Public Schools, Teachers, Tenure, Part I: Mediocrity in Politics and Mediocrity in Schools [8-19-14]


[I wrote this and the succeeding blog a couple of months ago. Finally, I am letting them fly into the public domain.]

In 1983, while I was President of Phillips University in Enid, Oklahoma, I and much of America was shocked but not surprised by a report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education entitled “A Nation at Risk.” The report produced statistics and surveys that compellingly concluded that there was a “rising tide of mediocrity” in the public education system in the U.S.

Let me be clear that I consider myself a product of public education from kindergarten through high school [1941-54] and on to a degree from a public university, the University of Oklahoma [1954-58]. As president of a private, church-related university, I undertook to write an article and do some speaking about my diagnosis of the root causes of that mediocrity as public education continued its, albeit uneven, descent into mediocrity.

It seemed to me that there were some large cultural shifts that had contributed to that wide-spread despair and desperation by persons truly committed to the system of public education as the very backbone of a society committed to democratic values. At the heart of those values had been a strong sense that such education, while administered and funded locally, produces persons with the habits and skills in learning the hard sciences and the humane appreciation of the demands and necessities of culture, understood historically and contemporarily.

It was clear that maintaining such a public education system was dependent upon shared values not reducible to peculiarly local values. Enid public schools did not aim to form persons who would exclusively stay-in-town but might leave town and navigate a larger social world beyond Enid. And surely the citizens of Enid knew they lived in a much larger world than their hometown. Hence, it seemed clear that there are some public and common goods that were being undermined, almost inadvertently, by that rise in mediocrity.

So, what happened by 1983, and continues to the present day, that brought about the mediocrity in public education that almost everyone who thinks about it agrees is our present situation in general? I propose there were three huge cultural movements that have pummeled public education in America. I will simply state them without extensive argument and supporting evidence. Reader, judge for yourself.

First, the nationwide mobilization for the Second World War not only won the war but it resulted in the permanent establishment of what Eisenhower referred to as “the industrial military complex.” As a portion of the nation’s expenditures, it continues to this day to soak up funds as the top priority in the national budget. Proportionally and as part of national expenditures, public education expenditures have been in continual decline.

Second, school desegregation, with its attempt to overcome centuries of racial discrimination, simply collided with that white-bound racial prejudice and resulted in white-flight into suburban schools, and in the process taking their local property taxes with them. White prejudice then proceeded to inflame the suspicion that public schools have been overtaken by minorities and thereby without the substance to deliver the goods on sound education. Such racial attitudes further increased the conservative tendency to think public schools are too liberal. Is it any accident that Reagan became president in 1980 on the cusp of just this conservative and racial-tinged prejudice? And is it any accident that many of my Christian-claiming high school friends moved into the suburbs?

Third, the momentum the women’s liberation movement developed during the 1960s, with its opening up new economic and vocational possibilities for women, did in fact devastate the public schools previous dependence on women as the teachers of economic choice. Women of great intelligence and compassion had been the intellectual backbone of the public schools in the previous decades of the twentieth century. With increasing social approval, many women could now choose other vocational pursuits with higher levels of compensation.

While acknowledging there are still many women, and men, teaching in our public schools these days who have superior intellectual and propaedeutic credentials, women’s liberation as a social movement opened up possibilities that previous excluded women. And simply as historical fact, public schools have suffered. My lament here is not about the liberating of women to make their own choices about vocation but about the effects of well-educated women simply excluding public school teaching from their range of employment options.

Hence, today public school teachers are underpaid in relation to other professions and are underpaid in large part because of lower tax dollars for schools, greater racial prejudice throughout the society, thus stimulating the rise of the private and so-called home-schools. The military-industrial complex is a sacred cow and continues to gobble up public tax money. In state after state, public schools have become objects of intense political conflict and funding continues to shrink, while funds pour into private schools for the wealthy.

So, if public schools are to be pulled back from their dwelling in educational/cultural mediocrity, major sociopolitical counter-shifts will have to occur in the immediate future and continue on into the indefinite future.

First, society will simply have to spend more money, at least more tax dollars on funding public education, which includes paying teachers—the real laborers in the system—more. I do not see this happening as long as we have the military/industrial complex consuming so much of our tax dollars and the public reluctant to tax themselves in order to upgrade public education. Given the current sociopolitical disarray and antimonies in our nation today, I am skeptical, and thus very sad about whether this shift will happen. It is in particular devastating that a major portion of our society that heralds capitalistic values as the pivotal value-system for all things would fail to recognize that the low salaries paid to teachers conveys in fact utter disregard for the importance of public education.

Second, I am hopeful that teachers themselves and the concerned leadership in school boards at the local and state level might take some steps to reform public schools in the hope of improving the educational process itself by enhancing the public appreciation of the cultural value of strong and well-educated teachers. ‘Well-educated teachers’? Yes, that is at the nub of our failing schools. In short, it appears to me that public esteem for teachers, as themselves the presumably educated elite of the nation, is low, terribly low. It is into the face of the lack of public esteem, that I make the following proposals.  

Yes, I do know that the so-called cultural wars lurk there in the midst of all these matters.

See Part Two forthcoming.



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Reader Responses

Gene Daniels

responded on 08/20/14

Joe, I agree with you on the subjects you brought out,however I think you could have had a fourth item dealing the problems and waste within our governing bodies both at the state level and national level. The attitude of self first then my obilagation to the citizens of our state or country comes in second by many if not all of our politicians has detoriated our government immensely and there does not seem to be any effort to correct this.

Charles Ragland

responded on 08/20/14

Joe, seems to me the larger issue is lack of care for the common good—or perhaps most accurately: lack of agreement on just what constitutes the common good. This “deficit of care” or “disagreement” impacts the financial support for public education and the available financial and social resources that encourage families to support their child’s academic achievements. Successful education of younger children requires a working partnership of family, child, and educator. A deficit in any makes the process more challenging—if not impossible. The short-sighted lack of care or agreement about the common good reminds me of Poe’s tale “The Masque of the Red Death,” in which prince Prospero (“Prosperous?”)and his well-heeled courtiers cloister themselves to revel and otherwise divert themselves inside the high walls of the prince’s castle while the Red Death plague runs rampant among the common folk outside. But the Red Death is not to be denied entry, as you recall, and all the nobility inside the ornate halls die just as horrible a death as any of the “rudes” abandoned by the gentry to their fate outside the walls. Any of us who believe that providing for the effective education and the general welfare of “common folk” in his community is an imposition and is not his concern is deluding himself. There is no such animal as an absolute and lasting separation between the lot of the haves and lot of the have-nots. Therefore, attending to the common good and the general welfare is prudent. It makes good sense. As does our generous support of public education.         

thomas spear

responded on 08/22/14

I share your concerns that Public Schools
are underperforming today and don’t have a clue how to fix it, other than to bring back discipline, prayer and a sense of pride in the country. At the same time, I could have predicted your call for more tax dollars as a major contributor to a fix. Classic liberal call. But when you recognize the US spends $15.171 per student while Switzerland spends $14,922 and the World average is $9313 belies that proposition. We spend 7.3% of our GDP on education versus the world average of 6.3%. Now I’m all for paying our teachers a world class wage but at an average $53,000/yr versus the OECD average of $45,500. would seem to indicate we are doing that. Perhaps if we cut out some of the NEA “fat”, more of available resources could be funneled to the hard core teacher putting it on the line in the classroom everyday.