Our K-12 Education System Is Flawed -- by Design

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While Twitter and the talk shows obsess over third-quarter fundraising numbers and opinion polls more than 100 days from the Iowa caucuses, a majority of Americans are telling us in the new RealClear Opinion Research poll that public education is barely working, they have little hope for a turnaround even in 20 years’ time, and there are structural inequities in our system that prevent too many children from getting ahead.

Millions of Americans sound an alarm about a system in crisis, but in 2019, it seems to be falling on deaf ears. While most of the Democratic presidential candidates have offered high-level plans for K-12 investments, most of the conversation has focused on free college and student loan forgiveness. Laudable ideas, for sure, but they miss the big picture. That picture, and it’s not a pretty one, is that because of the quality of public education in this country, millions of young, economically disadvantaged young people don’t have the means to even reach college -- or to maintain enrollment once there.  

The RealClear survey finds that less than 10% of American voters believe that in 20 years our public schools will be a model for excellence around the world. We are not optimistic about the future of education for good reasons, and unless we prioritize the problem and begin the difficult conversation about structural change now, we will surely fall even further behind.

When asked about the quality of their local school, the poll found that families with a household income of more than $150,000 per year are 3½ times more likely to rate their schools as “excellent,” compared to families residing in a home with an income of less than $50,000. Similarly, 49% of those with more than $150,000 believe that in 20 years, American schools will be strong, while only 36% of those with less than $50,000 think the same. The best predictor of whether or not a child receives a quality education is their parents’ bank account. And that undeniable fact is un-American.

While many may use this correlation as an example of a broken system, history tells us that’s the way it was designed. Under the New Deal, housing assistance was provided for middle- and lower-class white families in the suburbs, while people of color were driven into urban housing. The Federal Housing Administration redlined the African American communities, not insuring mortgages in those areas. The consequences of this policy persist today. There was, and still is, little space for opportunity and upward mobility for generations of Americans locked into urban housing projects and forced to endure a barely functional classroom and educational experience.

Whether near housing projects or not, schools in more impoverished neighborhoods do not receive anywhere close to the same funding as schools in more affluent areas. While some federal programming works to close the gap, it is not enough, and countless comparisons bring this home to me every day.

Growing up in an affluent suburb of Boston, I attended public schools from kindergarten through high school. Throughout those 13 years, I was nurtured, supported, taught, pushed, and coached. I did not once worry about being behind grade level, nor did my classmates. We never feared that our standardized test scores would be wildly under the state average. Upon graduation, we were prepared to achieve at high-quality colleges and universities, with boundless opportunities ahead.

Fast-forward four years. I graduated from college and entered another public school. This time, as a teacher at an urban school in south Memphis, Tenn. To say that I was naive, sheltered, and fortunate, upon entering my new school, is an understatement of epic proportions.

To my surprise, students being six grade levels behind in reading or math is the norm in my new school. Walking through metal detectors to enter the building each morning is also typical – and dehumanizing. Chaos, distress, and a glaring lack of resources are commonplace. The most devastating fact of all is that learning is not commonplace.

Due to the school’s location in a neighborhood riddled with poverty, funding is minimal. The faculty members are hardworking and compassionate. The students are motivated, enthusiastic, and caring. They are ready and eager to learn, despite the system telling them every day they don’t deserve to.

At my hometown high school, there are brand-new laptops for any student who needs one. At the urban school, there are old, dysfunctional ones, preventing our students from learning basic skills such as composing an email. Teachers in my hometown get paid more than two-to-three times what those in the urban school do. Many of my peers in Memphis need to work a second or third job to make ends meet. They have little time to lesson-plan or get adequate rest.

In the suburbs, staff members are plentiful, and the shelves of textbooks are complete. In my current classroom, I don’t have one textbook. The building, too, is old and worn. The lockers are not usable, the walls bear holes, and the ceiling is falling apart around us. 

The building’s physical state may not seem relevant, but it is. The broken edifice shows my students that we don’t believe their education is essential. Lack of respect for infrastructure is just one more of the many ways that students at my school, and others across this country, are oppressed.

From kindergarten on, this lack of funding takes its toll. These students engage in state tests that are not designed for them, but rather for those at higher-achieving schools who receive the funding, resources, and support they deserve.

While many students from the more impoverished schools certainly do achieve in and outside the classroom, many do not. This is not due to their ability or attitude, but instead to their circumstances. Without enough desks for each student, and no textbooks, how can we expect a child to be his or her best, to be present, and to learn?

Every day, I watch as this system fails to open doors for my students. The same doors closed for them were open for me. I had the privilege to choose my career because of my education, due to my ZIP code.  Public education in America should prepare all students for the future; for colleges, careers, and vocations.

The first step in our fight must be to acknowledge the problem honestly. The Democrats vying for the opportunity to face-off against President Trump must show that educational inequity cannot stand in America. It won’t be easy. Leaders of legacy institutions may feel under attack. But they need to learn like I did, after a year-plus in South Memphis, that it’s all relative. And we must stop referring to our education system as “broken.” It was created to aid the wealthy and inhibit the poor. That is what it does. Our system is functional but deeply flawed. It is time to call it what it is and change it.

Ali Della Volpe, a 2018 graduate of Middlebury College, is a high school Spanish teacher in Memphis, Tenn.

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