The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 paved the way for progressive policies in education. Education meant to close the gaps between rich and poor and between whites and people of color. Some 50 years later, this landmark program has been chipped away by Democrats and Republicans alike and we still have an educational system that leaves huge numbers of children behind. Now that we have an educator in the White House, should we expect to see change?
As an educator, I am thrilled to see a fellow teacher assume the role of first lady. As a Democrat, it’s exciting that we have regained control over the executive branch. I hope that Dr. Biden will use her expertise in literacy and in working with students with disabilities to bring more awareness to the forgotten students of our public education system.
Employers and colleges count on schools to prepare prospective students for that next step. They need people who can think critically and work well with others. They need innovators and problem solvers. At the most basic level, they need people who can read and write effectively. Based on data from the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) however, only 35% of our nation’s fourth-grade students were at or above proficient in reading. Research says that students who aren’t reading at grade level by third grade are unlikely to catch up. There is something very wrong in education today which impacts every corner of our society and economy. How well we educate our children affects tax rates, crime rates, property values, drug and alcohol abuse rates, GDP … you get the picture. Education is everything. It is where everyone’s future begins; it is where our nation’s future begins.
Yet, educational policy changes according to the whim and worldview of the occupant of the White House. Policies from both sides of the aisle have punished schools with reductions in funding where they needed more and have even created competitions for desperately needed resources. Children compete with each other to get what they desperately need. In districts with low-performing schools, children receive the least experienced teachers and inadequate supplies. Many of these children do not have access to high quality and affordable preschools and begin kindergarten well behind their peers in language skills. Instead of providing what these children need, and what would benefit all of us in the long run, we blame them for their circumstances and close their neighborhood schools due to underperformance. We operate on the assumption that if you work hard enough you will succeed but the notion that we are a true meritocracy is completely unsupported by all evidence and research. We are allowing children to suffer and fail. In the richest nation on Earth, we have clearly stated with our policies, that only some children are worth it.
John Dewey wrote of the need for a philosophy of education in 1934 but the United States still doesn’t have one. Do we educate to develop democracy, to feed the economic machine, or because it is a moral imperative? I would ask why it can’t be all of these and more? We all benefit from an excellent education for all children. It is time to make this a reality.
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