Everyone seems to have an opinion on public education and the solution to the problems. Is it because most of us have spent time in a public classroom and have vicariously experienced the classroom through our children?
Perhaps my opinions will have merit. I spent 27 years working in the Mississippi public school system and received several graduate degrees in education along the way. Or maybe, my experience, degrees and $3 will buy me a cup of coffee at Starbucks.
Good public schools and an educated workforce are much more important in the economic development of our state than are financial incentives to industry. Quality of life issues that include strong public schools and an educated workforce out-weigh financial incentives in the decision to locate industry in any state. One only has to look at North Carolina to see that its highly successful economic growth came after people committed to developing a first-class public educational system from kindergarten through the university level.
Educating children is simple (or it should be). Young children have an innate desire to learn. They learn a complex language at a very early age and are very curious about the world around them, soaking up information like little sponges. With little regard to intellect, the readiness state of learning to read or to understand math concepts develops at different rates for each child.
By the time they have attended school a few years, they have been tested, graded, labeled and burdened with hours of meaningless homework. They have been pressured by teachers and parents to perform. Attending school and learning ceases to be a natural and enjoyable process. It is significant to note that school achievement of a senior high student parallels his or her fourth grade with few exceptions. Unless they are the high achievers, we destroy their joy of learning at an early age.
The national policy of No Child Left Behind is a wonderful platitude in theory. In practice, its only value is to the corporations that design, sell and score the national standardized tests. Financial resources are drained from limited educational budgets to pay for the testing. Districts that fail to improve are penalized. Students, teachers and administrators are pressured to improve test scores. The result is a curriculum that is narrowed to objectives that will appear on the test.
No Child Left Behind policy was patterned after the Texas educational program. At the present time, more than 400 districts in Texas are being investigated for cheating on the test results because the test score gains were out of the norm. Nothing excuses the cheating. It does signify the intense pressure felt by students, teachers and administrators.
In the past 60 years, I can think of only four truly significant efforts on the part of our state to provide quality education for our children.
• In the 1940s, Gov. Paul Johnson Sr. signed a bill to provide free textbooks to every child (the black children received the older editions used by the white students when new books arrived).
• In the early 1950s, the Minimum Foundation Program was passed. This program provided a minimum amount of money to each district based on the number of students in average daily attendance. Included was a minimum teacher salary of $1,800 a year for teachers of both races.
• Under the leadership of Gov. William Winter, kindergarten was added to the public schools.
• The fourth significant commitment was the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. A commitment was made to fund every district to a level that would provide, at least, an adequate education. This was significant because some of our school districts have very little local tax money to support public schools. The progressive program has made Mississippi one of a handful of states that are not in federal court. Lower courts are ruling that a child cannot be denied an adequate education because he/she lives in a poor district.
Too much money is being spent on administrative costs.
When I first became a school principal, there were less than a half-dozen central office administrators serving more than 40,000 students.
Twenty-three years later, the number of school administrators had grown to around 40 even though the district’s enrollment had declined by 10,000 students. This bureaucracy was one of the reasons for my changing professions.
Some state control is needed to limit the amount of educational funding spent on administration.
The single bright spot in our state’s educational system is not from a politician or from an educator. It is from a very successful businessman who understands the importance of education and understands that reading is the key to life-long learning.
Thanks, Mr. Jim Barksdale!
Archie King, LPC, is a human resources consultant who lives in Madison. His column appears from time to time in the Mississippi Business Journal. E-mail him at email@example.com.