Diagnosis of Public Schools

Illinois:

In the state of Illinois, only 37% of our students are meeting or exceeding expectations in English, 34% in math, and 51% in science.  Yet, we graduate over 85% of our students.  That means we are graduating students that are not even meeting expectations in English and math, the two most integral subjects that will be needed in adult life.  This is completely unacceptable. 

With IEPs (Individual Education Plans), formerly known as special education, at 14% and chronic absenteeism (defined as missing more than 10% of school days) at 17%, we have a lot of problems that simply are not being addressed under our current system.  The results are horrendous.  But, what are the root causes of these problems?  Before we define those problems, let’s take a look at how Illinois’ 2nd Congressional district measures up.  Let’s break it down by the various areas of the district.

 

Illinois’ 2nd Congressional District:

Kankakee County

The amount of students meeting or exceeding expectations are:   29.1% in English, 27.5% in Math, and 42.1% in science.  Yet, 93% of 9th graders are supposedly “on track” and 92.1% graduate.  Chronic absenteeism plagues 16.2% of students and 14.1% of our students have IEPs. 

Will County (Beecher, Crete, Monee, (parts of) Park Forest, Peotone, and (parts of) Steger):

The amount of students meeting or exceeding expectations are:  34.4% in English, 22.1% in Math, and 40.8% in Science.  Yet, 86.4% of 9th graders are supposedly “on track” and 90.3% graduate.  Chronic absenteeism plagues 19.3% of students and 15.4% of our students have IEPs. 

Cook County South Suburbs (Burnham, Calumet City, Chicago Heights, Country Club Hills, Dixmoor, Dolton, East Hazel Crest, Flossmoor, Ford Heights, Glenwood, Harvey, Hazel Crest, Homewood, Lansing, Lynwood, Markham, Matteson, Olympia Fields, (parts of) Park Forest, Phoenix, Richton Park, Riverdale, Sauk Village, South Chicago Heights, South Holland, (parts of) Steger, Thornton, and University Park):

The amount of students meeting or exceeding expectations are:  22.4% in English, 15.5% in Math, and 31.9% in Science.  Yet, 74.8% of 9th graders are supposedly “on track” and 85.9% graduate.  Chronic absenteeism plagues 19.5% of students and 12.5% of our students have IEPs. 

Chicago’s Southern Neighborhoods (Avalon Park, East Side, Hegewisch, (parts of) Hyde Park, Jeffrey Manor, Calumet Heights, Pill Hill, Pullman, Riverdale, Roseland, South Chicago, South Deering, South Shore, West Pullman, and Woodlawn):

The amount of students meeting or exceeding expectations are:  16.3% in English, 11.1% in Math, and 28.4% in Science.  Yet, 81.6% of 9th graders are supposedly “on track” and 80.3% graduate.  Chronic absenteeism plagues 24.5% of students and 14.1% of our students have IEPs. 

Needless to say, each section of this Congressional district is below the state averages.  However, there are a few exceptional schools within our district.  But, overall the news is not good.  These numbers tell me that something is wrong on a massive scale.  It’s widespread.  It’s not a failure of the teachers.  It’s not a failure of the students.  It’s not a failure of the parents.  These numbers are indicative of a system-wide failure.  Due to the lack of positive leadership from our political and government leaders, we have ignored the education system, causing it to crumble and fail our precious children. 

 

Issues Contributing to the Problem

Schedule

8am – 3pm

Everything about the “school day” ensures that children fall through the cracks.  For the most part, nearly every school system in the United States operates from approximately 8am to 3pm, Monday through Friday, for 9 months of the year.  As many parents can attest to, the brains of children and teens are often not “awake” at 8am.  Our children have very different biorhythms (cycles of alertness and sleepiness).  Yet, we educate all of them as if they are all the same.  They are not.  We need our public schools to be as flexible as our children are diverse.   Children deserve a chance to succeed, but if the child’s brain is foggy for half the school day, that child is going to struggle, trying to force his or her brain to “think” when it’s foggy and groggy. 

Often, the child’s school schedule conflicts with the parents’ work schedule.  The 9a – 5p, weekday schedule was the overwhelming norm and standard for the 20th Century, but the typical schedule of the 21st Century family in the United States is not as standardized.  We live in a 24/7 world now.  Work schedules are much more diverse.  Yet, school schedules have not kept up with this changing culture.  The single mother is the one most affected by this conflict.  If she does not have family or friends to help, she is in a constant state of trying to figure out how to balance her work schedule with her child’s school schedule, with both of those schedules being very inflexible.  It’s extremely burdensome for our single parents who are already struggling in other areas.  We don’t need to add to their burdens. 

Months: 9 on, 3 off

There were significant reasons to operate a school with the three months off for summer.  It was because children from farming families weren’t in school during the summer months when they were needed on the farm.  But, times have changed.  The vast majority of students do not live on farms and farming technology has made it possible to run a farm without as much help from children. 

Even though there is no need for this schedule, its continued use is very detrimental to our children.  When children have a lengthy time away from school, they regress in their knowledge.  Most teachers see this at the beginning of the school year, when they have to spend time reviewing concepts that were already covered in the last month or two of the previous school year.  Basically, our children take 5 steps forward and one step back each and every year.  The time, spent re-learning forgotten concepts, is time wasted.  We need a system where the children are constantly moving in a forward direction, without regression.

Missed days = missed lessons

The high rate of chronic absenteeism means that our children are missing a lot of lessons and instruction.  This puts these children at a disadvantage when they are in school.  How can a child learn division if he or she missed a lot of school when the class was learning their multiplication tables?  Missing those key building blocks makes it impossible for the child to move on to more difficult topics.  Often, the onus is on the child to meet with the teacher or get additional tutoring to get that missed instruction. 

We need a system where the student is not reliant on lessons from the teacher, but can learn on his or her own, with guidance (if needed) by the teacher.  Our children should be able to take a day or two off of school for illness and be able to pick up where he or she left off before the illness, so that he or she has not missed anything important.

Advancement As a Group

Under our current educational system, the teacher dictates when to move on to a new topic in the course.  The class moves on as a group, regardless of whether the students are ready.  Most teachers do not move on until most of the students have grasped the previous concepts, but there are usually a couple students who are not ready to move on.  Additionally, there are often a couple students who caught on to the previous topic the first time it was explained.  These students are at risk of becoming bored while they wait for the rest of the class to catch up.  So, most classes have some students who are bored and some who are confused and lost, yet the class moves on as a group. 

Each student is an individual and this group mentality of moving from topic to topic as an entire class completely ignores the various rates at which our children learn and grasp various concepts.  It’s not the teacher’s fault.  The teacher has to do what is in the best interests of the majority of his or her class.  But, it inadvertently provides openings for some children to fall through the cracks.

Fixed Time Per Subject

Most schools have a time schedule to which the teachers must adhere.  In the lower grades, this tends to be more flexible.  But in middle school and high school, it is a lot stricter.  Remember when you had “hours” or “periods” throughout the day.  First hour was English, second Math, third P.E., and so on.  This type of schedule usually only affords 40 – 60 minutes per subject.  The typical student has subjects in which he or she is really good and subjects in which he or she struggles.  Yet, the student is given is same amount of time in every subject. 

One student may need 60 minutes in Math, but only 20 minutes in English to learn the new concepts and do the assignments.  Another student may excel in Math and only need 20 minutes in Math, but struggles in English and needs 60 minutes in English in order to grasp the concepts and do the assignments.  Under our current educational system, both of these students are given 45 minutes in each class, causing student A to fall behind in Math and student B to fall behind in English.  We need a system that can be easily adaptable and tailored to each student’s individual strengths and weaknesses, so that every child gets the time he or she needs to fully grasp each and every concept being taught.

 

Curriculum

There are many problems with the type of curriculum that we have in our public school system.  First of all, education is based on age.  It’s a cookie-cutter system that takes all 5 year old children, dumps them into kindergarten, and moves them along a conveyor-like system, then spits them out 13 years later, with a diploma, and says “congratulations. Now go conquer the world.”  Yet, no one questions this method of education. 

Teaching to a Test vs. Internalization of Knowledge

We have this idea that education is about the information you teach (input) and how the children perform on tests (output).  Education is supposed to be about learning and gaining knowledge.  It needs to be internalized and be capable of being remembered later, far after the test has been administered.  We need to ask ourselves, what is more important, having our children perform better on a test, regurgitating disconnected facts which are forgotten minutes after the test or developing a wealth of knowledge that will better serve our children for the rest of their lives?  We need a system that focuses more on the learning, ensuring that each child advances in each subject ONLY when the child has truly mastered the previous topic.  This allows the child to be confident in his or her knowledge instead of lost and confused.  Side note:  This also builds true self-esteem and confidence.

Age-Based Education vs. Skill-Based Education

In our current educational system, everything is based on your chronological age.  Yet, this method exists nowhere in the rest of society.  Our work environments are not age-based.  Our neighborhoods are not age-based.  Marriage is not really age-based.  People marry in their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, and so on.  Why do we think that children need to be separated and grouped by age?  Some children grow intellectually faster than others.  Some grow at a slower rate.  Some children are ready to start kindergarten at age 3.  Others may not be ready until age 7. 

A child’s age is not reflective of his or her intellectual maturity.  It’s only a reflection of his or her time on this Earth.  If we want strong, confident children, maybe we should start seeing them as unique individuals rather than a group of “cohorts” of a particular age.  If we must “group” children, then maybe we should group them by skill sets, not age.  After all, that’s the way the world actually works. 

Life Skills

One area that I have seen dissolve in recent years is teaching of life skills, those skills that a person needs to live an independent life.  Schools used to provide home economics, wood shop, auto shop, and much more.  Although we need to be focused on Math, English, Literature, Vocabulary/Spelling, History, Science, Health, etc., we cannot ignore the basic skills of taking care of oneself.  Our children will become adults one day and they need to be prepared for this transition.  They will need to know how to cook, change a tire, check the oil in a vehicle, change a diaper, balance a checking account, pay bills, set up a household budget, solve problems, put together a bookcase or entertainment center, sweep a floor, and much more. 

 Most of these skills can be taught in a relatively short amount of time and can be grouped together in an “Adult Living” course.  One area that every child should learn is finances.  Our children will one day be making financial decisions and we need to make sure that they are prepared and have the knowledge to make great financial decisions.  Topics need to include APR, interest, budgeting, paying bills (and the effects of late payments), FICA scores, bank account management, insurance, comparison shopping, and so forth.   When educating our children, we must be focused on the end goal – to prepare our children for success when they are adults because as much as we want them to stay young forever, they WILL grow up.  It’s our job to make sure they are ready when that time comes.

Lack of Religious Freedom in Public Schools

Although we often hear the phrase “Separation of church and state”, it is not in our United States Constitution.  As a matter of fact, it did not really become a part of the American culture until 1947 in the United States Supreme Court case of Everson v. Board of Education.  It was written by Justice Hugo Black who stated, “The First Amendment has erected ‘a wall of separation between the church and state’ … that wall must be kept high and impregnable.”[1] (Side note:  Justice Hugo Black was a Democrat and former Klansman[2])

The point of the First Amendment was to ensure that the state (government) stayed out of the church’s business.  There is no evidence that the church was ever meant to be kept out of the state’s business.  However, it has become a standard that we currently have in the United States. 

Our First Amendment right to freedom of religion is seriously compromised when we have a public school system that ONLY guarantees a secular education.  Every parent supposedly has a right to choose to have their children educated with a religious education.  However, that right can only be exercised if the parent pays thousands of dollars per year per child to send the child to a private school or if the parent gives up a job to stay home and homeschool the child. 

Most parents do not have the financial means to do either, effectively forcing them to use a secular education system, whether they agree with it or not.  It’s even worse for the single parent who cannot just quit a job to homeschool.  This effectively infringes on the rights of the parents to choose the method of education, secular or religious, for their children.

We need a system that allows our children to receive the type of education that the parents want, not just what the parents can afford.  Religious education should not be reserved only for the wealthy.  It should be available for all students.  This does not mean that it should be forced on anyone.  Parents should have the freedom to decide whether their children receive secular or religious education. 

We need a system that protects the rights of everyone, regardless of religious affiliation or economic status.  Freedom is based on options.  When options are limited, freedom and liberty are destroyed.  Freedom only exists in a world of options and choices.  Our children deserve to have those options available to them.

 

Burdens on Teachers

Overloaded Teachers

We expect far too much from our teachers today.  Not only are they trying to educate our children, but they are spending countless hours outside of the classroom grading papers, test, and assignments, but they are also preparing lesson plans, photocopying worksheets, logging grades, and so much more.  As if that was not enough, they spend money out of their own pockets for supplies needed in their classroom to make up for the supplies that children from economically disadvantaged families are unable to purchase.  These teachers are devoting so much of themselves to educate our children.  Sadly, this devotion often goes unrecognized and unappreciated. 

Teaching should not be an all-encompassing profession.  Teachers need a break at the end of the day, not more work.  How would YOU feel if you spent 8 – 10 hours a day with 20 children demanding your attention while refusing to give you their attention?  Try to wrangle 20 or more children into their seats to learn about long division or photosynthesis.  Most teachers go into the teaching profession because they truly love children, but let’s be honest, everyone has a limit.  Even the most adoring, loving, compassionate, and patient parent has moments when he or she loses his or her cool. 

Teaching should not be as stressful as it is today.  It used to be a highly rewarding profession.  Now, it has become a stressful profession, with everyone looking to blame the teacher for the students’ poor performance or behavior.  Our children spend 6 or more hours a day with these heroic bastions of knowledge tirelessly trying to impart some of that knowledge into our children.  Do you want your child’s teacher stressful, exhausted, and irritable?  Or do you want your child’s teacher cheerful, relaxed, and calm as she guides your child on his journey of knowledge?  Maybe it’s time to rethink the role of the teacher and start honoring these “everyday heroes” and “everyday heroines”.

Limited Teacher / Student Time

In the lower grades, students often spend the majority of their school day with one teacher.  But as our children move into middle school, junior high, and high school, their schedules change drastically.  The student moves from classroom to classroom, from teacher to teacher depending on the “hour” or “period”.  These shorter periods of time with each teacher makes it much less likely that any one teacher will be able to identify a child with struggles. 

Childhood is often filled with a plethora of life struggles, from changes in financial situations to changes in family structure (marriage, divorces, remarriages, changes in custody), to abuse and neglect, to the loss of a loved one (family member, friend, or pet), eyesight problems, hearing problems, learning difficulties, and so much more.  During each and every change or challenge, the child’s educational needs change.  Unlike adults who have already faced these types of challenges, children are usually more deeply affected but lack the vocabulary to voice their hearts and minds.  Sometimes the only way to detect a child who is struggling is when there is a change in behavior and/or academic performance.  Other than parents, teachers are in the BEST position to notice these changes.  But when a child is only with a teacher for an hour or less per day, it takes longer for the teacher to notice changes in the child. 

Limiting our children to the number of teachers they interact with each day, means our children get to spend more time with just a few teachers, building trusting relationships.  The teachers get to know the nuances of each child and be better able to pick up on the slightest changes.  The teacher can then get the child the proper resources to ensure that the child does not fall through the cracks. 

In an age when people are more disconnected than ever, we need to give our children the connections to resourceful adults that are in positions to assist them through the difficulties of growing up.  Childhood comes with many “growing pains”, but teachers, who are limited to a smaller group of students during the day, week, month, and year, are better positioned to ease these growing pains and help to make the journey of growing up a little less stressful.

 

Burdens on Parents

Excessive Assignments and Homework

Our children already spend an average of 7 hours per day in school.  Why do they have homework?  Shouldn’t the schoolwork be able to be completed during that timeframe?  When school bleeds into home life, it places an additional burden on the parents and family.  It also takes away family time, childhood exploration, and play time.  Everyone needs a break.  How would you feel if you brought work home every day after working a full day?  School is “work” for children.  They need their downtime just as much, if not more so, than adults. 

Plus, with the burdens that modern parents already have on their plates, parents just do not have the time to devote to spending hours each night supplementing the education of their children.  When the school day is over and the children return to their home, this is vital time for the children to spend bonding and reconnecting with their families.  Homework disrupts this vital function of the family.  Parents and children need this time for the healthy growth of the family, especially the children.  Parents, especially single parents, need this time to relax with their beloved children.  It keeps stress levels down, ensuring a healthy, stable family and home.

Extracurricular Activities

Not only does homework interrupt the already small amount of time that children have to spend with their parents each day, but extracurricular activities often destroy whatever time is left.  We need an educational system that also allows for extracurricular activities to take place during the school day.  This allows for the American family to have their precious evening back to relax, reconnect, and enjoy time with each other.

 

Safety Concerns

Gun Violence

Although there are many, vastly different views on how to prevent school shootings, one thing is clear.  We are all concerned about our children’s safety in an environment that used to be a bastion of safety and learning.  We want that back.  We need policies that ensure the safety of our children.  But, it must be balanced so our schools do not begin to look like prisons.  Schools should not need metal detectors, and armed security in order to keep our children safe.  We need common-sense solutions that utilize technology, skills, and deterrence to build a shield around our schools so they will again become the safe haven they once were. 

Bullying and Fights

Children, by their very nature, lack the maturity to fully comprehend the damage that bullying and fighting can inflict on others.  It is up to adults to minimize the opportunities for children to bully and fight.  We need to give them productive conflict resolution techniques to resist the lure of bullying.

 

Conclusion

It is obvious that our schools are failing.  Between the inflexible schedules, outdated curriculum designed to pick winners and losers, additional burdens on teachers and parents, and safety concerns, many of our children are falling through the Grand Canyon-sized cracks in our system.  It’s time to re-invent the way we educate our children.  Our children deserve the chance to be educated for lifelong success.

 

[1] Library of Congress, Everson v. Board of Education, http://cdn.loc.gov/service/ll/usrep/usrep330/usrep330001/usrep330001.pdf, accessed February 23, 2019.

[2] Encyclopedia Britannica, “Hugo Black:  American Jurist”, Smentkowski, Brian P., https://www.britannica.com/biography/Hugo-L-Black, accessed February 23, 2019.

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