In the News
Change is Hard
*This editorial first appeared in the NH Union Leader on March 13, 2022
Why is it so hard for America’s education system to break free and consider making positive changes? Why is it so hard for education to move away from “doing things the way we always have,” even when we know it is not serving the best interests of our children?
I get it. Change can be hard. There is genuine fear of the unknown. The instinct of self-preservation and the protection of the status quo are strong forces that can make changing a large system seem nearly impossible, and education is no different.
The thing is, we all know change is needed. The ability to change is key to success. The question becomes, can we move beyond our fears and self-interest to make changes a reality?
Efforts to change education have been ongoing for a very long time, both at national and local levels.
• In 1964, the Equality of Educational Opportunity Committee questioned why the black-white achievement gap persisted 10-years after the landmark education lawsuit Brown v. Board of Education that tried to level the playing field.
• In 1965, President Johnson initiated his War on Poverty with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act providing significant federal funding to education with the premise that more funding would improve education.
• In 1983, A Nation At Risk report by President Reagan’s administration summarized the situation as: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might have viewed it as an act of war.”
• In 1989, President George H. W. Bush gave us the National Education Summit, establishing education goals to be achieved by 2000, including all students achieving competency in English, math and science.
• In 2001, President George W. Bush led No Child Left Behind, requiring rigorous state academic standards be met by 2014.
• In 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act led by President Obama included the aspiration that “all students in America be taught to high academic standards that will prepare them to succeed in college and careers.”
Is anyone else seeing a pattern here?
In spite of all of these herculean efforts, the system has been incredibly resistant to change. The experience you had as a child is basically the same school experience that students have today, in spite of the fact that we all know it has not been meeting the needs of our children.
Any attempts at change are met with shrill cries and the tired, old arguments that the change will ruin public education and cost taxpayers millions. Setting aside the fact that these tired arguments never come true, it is simply anti-student to avoid trying to solve this decades-old problem.
The lack of progress has not gone unnoticed. A New York Times headline states, “It Just Isn’t working: PISA Test Scores Cast Doubt on U.S. Education Efforts.” The Washington Post reported, “Some 23 million American adults are functionally illiterate by the simplest tests of everyday reading, writing, and comprehension.” And, “about 13 percent of all 17-year-olds in the United States can be considered functionally illiterate. Functional illiteracy among minority youth may run as high as 40 percent.”
Of course it is always more enjoyable to focus on student success, but here in New Hampshire, a top performing state relative to education, 42,000 students are at the lowest level of proficiency on the statewide assessment in English language arts, and the number is higher for math and science. What’s happening is that high performing students are showing stable or modest improvement, while low performing students are showing declining performance.
The system created with the aspiration of being the “great equalizer” has become the great divider.
When confronted with the persistence of the problem, the education establishment howls, “if only we had more money.”
While lamenting what they assert are a decades-long lack of adequate funding, the same establishment ignores the reality of funding increases that have quadrupled over the decades, even after adjusting for inflation. Numerous studies show a lack of any consistent relationship between spending and improved test scores. As a result, increases become an exercise in spending more money on the things that did not work in the first place.
America’s parents are not buying it. They have become the powerful American consumer that they have always been and will not settle for a sub-par product.
The election in Virginia sent shockwaves through the system as parents flexed their new enlightenment that the system may not have the best interest of their children in mind and may be more interested in protecting its monopoly status.
Parents have a fundamental right to make decisions for their children, although not everyone – including some in the education establishment – agree.
We must all remain engaged in the noble fight for the next generation of children; so that they might live free and learn.
-Frank Edelblut is commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Education.