One Factor Behind America’s Poor K-12 Education System

During my high school years, I had the acquaintance of a fellow student – a person who still holds a strong presence in my memory. This person was one of the most ambitious, most determined individuals in the school; today she goes to one of America’s top universities. She may very well be the next president of the United States – and this is a serious statement.

One day this student asked me an interesting question: “What do you see me doing when I’m fifty years old?”

I teased, “I see you as a high school English teacher.”

She laughed, “I would kill myself if that happened.”

This simple sequence provides a powerful illustration on why America’s K-12 education system is so bad. The best and the brightest view teaching K-12 as a demeaning profession. Go to a class in Harvard, for instance, and ask what the students there want to do after they graduate. There will be lots of future investment bankers, lawyers, and politicians. There will probably very few K-12 teachers, if any at all.

In the countries with the world’s best education systems, places like Finland and Singapore, the conversation above makes no sense. Ambitious, talented people – like the classmate mentioned above – actually want to be teachers in Finland and Singapore. In America this isn’t the case.

This is a big reason why America’s public education system is so weak. A strong education system has good teachers. Logically, a country in which talented people want to be teachers will have good teachers. A country in which talented people belittle the K-12 teaching profession – say, a country like the United States – will probably not have good teachers.

The college system provides another example of this. In America being a professor is quite a desireable job; a lot of very intelligent people dream of teaching college students. Not coincidentially, America’s university system is the best in the world.

The great conundrum, then, is making the K-12 teaching profession desireable to people like the classmate mentioned above. In other words, one needs to change the culture. That is a very hard thing to do. Short of boosting teacher salaries to lawyer-like levels – something which will cost at least several hundred billion dollars, and which nobody is thinking about even in their wildest dreams – there is no easy solution in sight.

There is, of course, more to the problem of American public education than this. Education involves not just teachers, but students as well (indeed, students are actually more important than teachers). Even the best teachers cannot make gold out of students who just do not care for school. And, if one is honest, there probably is also something to the claim that American students are generally less motivated than students in, say, South Korea.





The Obama administration has been remarkably indecisive on the subject of immigration. On the one hand, it talks a lot about its support for a bill legalizing undocumented immigrants. On the other hand, it has also deported more undocumented immigrants than any other president in history. In the process President Barack Obama has pleased neither side; Latinos believe the administration is all-talk and no action, while conservatives believe the administration’s deportations are just a secret ruse for amnesty.

The DREAM Act is an effort which may please at least one side. This is a bill which, if passed, would offer a path to legalization for undocumented college students or undocumented soldiers in the military, who came to the United States as children (younger than 15 years old) and have lived here for at least five years.

There are a number of interesting political considerations which go with the DREAM Act. Although Democrats control Congress and the presidential office, initially many pro-immigrant Democrats were reluctant to introduce the law. They viewed the DREAM Act as a popular piece of legislation which would help public support for comprehensive immigration reform – which conservatives generally denounce as “amnesty”.

This view is no longer held by most Democrats. Comprehensive immigration reform has not been able to get past the ground with 59 Democratic Senators. Democrats will not have a majority this size for a long, long time – and if immigration reform cannot pass with 59 Democratic Senators, then it will likely never pass. Thus the decision to separate the DREAM Act from overall immigration reform.

There is another Democratic consideration, of course. Mr. Reid is facing a very difficult re-election campaign; his state Nevada is 24.9% Hispanic. Boosting Latino turn-out – which the DREAM Act is hoped to do – would be a badly needed assist for him (and for Democrats throughout the nation facing tough elections).

What about Republicans? Well, a number of Republicans, believe it or not, actually supported versions of the DREAM Act in the past. When the DREAM Act was proposed in 2007, 10 Republican Senators voted for it (in 2007 it got 52 votes but failed to break a filibuster). These were Senators Bob Bennett (R-Utah), Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Larry Craig (R-Idaho), Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). Five – Mr. Bennett, Mr. Brownback, Ms. Collins, Mr. Hatch, and Ms. Snowe – are still serving.

Many of these Republicans came from surprisingly conservative states: Utah, Kansas, Idaho, Nebraska, and Mississippi. One would not expect them to support the DREAM Act – but they did. This was because of former President George W. Bush. Mr. Bush was a strong backer of comprehensive immigration reform and enjoyed substantial Latino support because of this. Indeed, on immigration affairs Mr. Bush was probably more liberal than any Republican today.

These Republicans will probably not vote for the DREAM Act today. The current Republican Party is dominated by red-hot anger against undocumented immigrants, in the vein of Governor Jan Brewer rather than Mr. Bush. At least one moderate Republican – Senator Scott Brown – has announced his opposition to the DREAM Act as “amnesty.” If Mr. Brown will not vote for the DREAM Act, more conservative Republicans such as Senator Orrin Hatch will not either.

The DREAM Act’s chances of passing are therefore slim, according to most in the Washington Beltway. It needs 60 votes, and if Republicans won’t vote for it, then it won’t pass. Moreover, there will probably be at least one conservative Democratic Senator who won’t support the DREAM Act.

There is also the rather important matter of what the American public actually thinks about the DREAM Act. In general, the public always supports less immigration and more enforcement, which is true for almost every country in the world as well. It is difficult to find a restrictive immigration measure that Americans will not support, not matter how extreme it is (this is also true for other countries throughout the world). Japanese internment camps, after all, were quite popular with the American public during WWII. Today Arizona law SB1070 is just as popular.

The DREAM Act goes against this strain of thought. Nevertheless, there is some reason to think that it might have a higher level of support than the usual pro-immigration bill.

For one thing, the beneficiaries of the DREAM Act – undocumented college students – look really good on television. Unlike the average undocumented immigrant, an undocumented college student speaks perfect English, knows to wave the American flag, and doesn’t look fresh-off-the-boat. Moreover, politicians love to talk about their support for college students; college students come just one level below soldiers in the military (whom, it just happens, the DREAM Act will also benefit.)

The DREAM Act’s supporters have the unusual characteristic of being more passionate than the Republican base. Undocumented college students have participated in a number of public protests, from sit-ins at Senate offices to spelling out messages on the South Beach, Miami. Their noise may have some influence on the debate.

Finally, proponents of the DREAM Act are in a far better position in the immigration debate than advocates of immigration usually are. Opponents of immigration reform generally label immigration reform as amnesty. The argument goes that law-breakers – i.e. undocumented immigrants – should not be rewarded for breaking the law. This is a quite effective argument, and something most Americans buy into.

But DREAM Act supporters have much better response than immigration proponents normally have: it was the parents of these undocumented college students who broke the law by bringing them into the United States, not them. They were children when they came here – and the government shouldn’t punish children for the crimes their parents made.

Whether this argument works will probably determine the fate of the DREAM Act.


Georgia Public Higher Education Conference

Georgia students stand in solidarity with other college students across the nation fighting for public higher education. This August 7-8, Georgia Students for Public Higher Education (GSPHE), will be hosting our Summer Conference in Atlanta. All who want one should be able to get a college education.

There's more...

Georgia Public Higher Education Conference

Georgia students stand in solidarity with other college students across the nation fighting for public higher education. This August 7-8, Georgia Students for Public Higher Education (GSPHE), will be hosting our Summer Conference in Atlanta. All who want one should be able to get a college education.

There's more...

A mural in Arizona lightens as race issues get darker

From the Restore Fairness blog.

Some months ago, local artists in Prescott, Arizona were commissioned to paint a “Go Green” mural outside Miller Valley Elementary School to promote environmentally friendly transportation. The finished piece featured portraits of four children, with a Latino boy holding a central place, drawn from photographs of children that attended Miller Valley, one of the most ethnically diverse schools in Prescott. But R.E. Wall, the artist that headed the downtown mural project, said that the artists working on the mural were regularly subjected to racial slurs and epithets while they were painting the two large walls located in the middle of one of the town’s most trafficked intersections. Comments such as “you’re desecrating our school,”" Get that n***** off our wall,”" Get the s*** off the wall” were common.

Recently, the school principal Jeff Lane asked the artists to alter the mural by lightening the skin tone of the children depicted in it. While he insisted that his alteration request was purely an aesthetic one related to shading “that made the faces darker than they are,” it is difficult not to attribute his alteration order to the taunts and racial comments that the mural was receiving. Wall said that the principal asked him to make the children’s faces appear “happier and brighter,” but he is convinced that “it is being lightened because of the controversy.”

Prescott City Councilman Steve Blair has led a public campaign on his talk show on a Prescott radio station (KYCA-AM) to remove the mural. Without doubt, Blair’s raving about the mural on his show has added fuel to an already brewing controversy. “Art is in the eye of the beholder, but I say [the mural] looks like graffiti in L.A.,” Blair said. Following that, he mistook the ethnicity of the child at the center of the mural and said on his radio show -

I am not a racist individual, but I will tell you depicting a black guy in the middle of that mural, based upon who’s President of the United States today and based upon the history of this community, when I grew up we had four black families – who I have been very good friends with for years – to depict the biggest picture on that building as a black person, I would have to ask the question, Why?

He finished his rant off saying that diversity is a word he “can’t stand.”

Something very worrying is afoot when it comes to race in Arizona, and it brings to mind a certain new Arizona law, scheduled to go into effect at the end of July, that makes it a crime to be undocumented in the state, and mandates local police to question and detain people who appear “reasonably suspicious” of being undocumented.

The problem is being made worse by the ill-founded justification that is being bandied about for the new racial profiling law. Media personalities like Bill O’Reilly and legislators like Russell Pearce (the sponsor of SB 1070) have popularized the misnomer that laws like these are the only solution to an exploding crime rate in Arizona, which they link to its immigrant population. Bill O’ Reilly’s rhetoric in defense of the new law goes like this-

“The Arizona authorities say we’re desperate. We don’t have the money. Our crime problem is through the roof. Phoenix one of the most dangerous cities in the country. We got to do something.” (May 4, 2010); “So the state of Arizona faced with an overwhelming crime problem, social chaos and a bankrupt treasury had to do something.” (May 6, 2010); “Arizona is  overrun with crime and everything else and people getting slaughtered on their ranches. I mean, it’s insane.” (May 21, 2010)

The folks at FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) have produced a solid list of figures that counter O’ Reilly and prove that the crime wave in Arizona is nothing but racist hype and fear-mongering. In reality, crime rates have been on the decrease in Arizona for many years despite the presence of undocumented immigrants. The city of Phoenix issued a statement saying that in spite of a growing population and challenging economy -

Violent and property crimes in Phoenix continue to drop…The numbers of crimes in 2009 are on track to be the lowest in 15 years…Through November 2009, Phoenix’s violent crime rate has continued to decline, dropping 18 percent over the same period in 2008.

If people like O’ Reilly did their research they would have come across a report released by the Immigration Policy Center that explicitly states that immigrants are, in fact, less likely to commit crime than non-immigrants. According to the 2008 report, crime rates are lowest in states that have a high immigrant population, often making them safer than other places. For example, it notes that El Paso, Texas, a poor city with a large population of undocumented people, is one of the safest cities in the United States. A 2007 University of California Study found that for any ethnic group, the rates of incarceration for young men were consistently lowest for immigrants, regardless of their education or class status.

The good news is that since FAIR circulated their “Stop O’Reilly” petition, he seems to have held back on his false accusations. Unfortunately though, this will not prevent the draconian SB1070 from being implemented on July 29th and with such a law in action that works to generate a fear of local law enforcement in the community, we can probably count on efficient crime solving going from bad to worse. Worst of all the implications of such a law (and the racial profiling that it will encourage) is that incidents such as the one in Prescott will seem less and less outrageous in a culture where the state itself sanctions questioning people based on their perceived appearance.

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