Despite years of vitriolic debate over a myriad of issues involving public schools, the absence of education as a priority among ranked voter concerns is astonishing. National polling data routinely reflects the economy, abortion, immigration, and crime along with foreign affairs (Israel, Ukraine), unifying the country, and climate change as the primary areas of interest for voters in the 2024 presidential race. The failure of education to “crack” the top ten voter issue lists is even more surprising when considered in the context of student academic growth, which has been stagnant or abysmal for years.
As a frame of reference, when compared to other industrialized nations, U.S. schools score poorly on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in reading and math, and nationally, sixty percent of 12th graders are not proficient in reading.
Unfortunately, regardless of data points that continually “blink red” for failure, taxpayer funds continue to flow year after year with little or no accountability tied to improved achievement. For example, how could our leaders and legislators continue to accept that millions of students are reading below grade level? How can these same leaders allow students to graduate from high school without demonstrating a level of proficiency?
So, it remains perplexing as to why there is little outrage among the voters and the political class to advance the cause of public education. Is the world just so “chock-full” of existential and political crises that “long-standing” concerns related to poor school performance are inconsequential? Or is it feasible that voters just consider failing schools as unsolvable through governmental intervention? Possibly, it is the incessant drone of proposals such as vouchers, charters, and other “knee-jerk” solutions that reinforce a political willingness to simply “wash their hands” of real accountability for failing schools. For these politicians, it is a losing issue because endorsing something other than the status quo risks alienating their political base, which is comprised of teacher unions, administrative affiliations, and professional organizations.
Paying off student loans, focusing on social reengineering, or a variety of extraneous issues not related to performance will not solve the tragedy of failing schools. Current practitioners are striving every day under difficult circumstances. The pandemic complicated the learning process by further extenuating learning gaps and student behavioral problems. These practitioners require the support and courage of inspired leadership that not only understands the challenge but knows how to solve it.
Rewiring the psyche of the American voter to believe that the issue is solvable requires an understanding that education impacts every aspect of American life for good or bad. Economic growth, innovation, and quality of life are some of its positive outcomes. An inferior education also correlates to an increase in crime rates, unemployment, inequity, and global ineffectiveness. This correlation, when combined with initiatives to eliminate standards, norms for achievement, and proven practices in favor of self-serving political agendas, has destabilized the learning process and decreased a school’s capacity to produce citizens who are proud of our institutions and country. The failure to develop a sense of service and pride is documented by declines in military enrollment and the youth’s lack of confidence in America’s future.
Recalibrating our schools toward performance requires legislators committed to conducting Achievement Audits that uncover learning disconnections while providing recommendations for interventions. Audits provide a framework for improvement but also outline consequences for continuous failure. For those schools not attaining 70% proficiency, remediation and reformulation of the learning program would result. If the process also involves full disclosure to parents regarding a school’s progress, or lack thereof, along with mandated plans for remediation, the entire façade of accepting failure yields a culture of growth and change.
This auditing process has the potential to rebuild the reputation of public schools by removing connotations that schools warehouse students, provide an inferior instructional program, are unsafe, or are perceived as second-rate. If those perceptions change, decision-makers might send their children to their neighborhood schools, and quality will grow tangentially.
Schools have always epitomized hope and promise. Unfortunately, the prevailing toxic climate may also result in our schools becoming the greatest threat to our democracy unless voters and legislators unify around real learning, rigorous content, and real performance as one of our top election issues.
- Roche, Darragh, “Election Poll 2024: How Voters Feel About Key Issues,” Newsweek Magazine, July 19, 2023. https://www.newsweek.com/election2024-poll-how-voters-feel-about-key-issues.
1a.) Wolf, Zachary, “2024: An election about everything,” CNN politics, December 15, 2023, https://www.cnn.com/2023/12/15/politics/2024.
- Belsha, Kelyn, “U. S. Math scores dropped but reading and science results held steady on key international test,” Chalkbeat, December 5, 2023, https://www.chalkbeat.org.
2a.) Programme for International Student Assessment, https://oecd.org>pisa>about
2b.) National Center for Educational Statistics (gov.), htpps://nces.ed.gov>surveys>pisa
- National Center for Educational Statistics: The Nation’s Report Card (gov.), “What percentage of the 12th graders are proficient? https://www.nationsreportcard.gov.,
- Kube, Courtney and Molly Boigen, “Every branch of the military is struggling to makes its 2022 recruiting goals,” NBC News, June 27, 2023, nbcnews.com
- Statista Research Department, “ American teens and confidence about the future of the country,” November 29, 2022.
Author: Vincent F. Cotter, Ed.D., is a former Superintendent of Schools, professor, consultant, an American Society for Quality’s International Juran Medal recipient, Co-founder of the Exemplary Schools Organization, and author of three Rowman and Littlefield books on school leadership: Performance is Key, Igniting School Performance and Leaning into the Future—Building Beyond the Post-COVID 19 New Normal.