Search This Blog

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Playing the Blame Game

With skyrocketing costs, budget crises, inconsistent curricula, poor standardized testing scores, and poor morale among teachers, administrators, and students, the need for sustainable and pervasive educational change is greater now than ever before. The numbers of questions related to the quality of the U.S. educational system from multiple sectors of society is at an all-time high. Many American parents have seen reports that American schools rank well below schools in countries such as China and Japan, or have heard President Obama declare a “dropout crisis” in the USA. An abundance of news reports and discouraging case studies has created panic among education stakeholders, who want to know why American school systems are failing. However, many insist on playing the “blame game,” which in most cases is counterproductive.

 Many Americans believe that only a small percentage of leaders understand the complexities of the school system, and that individuals who do understand the intricacies of the system use their knowledge to justify the mediocre performance of our teachers and students. The American school system is the best-financed system in the world, but is one of the lowest performing. The American school system as a whole has an appalling performance record. For children living in urban environments, the story is even more alarming. Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are often educated in dilapidated schools where the too many educators lack the credentials and skills necessary to perform their duties adequately. High student-to-teacher ratios are found in most urban schools, and these schools often lack the resources to deal with the diverse challenges they face, including unruly student behavior. Education has been called the great equalizer, but for students living in poverty-stricken urban areas it is little more than a babysitting service and a place to get a hot meal.

Many question whether the No Child Left Behind Act has contributed to achieving academic success. Although NCLB was well intentioned, it has not lived up to the hopes of government or schools. In the eyes of some, NCLB has actually contributed to subpar academics becoming even worse.  If American educators and school personnel do not make a concerted effort to develop effective measures to hold schools accountable for the education of all of our children, then the education crisis will continue. There is an exception to every rule: some urban school systems are providing a quality education.

Unfortunately, however, only a small number of school systems meet the state and federal government student performance requirements. For underperforming urban school systems, the problem usually lies with the inability to sustain existing reform efforts and initiatives. Mayors and school superintendents in these areas often concoct grandiose reform plans that are merely political devices meant to beguile voters into believing they genuinely care about educational reform. The idea that politicians create school reform to gain popularity and votes is sad and sobering. It is discouraging to realize that our children’s futures might be used as a political device to win elections.

Politicians are not the only people at fault for the shoddy education American children are receiving, but no one will take responsibility for subpar educational environments. If administrators were asked who was at fault, they might point to a lack of parental involvement and too few quality teachers. If teachers were asked who was at fault they might also cite a lack of parental involvement and ineffective administration. If parents were asked who was at fault they might blame teachers and school administrators. Society in general seems to conclude that the lack of quality teachers, effective administration, and parental involvement are all factors contributing to educational failure.

Whatever the reason, Americans have become the laughing stock of the free world when it comes to K-12 education. The solution, of course, is for the country to unite and work together to carry the responsibility of enriching and continuing America’s future via educational excellence without playing the “blame game.”

Tagline- Matthew Lynch is an Assistant professor of Education at Widener University. He can be contacted at

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Why We Need a National Standardized Curriculum

    While most of us imagine that the federal government is not necessarily in a position to dictate what states do in their schools, the fact is the federal government can very much impose its will on state and local governments. The impetus is, naturally, monetary. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act is a case in point. States not adhering to the mandates of NCLB risk losing their federal Title I funds. As a result, states have endeavored to implement NCLB mandates, which were unparalleled in scope in terms of federal imposition into state educational practices.

    The Obama Administration is maintaining a primary premise of NCLB—that of closing the achievement gap between disadvantaged and advantaged students, while increasing overall standards of performance for all students.  In support of this goal, the Administration has voiced strong support for the Common Core State Standards, a consistent set of curriculum standards in mathematics and English language arts, by encouraging states to adopt the standards. The Administration through award of Race-to-the Top funds also supports the work of the 31-member state SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), which is working to develop student assessments, aligned with the Common Core State Standards.

    While there may be a question as to whether or not the federal government has the authority to mandate adoption of what is tantamount to national standards (and subsequently adoption of common assessments for the those standards), to date, 43 states have adopted the standards on their own. The National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) created the standards. Their goal was to create a set of standards that described what children needed to know and be able to do, regardless of where in the nation they lived. The standards are meant to be robust and to provide all students with the knowledge and skills needed to prepare them for college or the workforce. The standards are consistent with President Obama’s advocacy for equality as a foundation of his education agenda. He has stated on numerous occasions that he wants results, and to see expectations rise so that the United States is on equal footing in a competitive global economy.

    The level of inconsistency prior to development of the Common Core State Standards was a hurdle many students needed to navigate. Students moving from state-to-state potentially faced jarring inconsistencies between states with respect to expected performance to reach proficiency, and in some instances differences in content being tested. Common Core State Standards proponents claimed differences in state standards and what it meant to be proficient made it impossible to determine the extent to which national achievement goals were being accomplished.

    Even so, the national standards movement has it critics. For some, having nationwide standards focused on mathematics and language arts places the broad variety of learning experiences and critical thinking so valuable in high quality education in jeopardy. Others are concerned that the standards are not rigorous enough, and are actually weaker than state standards that were in place. This was particularly the case in New Jersey, California, and Massachusetts.  Still others are concerned that local autonomy will once again be taken away as states are forced to adopt standards favored by the federal government.

    While states like Massachusetts may be venerated for their stringent policies and implementation of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, that level of stringency did not necessarily carry over to other states. In fact, many states were not nearly as rigorous in assessment a procedure, preferring to do only what was required to ensure that they received federal education funds, and nothing more. And to date, no federal requirement to adopt the standards has been imposed, although adoption of the standards was required by states competing for Race-to-the Top funds.

    A number of states have yet to adopt the standards—which brings us to the subject of sanctions. There are questions about whether sanction models such as that native to NCLB really work. With so much pressure mounted toward schools, administrators, teachers, and students, it is important to ascertain whether sanctions are the best way to persuade schools to engage specific types of educational reforms. After examining the sanctions issue from various sides, it is apparent that the current penalty model does not convincingly provide a clear route to improved overall performance of schools systems throughout the country. In fact, if there were even a reasonable correlation between improved school performance and imposed sanctions, there would be a strong case for continuing with that system and trying to improve it. However data are too ambiguous to create confidence in the sanctions model as an impetus for change.

    In short, mandatory sanctions do not allow enough flexibility to achieve an overall improvement in education. If sanctions were actually functioning as expected, many substandard schools would be moving out of their troubled status--however the Center for Education Policy finds that this has not occurred. Further, testing can lend itself to a focus on a narrow spectrum of knowledge items that can be easily assessed. These tests may not address the crucial analyzing and reasoning skills that are critical in the real world or at the college level. This may be the preferred route for states more interested in avoiding sanctions than challenging students with rigorous standards-based content.

    National standards negate both of these failures. Discrepancies in content and levels of proficiency in different parts of the country would be minimized if not eradicated by having a set of common standards that are assessed across the nation, Problems associated with students’ movement from one location to another would be resolved, and the high-pressure testing atmosphere that currently exists under NCLB would be alleviated. Consequently, the punitive sanctioning suggested by NCLB becomes obsolete.

Tagline- Matthew Lynch is an Assistant professor of Education at Widener University. He can be contacted at

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Obama’s Education Reform Dilemma

On the issue of education reform, President Barack Obama still has his work cut out for him.

Just before the passage of NCLB in 2001, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development funded a series of student evaluations. The results are now common knowledge: among member countries, American students lagged behind, landing squarely in the bottom half of competence in reading, science, and mathematics. Today, after nine years of NCLB well-wishing, results show little tangible improvement.

The Obama administration has floated a couple of plans to assist with the problems in our nations schools.

These plans include both increasing the number of public education teachers from kindergarten through grade 12, and helping low-income families with the rising costs of a college education by giving tax advantages to those that fall in this category. Additionally, an initiative labeled The Zero to Five Program is challenged with improving education for those early years of children.

Last but not least is his Race to the Top program. During the first round of awards, the only states that were provided with federal money under that program were those states that agreed to base teachers' salaries on how well their students performed.  In other words, if a teacher had students who did not perform well, the state agreed to either terminate the teacher or penalize them financially. On yesterday, the president announced that the grant competition would now allow school districts and not just individual schools to participate.

While these proposals are noteworthy to some, the plans are insufficient to address the true needs of our current educational system.

Of the educational challenges facing the Obama administration concerning education, all are solvable with a popular consensus. This may prove to be difficult.  The middle class will have to agree with the wealthy, and both of them would have to side with the underprivileged. This seems insurmountable, but that is not necessarily the case. It requires that each of us realize that our own best interest is the same as everyone else’s. Everyone could win if this was accomplished.

The successes of such a plan will not only benefit the people involved, but the entire country for decades to come. Imagine an army of newly educated graduates entering the workforce and providing the necessary skilled labor to raise the productivity of the country to levels never seen before. Gone will be the cries that the United States is falling further and further behind academically, especially when juxtaposed with other industrialized nations

Further, the American public must feel that this is a top priority issue in these times of severe economic troubles. Today, people are concerned about their jobs and putting food on the table. Upgrading education, although theoretically important, can hold a low priority to the more pressing problems of keeping a roof over their heads.

The paradox here is that this is precisely the time to make that investment into education. When times are tough, workers need to improve their skills to compete effectively in the marketplace. Education can provide those skills. Furthermore, those enhanced skills and improved technological talents are going to be desperately needed in the future as America continues to struggle in the 21st century labor force.

Production is not getting easier and simpler. In fact, it is just the opposite. The skills needed in the world marketplace require a better education and a more advanced skill set. Education is the fountain where these skills need to be drawn from. Planning to turn out workers for the factories of today is a crucial element, but those same workers also need to be able to adapt to technologies that are just now being developed.

Americans need to be convinced that the public education system of the United States is worth saving, and capable of carrying us forward. This is especially true of public school systems across the country that already are in over their heads with classrooms overflowing with children.

It is not America’s way to ignore problems – in fact, the opposite is true.  We are a nation of vast resources and determination, as shown throughout our history. We relish the challenge of tackling tough problems. The future of our country lies in the effectiveness of our educational system.

In spite of all trials and deficits facing our educational system, I maintain that real and positive change is possible. This change must flow from a radical shift in our collective perception of what defines an adequate education; a shift that transforms us into a nation of educators, accountable both to ourselves and to the next generation.

President John F. Kennedy evoked this when speaking about another challenge, putting an American on the moon:  “We do this not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”

America’s educational system deserves no less of an effort; not because it is easy, but because it is hard, and well worth it.

Tagline- Matthew Lynch is an Assistant professor of Education at Widener University. He can be contacted at

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Economics of the School Reform

As the economic recession grinds on, the challenges facing our educational systems are mounting.

More school systems than ever before are now facing huge budget cuts that slice the very arteries of the educational pulse of this nation.  When town and city administrators are forced to curtail the hiring of new teachers, or force the retirement of older teachers, class sizes then increase.  The teacher-to-student ratio expands accordingly meaning less face time per student, reducing the overall effectiveness of educational institutions.

The economic crisis does not just affect the schools in terms of budgets.  Financial difficulties within students’ families also play a huge role in the educational problems of the United States.  With more parents scrambling to make ends meet, there is less parental involvement with their children.  As a result, students may become unmotivated and slack off on assignments.  They may become problematic at school, meaning more time and effort from school administrators, leaving less time to improve their various systems.

In what some consider the worst economy in decades, most American homes are dual-income, with both parents working one or more jobs to try to meet their financial obligations.  The time parents have to give their children any type of grounding in basic knowledge is severely limited.  The result is children starting school without much of the very basic knowledge children had in generations past.  Without that early foundation on which to build, children find themselves forever running at a deficit.

Furthermore, testing regimens for our children are anything but uniform. Some children are over-tested to an extreme; States like Massachusetts may be venerated for their stringent policies and standardized testing, but that level of stringency does not necessarily carry over to other states. In fact, many other states are not nearly as rigorous in their own testing procedures, preferring to do only what is required to ensure that they receive federal education funds, and nothing more.

This level of inconsistency then becomes yet another problem for students.  Given the economic climate of the nation, many students may find themselves moving from state-to-state as their parents pursue employment or better jobs.  Inconsistency among state’ standardized testing procedures may result in students who have relocated suddenly finding themselves under a lot of pressure to do better than what was required in their previous school.

In generations past, children starting school came into the system with far more knowledge already in hand.  They knew their letters, they knew how to count, and some of them already knew the fundamentals of reading.  This, of course, stems from the fact that most families had a parent who stayed home during the day and was therefore able to spend more time with the child.

There also exists today a larger segment of the population in need of secondary language education than there ever has been before.  With so many immigrants swelling the schools’ attendance rolls, this adds pressure on the school system to provide quality instruction to these students. This is especially true of southwestern border states and high population density urban areas within large metropolitan cities.

The role of special needs education has expanded, further adding pressure on school districts even while budgets cuts threaten to dismantle the hoped-for increases to better the opportunities of these disadvantaged students.

Lastly, the current methods being used today in many challenged school systems to retain teachers are ineffective at best.  A number of the accelerated teacher certification programs, such as weekend and online programs, have good intentions but are turning out teachers that are unprepared to the meet the challenges that they soon will face in troubled classrooms.

Although these teachers are inexpensive since they are brand new and have not worked their way up to better pay scales and benefits, they are more likely to jump ship and leave the school system instead of staying to nurture their profession. Of course, the next group of teachers to replace them is new and inexperienced, too, but provides fresh bodies in the classrooms at an inexpensive level – so the cycle repeats itself. This is good for the budget, but not so good for long-term performance, morale, and achievement.

Certainly, the economic situation affects the task of balancing budgets, by the school system, government entities, and parents. Conversely, more money does not necessarily mean more improvement.

America spends more per student than any other nation in the world, and yet we see meager results. With this kind of money being pumped into the system, why are our school systems in the state that they are? There’s no arguing that our schools need to be well funded in order for our children to succeed, but clearly our schools need to do a better job utilizing the funds that they already receive.

Tagline- Matthew Lynch is an Assistant professor of Education at Widener University. He can be contacted at