Is it possible for a Hoosier to get an education good enough to compete in the new international economy? If you have lots of money, the answer is yes. If you rely solely on public education, the answer is, it depends.
The promise of the American Dream is that with hard work, anyone can make it. We provide free public education for all citizens, so even poor children can compete. But unfortunately, all public education is not equal. Some states do it better than others. And within a state, some schools do it better. If you are a poor kid in a weak state, your chances plummet.
On June 18, The Indianapolis Star alerted us to "three numbers that should get every Hoosier's attention": 42, 86, and 740,000.
Forty-two is our ranking in the percentage of workers with a four-year college degree. Eighty-six refers to the fact that Hoosiers make 86 cents for every dollar paid to the typical American. And 740,000 is the number of Hoosiers who started college but never finished.
There are many more disturbing statistics. For example, we rank as the 15th most obese state; our combined obesity and overweight rate is 65.1percent. We have one of the highest smoking rates, and we lag behind in providing protections against second-hand smoke. We have some of the worst water quality scores in the country. Since prenatal care and nutrition affect brain development, these statistics become even more alarming. Indiana also lags behind in providing quality, affordable infant care and childcare programs. We do not mandate or fund preschool education. We recently funded full day kindergarten, but still do not require it. Gov. Daniels brags that we spend 56% of our state budget on K-12 education. But he also at the top of the list for making unprecedented midyear education cuts after the federal stimulus funds ended. Don't be fooled, school funding in Indiana has been slashed to the bone. We are losing teachers and class size is increasing. We have inadequate physical education and arts programs. Yet our politicians tell us that government is the problem, not the solution.
Meanwhile, international students
are using U.S. colleges and universities for their own class mobility.
Most American universities now accept significant numbers of students from
India, China and other countries. These students have competitive test
scores and transcripts, plus they pay higher tuition than local kids
— a double whammy. We do not prepare our kids to compete, thereby
allowing international students to beat our kids for college admission.
Indiana's refusal to fund quality affordable daycare, preschool and kindergarten programs ensures the continuation of this trend. Research shows that kids who are behind in third grade rarely catch up.
Hoosiers with money have options. They can afford to have books and developmentally appropriate toys in their homes. They have trained nannies and licensed, high-quality preschool programs. Poor kids have whatever childcare the parents can cobble together, and no money for preschool. Many middle-class parents opt to hire babysitters or relatives rather than spend money on preschool. If they save, it is more likely to be for college.
Nationally, 39 percent of four-year-olds are enrolled in a preschool, Head Start, or special education program; while in Indiana, this number is only 14.7 percent. Many states fund preschool education. But not Indiana.
William Bennett, former secretary of education, remarked that on a
recent trip to Beijing, he met Chinese parents of preschoolers who were
already planning to send their children to prestigious U.S. universities.
He observed that in China, primary and secondary education is revered, and
their STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education is far
superior to ours. (Why the Chinese are
Flocking to U.S. Colleges, CNN, May 31).
There used to be programs that helped families. I remember when I was a young kid in South Bend, Ind. We went to free or almost free programs in the park, including tennis lessons, swimming lessons, and arts and crafts. There were library reading programs, and Junior Great Books, where we read the classics and had high-level discussions. There were summer school options, and not only for remedial students. For example, you could take French starting in fourth grade. There was summer band. Summer band started early in the morning, and there were sessions until afternoon. Our band director was laid back and inclusive, and allowed kids who wanted to participate in every age group to hang out, play our instruments, and help with the younger kids. Our parents had low-cost, quality childcare and we were fully engaged in a wholesome activity. This band director was a significant influence on many kids.
Now most of these services have been privatized. In other
words, if you have the money, you may be able to find a pricey program or
private lessons. Otherwise, you are flat out of luck. But in
reality, we are all out of luck, since having a majority of students in school
who lag behind national and international norms brings down the learning curve
for all students. When we are closing libraries and cutting the arts it
is a sign that things are going in the wrong direction.
Indiana politicians are busy promoting charter schools and giving public money to religious, private, and for-profit schools. The underlying goal is to privatize public education.
At the moment, many in Indiana demonize teacher's unions. They resent teachers' pensions and health-care packages, saying that teachers do not deserve better benefits than those in the "private sector." Never mind that teachers have more education requirements and chose a helping profession at relatively low wages for their entire careers.
Are there some bad teachers? Yes. But there is a
process to remove them from the classroom. Principals must document
incompetent teachers and work to remove them. Unions should help in this
effort for the good of all teachers. We should vow to hire only highly
qualified teachers from here on out. But how many people who can do
calculus, physics, and engineering will work for teacher's wages in unfavorable
conditions? Indiana is trying to pay teachers less, not more. We
are trying to get teachers to work in overcrowded classrooms with fewer books
and supplies. Is this a plan for a state that already lags behind other
Once our kids get into elementary school, some learn at a fast pace. Many public schools have gifted and talented (GT) programs such as the International Baccalaureate so these children can work faster, in more depth, and above grade level. In Indiana, gifted-and-talented programs are mandated, but not fully funded. School systems must fund GT programs from their general funds. Parents whose children need these services fight for programs. They are called "elitist" and are told that they are taking money away from other children.
In many Indiana schools, gifted programs are some of the first programs cut in lean times. Vibrant gifted-and-talented programs tend to exist in schools with parents who make more money. These parents seem more effective at advocating for their children and getting the services they need. That is why school systems such as Carmel and Zionsville have great GT programs, while schools with fewer powerful or informed parents are left behind. This is in direct contradiction to the spirit and purpose of free public education.
The promise is that every child should be provided an appropriate learning environment so he/she can attain his/her true potential. Any child with the talent and work ethic should be able to go to Harvard. Chinese parents understand this. They embrace the American Dream, and revere primary and secondary education. Why don't we do the same?
Annette Magjuka has been a middle school and high school teacher, and a long-time advocate for gifted and talented programs in the public schools. She has worked in classrooms from preschool through high school. Most recently, she worked for the Kelley School of Business Living Learning Community at Indiana University.