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NYT

The ONLY Way To Fix America’s High Schools (and help higher education in the process)

-A Staggering Teacher Shortage

The nation is facing a massive teacher shortage that is destined to get worse. While an aging foundation of educators retire, new teachers are emerging more slowly from University systems than demand requires, and they aren’t staying after they arrive.

-Crippling Morale

A decade of teacher bashing, administrative power grab, stagnating pay, swelling classrooms, and budget cuts have left the laboring class of schools — the teachers — in perilous waters. America’s educators have not embraced walkouts or strikes in nearly half a century, yet this end of the school year alone has seen 3 statewide teacher strikes, with more looming. The issue is as much pay as it is respect. Interestingly, even though teachers earn on average 20% less than other college graduates, and teachers feel underpaid, salary is not one of the more significant reasons for leaving. Apparently, teachers know what they are getting into, salary-wise. But low salary combined with crumbling infrastructure, insufficient supplies, and ever increasing demands have finally reached critical mass.

-Budget Cuts Budget Cuts Budget Cuts

If this isn’t clear EVERYWHERE, no amount of supporting detail will convince the unconvinced that our schools are underfunded.

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-Unsustainable Adjunct Numbers

Universities have a teacher issue as well, but it concerns too many rather than too few. First, there’s a glut of degreed individuals seeking meaningful work in the profession they have dedicated their lives to, but for whom the world outside the university seems to have little demand. In addition, cash-strapped, debt-burdened graduate students are more than eager to teach undergraduate classes in order to ease their tuition load. The complicated result is that nearly 70% of college courses are taught by adjunct or contingent faculty. 60% of those professors need second or third jobs. Most lack health insurance, retirement savings (or savings at all), home ownership, decent cars, or foreseeable improvement in their lot. In the last year alone, a dozen schools or more have seen adjuncts unionizing for higher pay and decent benefits, and it’s unlikely that schools are going to be able to easily accommodate their rather reasonable demands to be treated like human beings.

-Staggeringly Low Student Readiness (for intro level college classes)

Then there is the issue of student readiness. While high school graduation rates have increased recently, nobody is entirely certain just how significant this is, since it’s unclear if those graduates are as prepared for college as we might expect from the diploma. The Hechinger Report, culling data from a number of resources, has outlined quite extensively just how unprepared America’s high school graduates are for college. Nearly 70% of college Freshmen need remedial courses, expensive, time consuming classes that do not even count towards a college degree. In other words, high school classes. Even grade point averages are no real measure: 40% of high school students with A averages still need remedial classes when they get to a University. Moreover, while students may be getting high school diplomas, this certainly isn’t true of college degrees. Fewer than 40% of Community College students receive a degree within 6 years. Students in 4 year colleges who need remedial courses have a 74% chance of dropping out before they finish.

-Money Money Money

And finally, money. There’s simply not enough of it to comfortably provide the service of education when cost of living always goes up while efficiency of service cannot. Every one of the above paragraphs could be accompanied by pages and pages of supporting detail and event; this one could fill a library. But fundamentally, few and fewer can afford — without indenturing themselves into debt — an experience that they really cannot afford to abandon.

Except for one thing: high school students are not the same as middle schoolers.

In a number of key ways, high school students are functioning adults, not still-in-development middle school children. Their bodies and minds have transitioned from puberty onto the longer and more sedate road of maturity. They have at hand all the necessary tools for basic function in the world. That is to say, by 9th or 10th grade school has embedded (if successful) basic literacy, number sense, and a smattering of historical, cultural, and scientific context. (We can argue all we want about brain development in teenagers and risky behavior and any of the other ongoing mental and bodily processes underway in a 17 year old, but none of those arguments grant society the authority to treat a teenager the way we do in school, the way we do an elementary or middle school child.)

The simple truth is this: while they may lack a college level academic foundation, most high school students today are better equipped to handle the responsibilities of the adult world than they are the demeaning infantilization of their secondary school experience.

If they are often not yet ready for college, they are quite ready for independence and simple, responsible jobs. The socially defined transition from childhood to adulthood, at present, officially occurs in one moment, either a young person’s 18 year birthday or the moment they flip that tassel at graduation. But these entirely symbolic moments no longer carry the kind of weight they once did, and most high school kids are already fully engaged in adult behavior long before then. The fact that this behavior is so often illicit, so often outside school, belies the artificial and unwelcome nature of the place they spend so much time preparing for their future as adults, adults they already are.

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courtesy of Unsplash

Take teachers.

At the college level, different circumstances and actions have created a situation where the majority of college classes are now taught by poorly paid, under-appreciated, increasingly more disgruntled, yet highly educated adjunct staff. Nobody is really happy, except the few tenured teachers and professors fearfully holed up in their classrooms and an ever-expanding admin less and less threatened by the only real opposition to their salaries and control — those terrified teachers. If teachers aren’t leaving entirely, they are aggressively pursuing the only upward mobility available — getting out of the classroom and into administration and specialization. (Meanwhile, admin leaves for Pearson.)

Or take students.

High School is where we lose most students, fundamentally because much of the above has placed them at the whim of classroom conditions meant to serve the bureaucracy of education, not the student. High School students are often frustrated, afraid, powerless, and insulted. Those who succeed generally do so because they have their sights set on the University. University students, on the other hand, are deeply in debt, terrified of an uncertain future, and often overworked simply trying to manage their finances. Treat high school students like college kids and they both get the respect they need and need to earn it.

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courtesy of Unsplash
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just another frustrated teacher

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