Americans have a belief in our education system as a place of egalitarianism. It may be the single point within our lives where our collective “bootstrap” ideal is most noticeable - in the pressures we put on students, in the institutions and performance markers we have created, in the very way we discuss the problems of education. But our system is not fair, equal, or meritocratic.
Those rising aren’t always the objective best. Money plays a role, but our problems are foundational. We lack quality teachers and the means to keep them. Our system, and especially those schools and districts in impoverished areas of our country, lack the resources to deal with the realities of their students’ lives. And somewhere between those two, our institutions of enlightenment, bastions of the American ideals of exceptionalism and self-determination, don’t prepare our children for life.
the capital problem
The problems within our education system begin, undoubtedly, with lack of capital. Schools and school districts in the public sphere are jointly funded by federal, state, and local revenue. Revenue in government generally means taxes, and education is primarily funded through property tax. In ideation, it’s logical, reflective of the American beliefs in equality of opportunity and localized democracy. By tying education to real estate, communities purportedly have a tangible influence on the funding in their schools. But in practicality, this means less money for schools that need it most. Tying education dollars to property in low income areas is a negative feedback loop of poverty. Low income areas mean low investment. Low investment means marginal growth, if not decline. Decline in property manifests as lower tax revenue, and lower revenue means less money for schools.
It is the capitalistic manifestation of “separate but equal”. The system is in place for success, but it ignores the ancillary problems that make success impossible. And the result is schools that are underfunded, understaffed, and facing a litany of problems that simply don’t exist in the same way in higher income areas. Single or working parent(s), foster care, drug and alcohol abuse, gang affiliation, malnutrition, teenage pregnancy, physical and sexual abuse, racism, all compound the hardships of low-income schools. And this is all born of lack of fiscal capital.
But what of the actual providers of care, those we entrust with the teaching the next generations? What of the “human capital”?
most needed, least available
Teaching in America is not a glorified position. The hours are long and demanding. The implications of failure are severe. The very environment our teachers work in is highly politicized and highly criticized. Marry this to the economic realities of a career in teaching and the situation grows even more dire. As of last year, the median high school teacher makes marginally less than what would be considered lower middle class. Not to mention wage stagnation, the rising cost of living in some of our most desperate cities, or the rapidly growing investment necessary for a teaching degree. With that kind of fiscal pressure, it’s unsurprising that America has a shortage of quality teachers. Recruitment is nigh impossible, and of those that do come, many quickly transfer away. The situation is made worse for the very same low-income schools with “high-need pupils”. Experienced teachers tend toward schools where conditions are easier. Schools where resources are more readily available, support is more freely given, and the community needs are, frankly, less arduous.
our greatest failure
But all of this is symptomatic. Problems in need of solutions, but periphery to the real issue: our children emerge from schools underprepared for life. Our schools are geared toward making better students. Better students make better grades, score higher on standardized tests, get into better schools, and become better workers. That is the ideological basis of our system. But what of advancing student achievement? What of encouraging those talents and ideas our children present that aren’t correlated to a standardized test? What of the realities of the world outside the carefully manicured curriculum? That is our greatest failure. The terminus of every student’s life ending in high school, college, or graduate school, should be the focus of all education. They should feel prepared and empowered to enter the world. Our greatest failure is the feeling of fear that our students experience in contemplating “what’s next?”
Reform is coming. Change is coming. People who grew up in a failed system will emerge to help fix it. That is the promise of our future. But as to the now, the present where these flaws and realities are still prevalent, that is our communal responsibility. We must fill in the gaps. Our voice must be heard calling for change, but we cannot ignore the student of today for the promises of tomorrow. Our students need our time, our mentorship, and yes, our money. But each student that can be helped, each student even incrementally better prepared for life is a bolstering to our societal change. More importantly, every student better prepared for life through our efforts has a better future. A future where “what’s next?” isn’t a source of fear, but instead uttered with the confidence and optimism of a person looking for their next challenge.
Austin Stember is a member of the Together Tulsa Collective. He works as an Account Executive at Mainline Technology Group.