The Current State of Education
This week of August 2022, we learned a lot of things that were very concerning from John Eisenberg, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors for Special Education (NASDSE). Over a decade ago, John founded the Virginia Aspiring Leadership Academy for Special Education that the Connecticut Aspiring Leadership Academy I’m presently in during this writing is based on.
Three states in the U.S. have leadership academies for aspiring special education leaders. Many hope the fruitful new model of building leaders in the special education field that John created in Virginia spreads across the country. Hopefully, every state will eventually have one that will fill the special education leadership positions in their public schools and state education departments. There is a significant shortage of special education teachers and leaders.
John knew back in kindergarten that he wanted to be a special education teacher. I can’t say the same for myself. Some days, I still wonder what I will be when I grow up. John also shared with us that in his 27 years in the special education field, he has never been as worried about the state of education as he is today. “It’s very depressing,” he said. He also said, “Although, as depressing as it is, there are also a lot of opportunities out there for new beginnings that could lead somewhere great for public education.”
The numbers in education, in general, are bad. And even worse in special education. “The country is at war with public education,” said John. It appears to be true. There is evidence of it all over the media. The education numbers are going in the wrong direction. For example, absenteeism is way up and off the chart. Graduation rates are down. Enrollment is down, and special education numbers are up. School violence is up and continuously in the media. Kids with mental health challenges are up, and the number of social workers and guidance counselors is down.
According to John, in Virginia and a few other states, all school psychology training programs at the college level have been shut down due to the lack of students going into this field. We need school psychologists more than ever for our students. And if we’re going to be honest, it’s not just our students who need mental health help. So, do our teachers and parents. Today, it’s not uncommon for teachers to drop their keys on their desks in the middle of teaching class and walk out of the school for good. Nor is it unusual anymore for parents to be physically removed from boards of education meetings. We frequently hear about these events in the news. Parents are going after superintendents verbally, physically, and sometimes legally through lawsuits. Politics is white-hot and has gone crazy since the pandemic. Parents want answers to the troubles of our schools. Parents are demanding change, and they want it now.
John’s top seven issues in public education are below in severity, from worst to less bad. And it should be no surprise that COVID still tops the list. Here they are below;
- Educator and service providers shortage/turnover
- Mental Health Issues for students and teachers
- IDEA compliance caused by pandemic
- Negative engagement from parents
- Inadequate virtual learning
As an inner-city school teacher, one of my tasks is to close the achievement gap between my students and the more affluent students around the state. Unfortunately, the pandemic widened that learning and knowing gap. Sadly, the kids that needed to be in school the most, like the special education kids, the English language learners, kids of color, and kids from lower social and economic status, were chronically absent. This caused them to fall even farther behind.
During the pandemic, fewer students attended pre-k. And there has been a massive increase in social-emotional issues. Sadly, public education enrollment has dropped. Simultaneously, there has been a rise in private schools and homeschooling across the country, causing a mini-brain drain from our public schools.
Furthermore, there is no agreement in the country on how to improve public and special education so we can strengthen our public schools for our children and their families. One just has to look at our Congress’s inability to reauthorization the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. (IDEA). That reauthorization is way overdue. This country is so partisan that there is no appetite for trying to update IDEA to our present-day needs. We need strong future leaders. And we need great preparation programs to build these leaders.
According to longitudinal studies, the learning loss among our students in 2020 alone has cut our students’ life-long earning potential by three percent. This loss leads to a gross domestic product loss of 1.5% for the United States. The world that is becoming flatter, according to Thomas Friedman, in his best-selling book, The World is Flat. Thanks to the internet, our students and our county now compete with all students and countries worldwide. This loss in our student learning and the gross domestic product is bad news for the United States.
Academic achievement gaps do matter. There are real-world consequences with a life-long impact on our public education and general and special education students. And we still don’t know what to do about discipline or the chronic absenteeism plaguing our public schools and burning out good teachers.
Since we can’t seem to start at the root of the problem, our default mode for dealing with these public education problems is to just refer the troubled students to special education. Put the students over ‘there’ and let those special education teachers deal with them.
Again, public school enrollment is down, and special education referrals are up. That’s not a good balance in education. I suggest that all future teachers be dual certified like I am. I am certified to teach special education and social studies. Being dual certified has helped me survive tough times as an inner-city school teacher, and better serve my students.
However, many colleges are down 40% enrollment for their teacher prep programs. Not only will it be tough to get qualified teachers who will be dual certified, but it will be difficult to get any teachers. Last school year, 44% of the country’s schools reported vacancies in their teaching positions. And that’s with some schools putting adult bodies in those rooms that did not have teaching certifications.
Now, assume that almost half of the teaching force in the classrooms are considering leaving. This is a crisis. It’s a pandemic. And no one seems to be recognizing this disaster we’re headed toward. The grey tsunami and a monster-size exodus of younger educators are headed right toward us. The political divisiveness has only added to the probability of our country doing nothing about this crisis. Sadly, the winning political position right now is to bash public schools, which seems to be giving candidates votes and putting them into political office. It’s a terrible strategy for the health of our country. Still, it seems to give people political jobs they probably don’t deserve and aren’t qualified for.
Now, throw in this brain-drain at the U.S. Department of Education, the state departments of education, and the public schools. We have a real problem in this country. However, there is also an opportunity here for young, ambitious educators who view things differently and are willing to try different things in education. There could be a silver lining in this cloud.
There are solutions. There are always solutions, right? The present-day reality isn’t good. But some opportunities and solutions will likely come from the field and not some far-off researcher. There is no political will from the top down to change our system. It seems like there are people up top who want the system to implode so they can put their own agenda in place and profit from it.
We can’t let this implosion happen and give those people access to our public education money. We have to have a grassroots movement in public education. We need a movement from the educators who are in the trenches every. We need these educators to create a better model that serves all our students’ needs despite some of the elite trying to sabotage public education. This is our modern-day civil rights fight. Our country’s school system wasn’t designed initially with the winner take all mentality that is being shoved down our throats today. We have to remember that a rising tide raises all boats. We are better when we are all united, and we all have opportunities and a good fit for our unique abilities. Equality and equity are not four-letter words.
Sadly, though, politics has become very tricky in public education. And suppose educators and education leaders are not familiar with those politics. In that case, they could unknowingly walk into a political buzzsaw that will end their education career. And if these educators are no longer in the trenches, they can no longer fight for our students.
And what about masks? This country is still wrestling with this very divisive issue instead of bettering educational opportunities for all students. What if a kid needs to wear a mask, but a teacher doesn’t wear a mask? What happens in this situation with that student’s lawfully guaranteed Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)?
Now, consider the headaches that bathroom and transgender issues are causing. Look at the culture wars that are now rearing their ugly heads in our schools and trying to take the place of a good education. Schools used to be a safe place that was away from culture wars. But not anymore. Schools have become very political. Equity has become a dirty word. It has even been stricken off Virginia’s education website and many other states. Can you believe people think that social and emotional learning and inclusion are indoctrinating our students and shouldn’t be happening? And let’s not even go down the road of school mascots and names. Everything has been turned upside down in the education world. Some laws have even passed that encourage teachers to turn in other teachers if they are talking about things like equity and inclusion. Teachers are being fined, arrested, and losing their jobs for taking a trauma-based approach to teaching and meeting all kids where they are mentally, emotionally, and culturally. Doesn’t punishing teachers for trying to include all students equally go against the 14th Amendment of the Constitution that guarantees protection by the laws for everyone against discrimination?
During the pandemic, families saw what the present-day curriculum looks like via zoom, and some parents didn’t like it. Some parents hated the new math. Many parents complained about what was being taught in the schools, especially in history class. Our history can be very controversial. Anytime a state tries to bring new social studies standards or frameworks out, there is practically a blood bath. And I know this to be a fact because I was part of one of those teams that worked on the Connecticut Social Studies Frameworks.
Some people believe schools are pushing kids to the left on the political spectrum. And some parents are fighting back. Some of these parents are pushing for cameras in the classrooms. They are willing to fistfight over their beliefs in the boards of education meetings. Many lawmakers are pushing for a parent bill of rights to give them more control of their local public schools, pushing aside the trained experts in those schools.
Even though virtual education bombed during the pandemic, it’s still the way of the future. During the pandemic, schools didn’t have the infrastructure, people weren’t trained, and accessibility wasn’t entirely there for all students. There is a real art to virtual education that public schools haven’t learned yet. But, someday will…
In today’s workforce, a lot of training is done online. Virtual education is a four-letter word right now for schools, but it will fight its way back to becoming the way of the future. Heck, John said he just did his annual first aid training virtually. How does one do the Heimlich maneuver virtually? I don’t know. But regardless, schools need to prepare for the next pandemic and begin learning best practices for virtual teaching.
Sadly, almost none of our present-day educator workforce has training on the abovementioned issues. Furthermore, as a special education and history teacher, I often wonder how we tackle these politicized public education challenges without killing each other and ending up in another civil war.
We need to address the mental health issues in this country right away. We have vast swaths of kids emotionally and mentally still reeling from the pandemic. Some of them had close family members who died. Some hadn’t been inside a school building in two years. This is causing significant mental health issues. Hospital enrollment for mental health issues is 40% higher than before the pandemic. Sadly, the mental health system is funded even less than schools. There are not enough beds or providers to service our special education kids, let alone the general population. And this mental health crisis is just as bad for the educators. They have been under more stress than ever and are emotionally and mentally breaking. They are worn out, and they have to face more trauma and violence in their schools every day. And to think, they are the ones who are trying to hold it all together for everyone else…
What is going to happen to public education? And what will our special education students do? Thankfully, some teachers will bend beyond belief without breaking and go to the end of the world for their students… So there is always hope…