Education’s Dismal Cycle

“We are here on Earth to do good to others. What the others are here for, I don’t know.”

—W.H. Auden

I recently heard a military officer on television explain how vastly superior an all-volunteer army was to an army assembled via a national draft.  In the former instance, you have people who want to serve, who strive to serve; in the latter, you have people who are forced to serve.  While it occurred to me that we don’t make the same distinction when it comes to jury duty, I nonetheless acknowledged the argument’s virtues.

This analogy could also be applied to public schools and private schools.  By now, most people know that private schools (both secular and religious) don’t require a state teaching credential or even a bachelor’s degree, and that private school teachers earn significantly less money than public school teachers and have nowhere near the excellent fringe benefits.

Yet, despite these obvious handicaps (and Wall Street continues to harangue us with the mantra that you can’t attract decent talent unless you’re willing to pay for it), test scores for students at private schools tend to be higher than those at many of our public schools.

How do we account for this discrepancy?  How do we explain under-qualified teachers making less money and working at mom-and-pop facilities, yet producing superior results?  Clearly, if we learned that non-certified doctors—those who not only hadn’t graduated from medical school but hadn’t attended college—were “curing” patients at a higher rate than real doctors, there’d be a stampede to find out why.

But education is a bit different.  When it comes to the dynamics of public schools, we proceed more cautiously; we don’t look too closely at societal influences, at poverty, at crime, or at the role of the parent.  We don’t focus on the lack of discipline, the disrespect for authority, the unstable home environments, the language barriers, the lack of state money being invested in education, or the administrative merry-go-round passing as “leadership”—all of which contribute mightily to the problem.

Because the aforementioned factors are too daunting and politically “dangerous” to address head-on, we take a different tack.  We look for an easier target.  We seek a convenient, high-profile group to ravage.  We blame the teachers union.

Universal public education was, at one time, a uniquely American phenomenon.  By the end of the 19th century, free public education, at the elementary level, was available to all American children; and by 1918, every state in the union had made an elementary education compulsory.  Today, children in the U.S. are required by law to attend school until age 16 (or in some states, even older).

And how has universal/mandatory education turned out?  Well, as noble as the original notion may have been, it’s been a mixed bag.

Compulsory attendance requires every American kid fifteen and under to be funneled into a public school.  This includes the goof-offs, the scholars, the shy kids, the loudmouths, the Crips, the Bloods, the nerds, the punks, the emotionally disturbed, the casually neglected, the criminally abused, the pampered, the verbally gifted, the non-English speakers, kids who are savvy, kids who haven’t got a clue, kids whose parents do science projects with them, and kids whose parents, literally, don’t know what grade they’re in.

Astonishingly, all of these students—“diverse” (today’s all-purpose politically correct term) as they may be—are required to take identical state-mandated tests, the results of which are the basis for rating a school’s performance.

Unfortunately, just as private schools (like the all-volunteer army) are comprised of students who want to be there, public schools are jammed with students who don’t want to be there….jammed with students who feel they’ve been drafted.

Moreover, as any educator will tell you, the cardinal “real estate rule” still applies today: good schools are generally found in good neighborhoods, and bad schools are found in bad neighborhoods.  People can massage the statistics all they like, but it was this fundamental disparity that spawned the “forced busing” movement, way back in the 1970s.

Increasingly, families—poor or otherwise—who place a high premium on education are pulling their kids out of struggling public schools and placing them in magnet schools, charter schools, private schools or more affluent public schools (which is why parents so often lie about their home addresses), leaving the marginal or distressed public schools to fend for themselves.

The kids who leave these public schools are the same kids who would have raised the schools’ test scores.  Indeed, with these good students leaving, test scores are all but guaranteed to remain low; and with test scores remaining low, conscientious parents won’t send their kids to public schools because they believe low scores indicate poor teaching.  The parents find alternatives.  And these alternatives serve to perpetuate the dismal cycle, continue to make public schools look bad.

So which families are destined to remain at these struggling neighborhood schools?  It’s the poor, the weak, the bewildered, the lazy, the stupid, the negligent, the over-worked, the victimized, the self-pitying, the apathetic, the naïve, the innocent, and the guilty.  It includes those who tried to get out but couldn’t, to those who didn’t care enough even to try.

And who gets blamed for the failures of the public school system?  The teachers’ union.  That’s because holding parents accountable for the bare minimum—for demanding that daily homework be completed, that school work take precedence over watching television or playing grab-ass—is politically risky.  After all, many of these parents are voters.  Best not to rile them.  It’s easier to blame the teachers.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor” (available at Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble, etc.) He can be reached at DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor” (available at Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble, etc.) He can be reached at

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at