The Education of a Nation

The boy walked into the empty classroom at 2:45pm on the final day of school of his senior year. He knew what the topic of conversation was going to be. There was 15 minutes left of the school year, and Teacher had a grim look on her face. She didn’t say anything; the boy sat down, quietly, humbly. It was time for endgame.

“You aren’t going to graduate high school.” Her voice was soft and measured, firm, even in tone.

“You had a million chances to be the great student I know you are capable of being, but you blew it. You failed yourself and you failed me, and I’m very disappointed in you.”

The boy had no words.

“You test at practically genius level, yet you don’t care about your future. You blew it, kid. Was smoking all that weed worth it? Was getting suspended worth it? What are you going to do now?”

The boy looked at her sheepishly, then lowered his head. “I don’t know…”

Teacher’s expression remained serious. She grabbed a piece of blank paper and started writing.

“There are 10 questions. You have 10 minutes. Answer them.”

The boy started writing furiously. 5 minutes passed. He slid the paper back across the table to Teacher.

She used her pen as a guide, scanning the work, top to bottom.

“You got 9 out of 10 correct. You just graduated high school. Get out of here and get your shit together. I don’t ever want to see your face again.”


The United States is failing its children. The system is broken, the problems intractable, the politics impossible. The public schools in this country used to be the envy of the world, beacons of hope for generations of kids. That’s not the reality in 2011.

The United States ranks way down the list for education spending (as a percentage of GDP), and also fails to deliver on that low investment globally. We rank anywhere from 20th to 30th in outcomes for math and science. Fewer than 40% of 8th graders can read at grade level- and that’s in the most successful states in this country. Many states are closer to the 20% range. Mississippi and Alabama are simply, completely…awful.

The once-mighty Republic of California, the Golden State, the land of opportunity, is now struggling mightily. Despite a gargantuan portion of the state budget devoted to education, failure is rampant.

Where is the problem the worst? Washington, D.C. Under the noses of the oligarchy, failure hangs over the District like a gloomy cloud. The performance numbers are unbelievably, incredibly terrible. Give or take a few percentage points, it’s estimated that a measly 12% of 8th graders are where they should be.

Our kids cannot read. Our kids are being left behind. The crude and obvious conclusion: our schools suck.

 A whopping 82 percent of U.S. public schools could fail to meet federal standards this year under the No Child Left Behind Law. Arne Duncan, holder of one of the most unenviable jobs in government (Education Secretary) had to deliver that dreadful news to Congress this week. President Obama called for “…every child in the country to head back to school in the fall knowing that their education is America’s priority.” He joins a long list of his predecessors in demanding that the system be repaired.

The flowery rhetoric will likely once again be drowned in the cacophony of special-interest politics, and I predict no major reforms will surface as a result of this effort.

Standards vary wildly from state to state. The Department of Education, once a target for eradication by the Reagan administration, currently has a budget larger than the GDP of many countries on this planet combined. Then we come to the most persistent, prevalent problem, the one that no one (in the teachers’ unions) wants to talk about- tenure.

More teachers recently have DIED in the New York City public school system than have been fired.  It is practically impossible to lose your job if you are a unionized teacher, and that’s a crime. Principals and administrators are paralyzed, unable to make the staff changes they need to improve the learning experience for the kids in their charge. Many districts appear to operate under a “Last hired, first fired” policy when evaluating budgets and staffing adjustments. I cannot imagine a more insidious personnel policy. The documentary Waiting for Superman exposed the crime of tenure so clearly it made me physically uncomfortable, and very angry.

Randi Weingarten, president of the powerful union American Federation of Teachers, is no different than your stereotypical Teamster boss in a Hollywood movie. She’s a gangster, a guardian of political power and influence, not an ally of American education. I do not wish to see her wear cement shoes- I just want her unemployed. She and her cronies over at the NEA (National Education Association) are politicians, not advocates. Whatever noble missions these organizations were founded under have long given way to political influence and money (for themselves and their Democratic politician friends), propping up the membership by defending their jobs, literally to (their) death.  Exemplary teachers support these empty suits at their peril. I am a card-carrying member of two unions, by the way. I’m not an anti-union man. I’m anti-criminal.

My sister is a teacher in the Kansas City area. I personally know several women who teach in the San Francisco Bay Area. I know that if tenure was eliminated, these people would keep their jobs, because they are competent and skilled at their craft. They would pass performance reviews with flying colors, because they are GOOD teachers.  I admire their career choice, and I defend them without a bit of hesitation. They tell me about the bad teachers, the lazy ones. They know there are plenty of them. They know who’s good, and who isn’t. They chill me with tales of uninterested/uninvolved/bad parents who aren’t demanding excellence and accountability from their kids, and expect these harried instructors to be a surrogate parent/baby-sitter…and educator.

The laundry list of education organizations, administrations and endless blue-ribbon panels share the blame. Budgets in local school districts are being slashed, school infrastructure is dreadful, class sizes are growing, layoffs are seemingly always on the table. Here’s the bottom line: our K-12 students are not prepared for college, cannot read at grade level, lack basic skills in crucial subjects, and await a future job market that will leave them on the side of the road.

I heard an interview on NPR yesterday with a suit from bay-area based tech giant Intel. He was transparent in his admission that America’s schools crank out (in statistical terms) less than one qualified person for every specialty job available. Hire Americans? I think they’d love to. The pool of skilled domestic workers is insufficient to meet demand. Bring on the H1-B army of people who fill the void. There’s your economic reality.

 I am incapable of offering an easy fix for this mess, as are most of us. We know what we know, though: education is the ticket to a better life for all of us. Education results in jobs that result in paychecks that result in economic power and freedom and opportunity. The rhetoric is not matching the results. America is declining, and our collective failure to properly educate our next generation is to blame.

Good teachers can change the course of children’s lives. The boy mentioned at the beginning of this story was me. My wonderful, caring teacher was smart enough to know I would turn out OK if I learned to apply myself and use the brain God gave me.

It’s 2011, and my current profession is…teacher. Maybe I will have to have a stern sit-down with an underachiever or two this semester. I won’t ever want to see them again, for all the right reasons.


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