Mike Sarzo

The American education system is schizophrenic.

Every year, graduation speakers crow about that year’s graduating class boasting the best and the brightest graduates in history. Accolades for students who are incredibly gifted and work remarkably hard are par for the course.

Then there are the stories of people who can’t even perform basic math or locate the US on a world map, as Caitlin Upton so embarrassingly tried to address back in 2007. Which of the two extremes is the reality? Or is the real state of the US education system somewhere in between?

In order to answer the question, the response varies depending on the state you’re talking about. Maryland has been rated as having the country’s best public schools by Education Week for five consecutive years, but South Dakota, Nevada and Idaho were ranked lowest.

According to the US Department of Education, the federal role in education is limited, and the 10th Amendment leaves most education decisions to the states themselves or to local governments. Thus, discussing the US education system as a whole is more difficult unless we break down each state or each school district. And that becomes a much tougher task.

With Washington’s role in setting policy relatively limited, what they can do is to establish certain minimum standards, but even then, states are still primarily responsible for the outcomes. And within states, many standards are set by various counties, parishes or other jurisdictions, although each local jurisdiction answers to its state.

People frequently talk about higher education when they discuss the investment that we make into our futures, but education is about more than bachelor's and master's degrees. Plenty of students start their post-secondary education in community colleges, where the cost of taking core classes that all students take regardless of major is much less expensive than at the traditional four-year school.

To truly address the problems with American education, we need to look at all levels of education, from pre-kindergarten through advanced degrees. According to the New America Foundation, education spending accounts for less than 4 percent of the federal budget, or $138 billion. And yet, Republicans pushed for cuts in education in recent budgets.

It would be one thing if education were simply a subset of overall budget cuts that included line items Republicans hold dear. The evidence points in a different direction.

To make matters worse, several reports have indicated that US students lag behind their peers in other countries in math and science. The validity of the studies used to arrive at those figures may be flawed, as are standardized testing and the reliance on it to determine “intelligence” or “teaching to the test,” but the studies themselves point to serious problems for a country whose president trumpets “American exceptionalism.”

Standardized tests aren’t just a conundrum for student evaluations. Evaluating teacher performance is an ongoing controversy nationwide that shows no clear fixes. If a standardized test can’t account for a person’s cultural background and unique perspectives in showing the student’s intelligence, how can we expect many of the current methods to be effective at determining which teachers are good or bad?

Once students arrive at a college or university, problems with education don’t end there. A Northwestern University study of freshmen found the students fare better when they’re taught by non-tenure track faculty. The Chronicle of Higher Education also reported a study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research that suggests adjunct, or part-time faculty, teach better than tenured professors do.

Finally, discussions of higher education often deal with the cost to send children to various colleges and universities. One of the problems people have been complaining about for years has been student debt. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama certainly weren’t immune to expensive student loans, and it took a book deal for the former Illinois lawmaker to pay off those debts once and for all.

From my experience as the president of a community college’s student government, I remember how important funding from various jurisdictions were to the bottom line of a tuition bill, and by extension, the amount that students and families ultimately have to pay. Investing in education -- not just higher education, but all levels -- is an investment in the future of the country. The last thing we can afford is to pay short shrift to that future.

The solutions to our country’s education problems aren’t quick, easy or cheap. They will take a combined approach that recognizes the importance of educating all of our students and providing fair evaluations for those who teach them. They also will involve support for and from parents.

That means it will take a lot of effort on many different fronts to make the grade.

If you like to write about US politics, enter Allvoices’ The American Pundit political writing contest. Allvoices is awarding four $250 prizes each month between now and Nov. 30. These monthly winners earn eligibility for the $5,000 grand prize, to be awarded in December. If you do not already have a free account, sign up here.


The American Pundit on Twitter

Allvoices on Twitter

Allvoices on Facebook