Lock Down: Politicians Hold Public Education Hostage

Photo courtesy of whitehouse.gov
Photo courtesy of whitehouse.gov

by Douglas Henry Sullivan, Op-Ed Contest Participant

The principal’s voice echoed through the school as he uttered the signal for an armed intruder. I was a student teacher and one of my students was in the bathroom down the hall. I left my classroom with adrenaline pumping. I knew with the main entrance around the corner, at any moment an armed person can come running around the corner. As I stood in the hall waiting for the student, I wanted a plan in case I encountered the intruder: Do I crack a joke to ease the tension? Do I try to take this person down? What if he has a gun? Do I try to fight back? If he has a knife, I might have a chance, but what about a gun?

When tragedy struck in December, where teachers faced the same dilemmas as above, the primary concern was gun regulations. What people failed to take note of is the presence of another encumbrance on the teacher. The encumbrance is not whether or not to put their lives on the line. Instead it is a failure to take notice of our schools being brought to the headlines of newspapers and mentioned on the top of every hour.  Now we see gun control grow to a red giant, while education becomes a black hole.

Education is among the least lobbied federal committees. The high interest committees with the most lobbyists see the highest returns come campaign season. Less money during campaign season makes it more difficult to get re-elected. Instead, politicians rely on his or her overall popularity among constituents. Thus, most of the education committee members are disinterested in the integrity of public education and are more concerned with the public’s perception of them.

In 2001, the federal government enacted into law the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The rationale was to try to hold teachers accountable for their instruction. NCLB required that states create goals to accomplish. States also needed to create a method to measure progress towards these goals. Successfully making progress towards those goals meant more federal money for schools in the state. Failure to do so meant federal funding cuts.

The majority of state governments saw an opportunity to get easy money. Those states decided to create a standardized test. The rationale is simple: let’s see how much the students know, because if teachers aren’t doing too hot, these kids won’t do too hot on these tests. The failures begin by ignoring the elephant in the room: the countless other variables measured by such exams. Humorously enough, most of the states’ goals that were scheduled to be met by now have been granted an extension.

In 2009, the Race to the Top initiative was enacted. It was framed as almost a capitalist approach to state education infrastructure. States came up with the best ways to improve education in their state. Each proposal was reviewed and ranked by the Department of Education. The top ten states received stimulus money with the hopes of those plans being adopted by states who did not receive the funding.

Race to the Top has the same flaws as NCLB: they rely on bottom rung politicians to decide between re-election and the integrity of education. Generally re-election wins every time. Following, most states succumbed to the temptation of using standardized testing as a method of measuring progress. As it follows, states winning comprised goals of scoring competitively against top nations in math and science, as well as scoring competitively on the same tests as the top ten states in the country.

In the opening anecdote a student pulled a knife and was detained before he could harm anyone. As an educator in a lock down with your children, questions race through his mind: How much longer will this last? Is this real? When will it be over? Do the kids really understand what is going on? Those are the same questions I ask about public education and the government’s decisions regulating it.