The Nor’easter: The First Step in Education Reform

March 8, 2011 Updated: March 8, 2011

Across the country, departments of education are feeling cuts as state governments move to close budget gaps. It is scary to think that money and teachers are flowing away from schools, at a time when our schools need to be improving.

Despite being the richest country in the world, the United States only comes in 17th in education, based on rankings from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Are there ways to improve U.S. schools without throwing money and teachers at them, as many politicians seem to love to do?

I suspect there are. In fact, at this point, I would say any real and lasting improvements to the country’s public schools are going to happen without money. The numbers game has failed.

Nowhere is there a clearer example of this than in New York.

“Right now, we rank number one in the nation in spending per student, and number 34 in student achievement,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo in a statement issued last month. “Worse still, these poor results are coming after a decade of record spending increases in education funding.”

“Throwing money at the problem is not the answer,” stated Cuomo. “We need to cut the bureaucratic fat and champion reforms that will help our students achieve their true potential.”

The next question then is what reforms to champion.

My gut instinct is clamp down on our country’s under performing students. Institute school uniforms, separate schools by gender, and even use some limited forms of corporal punishment on them (hey, they still do in some schools in the South).

Of course real reform may not be so simple.

Where my gut reaction is to focus on students, the popular methods of education reform now being floated by various levels of government have a different perspective. They focus on under performing teachers and schools. For example, they are testing charter schools that operate without the regulations that may hamper regular public schools.

Also, many reformers focus on merit pay, which means paying more money to teachers whose students have higher standardized test scores. Another aspect to this is paying schools that perform better more money and closing schools that fail to achieve good results.

Unfortunately, this focus on inadequate schools and teachers is still missing the mark.

After talking to my mother, a teacher for 23 years, and my aunt, a teacher for 22 years, it became clear that the real issue is not as simple as students, teachers, or schools. The real issue is parents.

If a student is performing well, you can bet that he has parents behind him, encouraging and disciplining him to excel in his studies. If a student is not performing well, you can expect to find no parental discipline or encouragement.

It’s pretty simple but also deeply problematic since parents can’t be controlled as part of the educational system.

At her school in inner city Detroit, my mother said that for her 120 students, only 10 parents showed up to parent-teacher conferences. It's no coincidence that Education Secretary Arne Duncan called Detroit schools "ground zero" for education in the United States.

In the suburbs of Detroit, my aunt faced a problem with parents who didn’t know how to discipline their children and then contacted her school’s principal. The result was that she would have to hold back on disciplining her students for fear of parents, who had the principal on their side. How are America's schools going to improve with parents and principals acting this way?

Now is the time for educational reform, but the first step in reform is properly identifying the problem. I don't think America has done that yet. Real reform will look at the whole equation: students, teachers, schools, and parents, and then make some bold changes.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Evan Mantyk
Evan Mantyk is an English teacher in New York and President of the Society of Classical Poets.