Teach, the Beloved Country: Fixing our nation’s educational system

The government, for some reason, hates investing in infrastructure. This occasionally causes national headlines when the body count is high enough (like in New Orleans or Minneapolis), but the decay of local infrastructure can also generate publicity without a pyrotechnic body count (see Blagojevich’s failed attempt to stall CTA funding by demanding free rides for seniors). It’s understandable why these decisions are made; politicians have a nagging desire to get elected, and constituents demand solving today’s problems, not the problems five or ten years hence. We gnash our teeth and decry the process, but it’s really us who are responsible.

The educational system is one of the best examples of what a lack of infrastructure investment can result in, both because it highlights the dynamics of poor investment and because the results are so drastic. U.S. schools, especially K-12, are a hodgepodge of different styles and varying qualities. What’s at fault is not so much the sheer numbers being invested in education ($373 billion in the year 2000, and it’s only gone up); the problem is the way that those funds are distributed. The primary vehicle for distributing those funds, local property taxes, varies wildly with the kind of locality the school is in. Parents will break the bank trying to afford a house in a rich subdivision so that their kids can go to the school funded by those rich subdivision’s taxes.

Of course, schools will fluctuate in quality on the basis of the economics of their environments. What’s sinister about this arrangement is that the racial characteristics of a neighborhood also fluctuate on the basis of the neighborhood’s economics. The predictable-but-no-less-upsetting result is that the schools with the most money tend to be the most white, while the schools which are always starved for funds are those with the highest minority populations.

That’s bad enough, but it gets worse: differences in student abilities are already apparent by the first grade, and they break down along racial lines. Some differences in scholastic abilities, like the ability to read or count, are already apparent by kindergarten. By and large, minority families carry more characteristics which are associated with poor student performance, such as low income. These differences in families make themselves known in the form of the child’s scholastic ability as early as age 3; some differences in scholastic attributes can be detected even earlier.

These two problems exacerbate each other. If minorities had access to better jobs, their children wouldn’t fall behind others in scholastic development. If minorities could have access to better-quality schools, then the difference in ability between students could be easily (if not completely) addressed. As it is, it’s the worst of all possible worlds: because both poor school quality and the presence of minorities increase when economic conditions deteriorate in a neighborhood, it seems like there is no solution.

There is a way out of this rut: good high-caliber teachers can make do with little or poor infrastructure and help erase the achievement gap. Teachers in programs such as Teach for America have been known to advance students who were five or six years behind their grade level to being a year or less behind. It can be done. The support programs are there. Programs like Teach for America, and some regional programs like the Boston school district, give solid training and certification for little money (or give a not-unsubstantial stipend). The University of Chicago has its own program, the Urban Teacher Education Program (UTEP), which has worked to push inner-city students along the learning curve.

But it has to be worked at. Teach for America has poor retention rates beyond four or five years, wasting good training. UTEP itself is not very well-known on campus despite intensive marketing efforts. Yes, there are vast structural factors that have produced an achievement gap, which is a terribly destructive thing. But we could fix it, if we were committed enough. We gnash our teeth and decry the process, but it’s really us who are responsible.