There is something wrong with education in America

[I know about the typo in the headline. That is the joke.]
Posted Thursday, February 12, 2004 - 12:00am

To say that our education system is plagued with problems is something of an understatement. I applaud Gov. Olene Walker's fight for increased funding for our schools. Even if the state legislature refuses to concede to her proposed budget, her battle still brings to light the problems that have plagued our education system for many years.

Although the funding problem is something that needs to be put in order, a much larger problem lies just under the radar, unnoticed. Student apathy is the real culprit behind our state's education crisis. Unlike a lawyer, throwing money at it won't make it go away. It is more like a squirrel that runs up your pant leg; you have to take care of your own squirrel first. I assert that our society needs a major attitude adjustment in regards to education, and that change must occur on the individual level first.

Before we can see students succeed, a myriad of factors both inside and outside of schools must be addressed. These factors include the aforementioned funding deficiencies and testing. I will look at these problems and their proposed solutions, and discuss how reducing student apathy will be a much more effective means of solving these problems.

Perhaps the first thing tackle is the funding problem. We simply need to divert funds from abandoned highways and superfluous waterways to our children. I don't propose that we completely ignore infrastructure needs, but we do need to put things in their proper priority. We have just finished a costly cycle of improving our civic infrastructure. We have a newly widened interstate highway, courtesy the 2002 winter Olympics. It is now time to put our children at the top of our priority list. We can't neglect infrastructure forever, but we must stop neglecting our children right now.

Utah has already led the nation in the highest pupil to teacher ratio for seven years running. Our state on average spends $4,500 per student per year, which is much less than what that child could fetch on the black market, and well below the national average of $7,000.

With any hope, Walker can avert an education funding crisis before it happens. She has both the motivation and the vision to make sure that the future needs of Utah's students are met.

I started school in the Utah public school system nearly 18 years ago. Back in those days, we couldn't throw any paper away unless both sides had been used. We didn't get new crayons at the beginning of the semester, and had to drink water with our graham crackers instead of milk when we woke up from our nap. Public schools in Utah should not be recreations of the 1930's Dust Bowl. The funding situation today is not an improvement.

Despite these funding problems, Utah has consistently enjoyed a place near the top of the country in standardized test results. The conclusion is drawn that Utah's students are able to do more with less. It is often attributed to the fact that our students are immersed in a community that places a high priority on scholastic achievement.

This is a clear case of how students that take a proactive stance on their education are able to overcome obstacles that would cripple unmotivated students. Although Utah's students will likely continue to succeed, our legislature ought to match their enthusiasm for education, and give liberally to our schools.

Another piece of embattled land in the education performance debate is the role of standardized testing. Tests often are found in the crosshairs, I suspect, because nobody fondly recalls them from their own school years. At any rate, some valid concerns are raised.

The ability of testing to determine a student's comprehension is in question. When tests are used to judge the overall efficacy of a school, factors such as illness or absence are not terribly crucial. But for students who suffer from test anxiety, or who are feeling under the weather the day the test is administered, this is a huge problem. Not only does the test determine future funding for the school, but can also create or remove possibilities of future education for the student.

Robert L. Linn points out in an article for the American Educational Research Association that numbers are often manipulated to meet the campaign promises of elected officials.

"A physician, John Cannell (1987), forcefully brought to public attention what came to be known as the Lake Wobegon effect (Koretz, 1988), that is, the incredible finding that essentially all states and most districts were reporting that their students were scoring above the national norm."

It is to be expected that politicians will use numbers to their advantage in election years, but you really shouldn't make them up unless you are Mr. Rogers running for mayor of Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Linn explains that education reform is often implemented in such a way as to fit in nicely with term limits. It is evident that none of this is good for schools, and that it is immoral to use reports of student performance to garner support.

Tests aren't graded on a scale that takes into account other important factors that affect student performance. Proven factors such as nourishing meals, the availability of health care, and a good home life are never taken into account when it comes time to grade the test.

According to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, "[t]he best school, the best teachers and the best curriculum can make a huge difference in the lives of disadvantaged children, but basic needs like housing, health care and nutrition must also be addressed to truly close the achievement gap between poor and rich children."

Perhaps most damning of all, is that tests used to measure school performance don't seem to show that more spending makes for better students. Aside from the few isolated examples recently touted by President George W. Bush, the evidence is conspicuously sparse.

Students cannot be expected to perform well in school if every other aspect of their lives are in shambles. Improving their self-esteem outside of the classroom is as crucial as preparing them well for a test.

After all, most high school kids don't really care about their grades. Did you really worry about anything that would happen you graduated? High school attitudes are often carried with the student into the first years of college.The personal decisions made prior to college enrollment will, to a large degree, determine how focused a student will be while in college. These factors include "student backgrounds, academic preparedness for college, and clear goals" (Strauss, Volkwein, Predictors of student commitment at two-year and four-year institutions.)

Tests, when viewed in light of attitude, are not that big of a deal. The student will be learning things for the sake of learning them, and be able to recall them during test time. When students have a bad attitude toward the test, it is their own failure, not the system's.

This only begs the question of what we can do about it. Anybody who has ever dealt with or been a teenager knows that you are better off talking reason with John Ashcroft. Another hurdle is our society's perception of education. Children are bombarded with movies like "The Perfect Score," where the characters steal the answers to the SAT test, and TV shows like "Saved by the Bell" which focus on the social soap opera at school.

With all of that crap, how can we expect kids to sit through a day of school? Maybe we just need to get sick of being stupid before anything substantial will happen. Do you think that my ideas are pretentious and chimeric? Or are you the kind of person who doesn't even know what that means? I rest my case.

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