Public education is misguided

As a trained scientist, I do my best to let the facts speak for themselves, keeping my personal feelings separated from conclusions. It’s never been more difficult.

Nonetheless, most public school teachers, including myself, are unafraid of the truth: our public schools are not hitting their expected mark(s). We unanimously agree there is much room for improvement, but it is equally true that our public schools are nowhere near hopelessly broken as some in the media portray public education.

The difficulty begins when we try to agree on why “too many” of our public schoolchildren are not “succeeding.” The pundits blame everything and everyone from low standards to cell phones or from teachers’ unions to working moms and even government entitlement programs for removing the consequences of failure. But the cold hard facts tell me our public schools need a more realistic re-direction.

All the same, before any of us can properly evaluate our schools’ success rate, at the very least, we should agree on exactly what the term “success” means with regard to public education.

For example, when our dear media exposes U.S. schoolchildren placing a meager 17th out of 25 nations on standardized science tests, it doesn’t necessarily mean our students’ performance was deficient. We could just as easily say the media’s report was deficient for failing to mention the science test was only given to the world’s top 25 performing nations. Nor did the reporters bother to explore the larger context, 17th place out of 196 nations, places American kids above the top 90th percentile worldwide in science. Furthermore, without full access to all 25 teams’ science test scores, we have no intelligent way of comparing our students’ results with the other nation’s scores. If “17th out of 25 nations tested in science” is all they report, then they must want you to believe our system is hopelessly broken.

In another example, the Trumbull County census reports that fewer than 17 percent of adults over the age of 25 have achieved a four-year college degree. If we define success as “acquiring a bachelor’s degree or higher,” then clearly 83 percent of local students have “failed.” Unless we compare the 17 percent with college graduation rates from previous generations in Mahoning Valley. About 100 years ago, when schools supposedly did an excellent job of teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic, fewer than 17 percent of local students even finished high school, let alone college. The point should be obvious; how we choose to define “success” in public education makes all the difference in the world when evaluating our schools.

A low success rate in college is nothing new for Trumbull county adults, partially due to the brain drain effect and the availability of local manufacturing jobs. Still, shouldn’t Trumbull County high schools custom design curricula for the majority 83 percent of graduates who will likely be working in a skilled trade or vocational career? It makes no sense for our schools to cling unrealistically to hopes that every child in the Valley will be a doctor or engineer or at least go to college, while only 10 percent of Valley students attend a trade or vocational school.

What would public education look like in a perfect world? I know Finland is not a perfect world, but if we let the facts speak for themselves, year after year the average Finnish kid scores higher on international standardized tests than average kids from around the world. Perhaps we should ask, “What do we need to do to ‘finish’ above them?”

Fins unanimously support public education at-all-costs because Finland is a resource-poor nation and relies on a well-educated work force to support a strong manufacturing sector. Finland has no local school boards or tax levies – the government picks up the tab. Their teachers’ unions are strong, but teachers are championed and admired by their media. College is free; however, entrance exams are very difficult. By high school most Finnish students have realistically chosen a skilled trades program or are attempting a college entrance exam. Finally, in spite of free college and the world’s highest performing public schools, only half of the Finnish adult population over 25 years of age has a four-year college degree. News flash. College isn’t for everyone.

There’s no reason for local taxpayers to have to pay for 12 years of public schooling just to qualify (83% of area) schoolchildren to flip hamburgers. Clearly, our public schools need a more realistic direction that steers at least 50 percent of our high school students toward skilled trades to strengthen our local manufacturing sector.