Why The American Public School System Keeps Failing Our Youth

President Bush signing the No Child Left Behin...

Former President GW Bush with members of Congress at the signing of 'No Child Left Behind' Act Image via Wikipedia

In 2007, 17 of the nation’s 50 largest cities had high school graduation rates lower than 50 percent, with a consistent 1.2 million dropouts every year.  Meanwhile, twenty-five percent of the United States population is functionally illiterate, unable to consult a dictionary, to read signs or follow basic written directions.  Overall, the United States is suffering from a high school dropout rate of about 30 percent each year.  For a nation so esteemed for its multifaceted education provided for all, these rates are shameful.  If there indeed exist such great barriers for success in school, how is it that the United States still claims equality of opportunity?  Spend a day in most any inner-city high school, and you will find the plight of public schools has reached crisis proportions.  New York City Schools Chancellor, Joel Klein, agrees: the public education crisis has become the “greatest domestic issue” Americans face today.

Where public schools suffer, the middle and upper class have the option of sending their children to privately-funded institutions, any one of a variety of boarding schools, charters, academies, prep schools, specialized schools for math and science or Waldorf schools.  These are the schools that have inundated the suburbs outside the largest U.S. cities, so much so that private affluence now goes hand-in-hand with public squalor in the school system.  While private schools have the freedom to develop unique curricula, support their personnel financially, and provide the resources that facilitate an orderly learning environment, public schools are restricted to the whims of government policy decisions, to one central voice, to No Child Left Behind.

Public schools today are subject to a system of zero-tolerance policies, which entails increased suspensions, expulsions and referrals to juvenile justice system, coupled with an “ordering regime”, or standardized one-size-fits-all school policies.  Zero-tolerance is applied to any and all deviant acts at school, lending itself to increased police intervention in the school environment and punishment of children (no matter their psychological or mental functioning level) by mandated sanctions.  In admitting youth to the juvenile justice system for very minor offenses, students miss school work, develop distrust of teachers and administrators, suffer punishments of probation, expulsion and the corresponding emotional trauma, and finally carry the delinquent stigma throughout their school career.  Overwhelmingly, these are the students who eventually drop out, commit crimes and are incarcerated.

Philadelphia provides a perfect case study in inner city education, expelling students at a rate of three hundred per day.  On average, students are about four years behind in reading level in Philadelphia.  Almost half of students drop out between ninth and tenth grade, joining the ever-growing group of “disconnected youth”, youth ages 16-24, who are neither in school nor officially employed.
What has the No Child Left Behind Act, implemented by the Bush administration in 2002, done to make reforms?  Under the act, schools must meet “adequate yearly progress”, which cannot be met if a single student in the school fails federal exams that are given on top of mandatory state exams.  Pressure to meet such standards is applied with the threat of “take over” by the government or complete loss of funding.  In fact, pressure runs so high that public schools are inclined to suspend or expel students who are at risk of failing, in order to ensure that the school meets the requirements.

In fact, Villanova is host to a variety of campus organizations that work with inner-city Philadelphia public school programs.  Villanova students experience similar frustrations about the egregious conditions, the barriers to learning, and the limitations of the No Child Left Behind curricula, which they are forced to tutor.  Nearly every one of these students will admit that the likelihood that his or her “little”, “buddy” or student will never see graduation day is almost certain.  Volunteer Gail Sondermeyer explains the problem: “kids had homework, but they also had these big packets for No Child Left Behind testing…they never really had the chance to do their homework for class, because teachers insisted that the packets always came first.”
Sondermeyer points to a common phenomenon occurring in public schools across the nation, in which teachers are forced to “teach to the test”, and in turn, experience a lessened ability to develop interesting, engaging curricula, due to restrictions and demands to meet for annual tests.  In Philadelphia, students spend an average of three weeks taking these federal exams, while schools are forced to spend excessive administrative funds on test coordinators and proctors.  How much of this spending does the government actually cover?  Less than half.  Public schools, already suffering from financial disability are forced to dig even deeper in their pockets to meet the standards of No Child Left Behind, a program which has not yet proven effective.

The one-size-fits-all approach to standardization encourages education through rote memorization and focuses on testing instead of investing.  In fact, approaches to teaching in public schools have begun to mirror the commonly used, rigorous approaches of penal institutions and even the military.  Teachers, of course, bear the burden of such implementation, and have little room for creativity.  The effects of such methods on teacher burnout are telling: half the teachers hired in inner-city public schools quit within their first five years.  In turn, the most inexperienced teachers are left to deal with the most difficult educational challenges and the most serious problem students.  These are the students who suffer from unbending educational policies, who attempt to learn in an environment where meeting a standard takes precedence over engaging students in the learning process, and where resources are so limited that even reading is made nearly impossible.  Indeed, in 2006, all 50 states failed to meet the benchmark for proficiency.  What is the trajectory for No Child Left Behind?  Are we looking at the beginnings of an end for the entire United States public school system?

Where resources are depleted and attention to school problems diminish annually, the public schools of the inner cities of the United States face a serious dilemma.  Where fewer students have the opportunity to succeed, and more leave high school with an inadequate education, the future generations of the United States will suffer severely from the current public school crisis.  The only promise of our current policies is a growing gap in educational attainment, between public turmoil and private affluence, in which only the privileged will have the opportunity to succeed in school.


Amy Richards
Re:LIFE Inc Writer



Filed under Education, Entrepreneurship, Global Youth, Minority Issues, Re:LIFE Inc, ReLIFE, Youth, Youth Development, Youth Empowerment

3 responses to “Why The American Public School System Keeps Failing Our Youth

  1. Pingback: Re:LIFE’s ArtLIFE Program: Empowering Youth through Art Education | ReLIFE's Blog

  2. Does “functionally illiterate” really mean that they can’t read signs? I thought it had more to do with being incapable of reading longer passages or navigating complex vocabularies or sentence structures.

  3. If non-mainstream children wish to make their way successfully in mainstream society, it is neccesary that they learn Standard American English..In a complex technological, highly impersonal society such as the United States of America, a great deal of information much be shared by means of the printed word..The ability to read well is a pre-requisite for navigating one’s way through such a society..Without the acquisition of basic reading skills, the proability of having a happy, productive life, free from the crippling cycle of poverty and frustration is low indeed..
    Those persons who do not possess basic functional reading abilities, with a few, a very few exceptions, are relegated to a caste system.. They become the people least equipped to cope with a complex, rapidly changing society..Many economic, social, and cultural avenues are closed to non-readers and poor readers..When people learn of their illiteracy, they generally consider it to be symptomatic of low intelligence..atahis society places a heavy stigma on illiteracy..The illiterate person is considered to be dull, ignorant, backward, narrow, and uneducable..Even worse, the illiterate person often comes to consider himself/herself, to be all these things and more..
    The illiterate person will frequently give up all attempts at formal learning because he or she has internalized the stigma attached to illiteracy..The illiterate person in a highly literate, technological, achievement oriented society is hanging by a thin thread practically and psychologically..The person’s ego must constantly defend against tremendous feelings and perceptions of inadequacy..As an adjustment, or ego defense, the illiterate often learns to engage in avoidance behavior..
    He or she often avoids school and educated people because both tend to elicit feelings of anxiety and frustration; feelings of failure and inadequacy..It is no accident that reading instruction constitutes one of the highest priorities in American education..A school system’s reading scores serve as indicators of the academic health of the system..Few indictments of a school system are considered more damning than pupil’s low achievement in reading..Many school superintendents have discovered that their job security is directly or directly related to how their school system ranks in comparison with national reading norms..
    Yet in this country, the most technologically advanced in the world—the reading problem is of frightening proportions..The headline of a recent article read, “Study shows more than one-fifth of U.S. adults are functionally illiterate in today’s society.” Black non-mainstream students, often referred to as Black inner-city students, represent a reading problem of even greater magnitude..They come from families that are poorer than the general population and that are considerably lower in formal educational attainment..
    They possess a culture, language, and a set of experiences that are different from the general population..And to complicate things, they must for the most part attend schools that are not prepared and /or willing to use the student’s culture, language, or experience in an educational manner..Their problems are even further complicated by the assumptions made concerning swtudents, which underlie the educational philosphy of schools in this country..It is mistakenly assumed that all students are, or should be, similar to the “idealized White mainstream, normative student.” If Black non-mainstream students differ from nthe normative student by not responding to the methods of instruction and material in a similar manner, their abilities are suspect..
    They are frequently labeled and stigmatized as ” educationally retarded, culturally, deprived, and linguistically improverished.” This labeling occurs with little or no regard for the fact that the standard of comparison is schools designed to accommodate the culture, language, learning, and lifestyles of White mainstream students..Today, it is not uncommon for seventh and eighth-grade Black non-mainstream students to score at the second-and third grade level on standardized reading tests..
    It is also not uncommon for Black non-mainstream students to finish high school reading below the fifth-grade level, (“The Unfinished Business of the Civil Rights Movement :Failure of America’s Public Schools to Properly Educate its African American Student Populations”; lauriat Press, Amazon.com; can be previewed in July, 2012;pp-41-42)..

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