John R Selig

Writer. Photographer. Podcaster. Outspoken.

America’s Schools in Crisis

Originally Published in HWFmag

I am currently between jobs in the corporate world. I have filled this hiatus by producing my ‘John Selig Outspoken’ podcast and writing this column.

In mid-January I started substitute teaching in public schools in DISD (the Dallas Independent School District). Public schools in the US are of course the equivalent of state schools in the UK. Our public schools are managed on the local level and the quality of education that they provide varies greatly. State governments regulate public school districts and some national regulations apply as well. The wealthier, white suburban school districts offer a far better education than do those located in the inner cities. This trend isn’t new; however I think the disparity of quality and performance has worsened over the years and education has deteriorated substantially in general throughout the US.

I decided to substitute teach in inner city schools in Dallas as I live in the inner city and I wanted to experience first hand what these schools are like. I had heard about the problems in American schools for years but I was unprepared for what I observed. My comments are by no means to be taken as complaints. I have nothing but the highest respect and admiration for the teachers and administrators that I have met here in Dallas. In fact they have all been heroes to me. I am sure that what I have experienced is endemic to inner city school systems throughout the country. Our suburban schools though better funded and with students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds are also faced with a boatload of challenges.

Inner city schools students are overwhelmingly non-white. In fact only 5.1% of the students attending DISD are white. Many of the residents inside the city of Dallas are white but either they don’t have kids or their kids attend private schools. Many of the students attending DISD come from poor families. Most are Hispanic or African American. Few of the students have well-educated parents so parental involvement in their kids’ education is minimal. A large chunk of the Hispanic students come from families that speak no English and are undocumented (with their entire family at risk of being deported).

I went through a one-day orientation in early January before starting to substitute teach. We were advised that many of the students had only one parent at home, some were living with foster families and others heard gunshots a night. Many of the older kids belonged to gangs. Some students’ only meals were the ones they ate at school.

So I entered school classrooms for the first time since graduating from high school in 1970. I was totally unprepared for what I saw.

Barack Obama’s presidential campaign website presents some startling statistics on just how bad America’s education system is. These statistics from Obama’s site represent the entire country. Statistics are much worse for schools located in the inner cites:

  • Students Left Behind: Six million middle and high school students read significantly below their grade level. A full third of high school graduates do not immediately go on to college. American 15-year-olds rank 28th out of 40 countries in mathematics and 19th out of 40 countries in science. Almost 30 percent of students in their first year of college are forced to take remedial science and math classes because they are not prepared.
  • High Dropout Rate: America has one of the highest dropout rates in the industrialized world. Only 70 percent of US high school students graduate with a diploma. African American and Latino students are significantly less likely to graduate than white students.
  • Teacher Retention is a Problem: Thirty percent of new teachers leave within their first five years in the profession.

For years now US public school systems have not received the attention that they merit. The Bush Administration’s programme, ‘No child Left Behind’ (or as many educators refer to it ‘Every child Left Behind’) has been a complete disaster. All students are forced to pass statewide achievement tests (called TAKs Tests in Texas). This results in schools teaching exclusively for raising student test scores. The teachers are under constant pressure and the pressure is passed on to the students. I substitute taught a high school art class where the students spent much of their time preparing for TAKs tests instead of working on art projects. Teacher and school performances are evaluated almost solely by TAKs Test scores. Teachers whose students score poorly (often through no fault of the teachers) lose their jobs. In fact, schools that perform poorly can end up being reconstituted with their entire staff from the janitors through the principals being fired.

Students are all mainstreamed. This means that students with severe mental and/or learning disabilities are placed in the same classes with the rest of the students. Although well intentioned in purpose to assure that all students receive a quality education, the end result is that nobody receives a quality education. Teachers while teaching the majority of students in their class are constantly being interrupted by the few underachieving students. When the teachers try to assist the slow learners the rest of the class is bored so they act up and interrupt the teacher while working with the students with special needs. All the students suffer and all are left behind!

I have most enjoyed teaching the younger students in kindergarten through fifth grade who attend elementary schools because there is still hope for them. By the time the students reach puberty and beyond many have given up. Many middle school and high school students see no relevance to their education and feel as if they are treated as prisoners in schools.

This brings up an interesting correlation. America currently has the highest incarceration rate in the world with more than 1 in 100 American adults now in prison, which is almost ten times higher than the 2005 incarceration rate in England and Wales! If one looks at the demographics of American prisoners one finds that they bare a strong correlation to the students attending inner city schools. America must either expend the effort and budget necessary to properly educate our young so that they will be able to support themselves and live quality lives or we will pay much higher economic and social costs later to house them in prison!

I hope I have been able to make a difference in the lives of the students that I have taught. I take the time to speak with them (not just at them) and I learn about their lives. I talk about the importance of their education in determining the kind of lives that they will live. Many of the high school students I have been able to teach have been surprised by the way that I speak with them and each of the schools where I have taught have wanted me to continue to teach there often requesting me when requiring a substitute.

I have also made it a mission to share my experiences with others. My comments have received attention because as a non-professional, I am viewed as being objective. I‘ve encouraged politicians, business folks, journalists and parents to substitute for a few days to see for themselves the enormity of the educational crisis in America. If we do not improve our schools America will have trouble keeping up with the rest of the world.

© 2008 by John R. Selig. All rights reserved.