large Class Sizes
I won't say too much on this one because this horse has been beaten.
Class sizes in our country need to be smaller. How many times does this need to be addressed before we see real change?
Children in America are coming to school increasingly unprepared to learn while academic expectations keep rising.
By unprepared to learn I mean that they're lacking basic literacy or math skills or are coming to school without their basic physical or emotional needs met. In many cases, it's all of the above.
More and more kids enter our classrooms desperate for attention, only to be received by burned out teachers who are barely making it through the week due to the increasing demands placed on them.
Yet class sizes remain too large and in some cases are becoming larger.
Students are shuffled through the system even when they haven’t met basic academic standards. Many fall through the cracks and end up in special education.
The number of teachers resigning from their jobs in the U.S. is at an all-time high.
Research shows that high teacher turnover rate has a negative impact on student achievement.
Schools are hiring more and more counselors to try to keep up with the increasing mental health needs of our kids.
The public education system in our country feeds itself.
- Cap class sizes at 15. Hiring more teachers and building more classrooms will more than pay for itself as teacher retention rates increase—saving schools and taxpayers the expense of recruiting and training millions of new teachers every year. It will also likely significantly reduce the number of students labeled as having "special needs" as well as the need to hire additional school counselors to help students cope with their school-related stress.
We have a crisis in public education in America.
Teachers need to keep speaking out for change in their schools and classrooms. Administrators can support their teachers by practicing common sense, listening to teachers when they voice concerns, and then doing what they can to meet their needs and those of their students.
Parents should participate in their children's education as much as possible. Showing up for parent conferences and for all meetings related to their children's academic progress are significant ways to be involved. They should know their rights, express any worries they have about their child's education and be unafraid to ask questions.
Our Failing Schools—Enough is Enough! | Geoffrey Canada
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Madeleine Clays
Larry Slawson from North Carolina on July 01, 2019:
Completely and totally agree with your overall arguments. Thank you for sharing!