By Marie A. Christensen Karr

Education In Crisis

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has decided that the state of secondary public education in the United States is "terrifying." The Foundation is determined to do whatever it can to change that - and with billions of dollars available, they probably will.

But what, exactly, needs to change, and how?
  The Gates Foundation and an off-shoot, Stand Up, as well as educators, politicians and pundits (like Oprah Winfrey and Time Magazine) are all taking a shot at the answers. Citing high school drop-out statistics and projecting the possible earnings differences of graduates and drop-outs,  they advocate smaller high schools, more rigorous content, better adult/student relationships, and better student tracking & information.  These are all very good ideas and will, no doubt, help some students do better in high school.  But, much like No Child Left Behind, it may be just another band-aid placed on a terminally ill system.  And it may very well be that the system has always been terminally ill.

History: Free public education was first enabled in 1785 by an act allowing for funding through the federal government.  But most schools were still privately owned and funded until the 1840s, when the responsibility for public education was turned over to individual states.  The idea driving these early schools was the necessity for all citizens to read and write well, understand the history and institutions of the U.S., and acquire enough math for daily life.  Everything else young people needed to know, they learned at home or in the community, or through an apprenticeship,  and only the wealthy considered a college education a possibility. Over the years, other curriculum was added, but not much changed until the 1940s, post-WWII.  The returning soldiers were very busy having families and (thanks to the GI Bill) many enrolled in college.  Most states really ramped up the college and university systems, creating some of the best schools in the world. By 1950, the old public school systems were being overwhelmed by their children, the
Baby Boom generation. Answering the need, massive 'big box' schools were built with the primary intention of simply putting the kids somewhere.  Even with that effort, most of the urban and suburban schools were over-crowded within a few years - and  most of them have stayed that way.  No consideration was ever given to the emotional and physical needs of the students - the old agrarian schedule and drill system of instruction was simply grafted onto the new system of warehousing kids and passing them from one grade to the next.  It was expediency over wisdom, practicality over compassion.

Now here we are, 50 years later, asking why it isn't working.  It never has really worked in the first place, except for a few lucky souls for whom it was (and is) the perfect environment.  But now it's failing many more students than it did a generation ago. 

Yes, some schools can be vastly improved with increased funding, better teacher training, committed school boards, and caring administrators, as well as implementing the Gates Foundation's suggestions.  But will it be enough?  And are the schools really the root cause? 
Do we need to fix the schools to prevent students from dropping out, or…do we need to fix the kids?

Shouldn't we be looking at a culture which trivializes education but glorifies sex, violence, revenge, easy money, sports and drugs?  In the 1950s, adults were portrayed in the media as smarter and wiser then children, and in charge of the family (and by extension, the classroom).  Over the last 50 years, what has happened to that image?  Shouldn't we be looking at a political climate in which the bully wins more often than not, while reasonable, moderate voices are ridiculed and shouted down?  Shouldn't we be asking why there is such easy acceptance of teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse and gang behavior?  Shouldn't we ask why so many parents never attend school board or PTA meetings, and don't know or care who is on the school board, who their children's teachers are, what classes their kids are taking or what homework is assigned?  Some parents spend more time talking on cell phones than to their kids, and model aggressive, violent behavior (road rage, bigotry, profanity, verbal/physical abuse).  Shouldn't we be asking the media moguls, who are getting obscenely wealthy, to stop selling ideas and behaviors to our children that negatively impact their lifestyle?  Shouldn't we be asking everyone in this country to take steps towards working on a solution for these problems, for the sake of the next generation?

If the Gates Foundation really wants to improve schools, it should aim its money at the media and our elected officials first. Fix the culture, and the schools will come along.  Yes, there is an education crisis - and it's just one symptom of a potentially fatal disease.

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