Education News

The failed promise of public K-12 education

Written by Mamie M. Arndt

In theory, public K-12 education should prepare students for either a continued college education or for the workforce. This premise is built on the belief that public education will provide a solid basic academic background and personal soft skills such as time management, critical thinking and respectful relationship attributes that will enable a high school graduate to live an independent productive lifetime.

It is not reasonable to expect public K-12 education to graduate 100% of its students to be prepared for college level courses or to be workforce ready. Research and various state-wide and national education mandated assessments indicate only a fraction of the graduates meet expected proficiency in math and English –two subject matters not only critical to college entry, but also required in the workforce.

Although society accepts the unreasonable expectation for 100% of high school graduates to be college and workforce ready, this should not be interpreted that the public K-12 system is achieving its goals. Quite the contrary, we must do better. Better should start with governors and state legislators to immediately end education policies that allow public secondary education to hand out diplomas knowing many students lack grade proficiency in math and English. Far too many urban public schools let students leave the education system knowing the student has at best a tenth grade education.

The demise of public education has many contributors:

  • Union contracts that retain ineffective and low performing teachers.
  • Too many students that exceed the chronic absenteeism rate.
  • Education policy that prevents removing disruptive students from the classroom.
  • K-4 schools that only offer science instruction two hours a week.
  • Parents who do not place a high priority on their child’s education.
  • Inconsistent funding formulas at the federal and state level.
  • Grade inflation that renders the overall high school grade point average useless.
  • Advocates against grades, testing and any form of academic assessment.
  • College holistic admission policies that substitute academic criteria.

The saving grace for K-12 continues to be the community college system that readily accepts the responsibility for the secondary school failures. Through developmental and remedial education as well as occupational training programs, the community colleges heroically step forward trying to prepare these students for an independent and productive lifetime. Even with their best intentions, only a small number of the academically underprepared and disconnected can be saved by the community colleges.

When K-12 fails to deliver on the promise of public education, society experiences the consequences as more of the population becomes less self-efficient and more reliant on federal and state social services.

Educators love to talk about the promise of education, how education can bring equality, improve lives, and become a springboard to economic prosperity. Indeed, education has great potential to educate the masses, but at the same time the gap between successful school systems and the not successful is too big to ignore.

Soon President-elect Biden’s pick for Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona will be formally approved by Congress. He will need to address many challenges that every constituency group will argue should be Priority No. 1.

Secretary Cardona should have only one priority. He must have a laser-like focus on public K-12 education with the goal to graduate more students that are college ready with the necessary academic preparation to enroll in college level credit bearing courses and for students who elect to not continue their education ensure that this cohort of high school graduates are ready to join the workforce with the appropriate social, emotional intelligence and work skills.

If Secretary Cardona elects to get sidetracked and bamboozled, then society will have a heavy burden to pay with many more high school students dependent on federal and state social services. Secretary Cardona must return to the primary core mission for public K-12 education: teaching and learning. Learning and teaching.

Michael Gargano is the CEO, The Education Think Tank and former Provost and Senior Vice President Connecticut State College and University System and Vice President Faculty, Academics and Student Affairs University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio.


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About the author

Mamie M. Arndt