General Assessment: As the values of the American people change, attitudes toward formal education change. During the twenty-first century, those changes occurred on a near-volatile scale in the face of exploding technology, rampant political activism, and specialization in all intellectual fields.
America's educational system has always done a better job training individuals for their future lives than it has finding ways to improve itself for the betterment of future generations. Prideful about being on the leading edge of ideas and technology, American educators often have had to backtrack after installing innovations such as consolidated schools, and they sometimes have fallen short of other goals such as making all students Internet savvy, due to the interference of citizen groups and legislators.
American educators always have known that the future ahead of their students is uncertain, but only since the late twentieth century have educators needed to instruct students who see social changes and the need to accumulate new knowledge occurring at warp speed even before they graduate. And never before have mere secondary school students grasped technology better than some of their own teachers.
Ethical issues such as those associated with genetic engineering cannot wait until college to be discussed. Yet often such discussions never are held. Teachers find themselves symbolically transported to 1925, enmeshed in textbook battles with religious groups over the dogeared issue of evolution versus creationism.
One critic of education, E.D. Hirsch, Jr., blames the proliferation of thousands upon thousands of school districts for giving students a very narrow, locally biased body of information, resulting in what he calls a shrinking of national literacy. Author John I. Goodlad observes that too few teachers individualize instruction, promote inductive reasoning, and encourage frequent discussion. Other critics blame schools that put equal emphasis on all subjects or popular studies rather than emphasize areas that build critical thinking and a solid foundation for an ongoing, lifetime acquisition of knowledge.
Student Populations—Trends: Schools, too, are overburdened with the problems of slow learners, the disadvantaged, and non-English speakers—and even with gun-toting deviants who have shattered the image of schools as safe havens in an unsafe society. Yet, the alternative—to abandon these and educate America's best and brightest only—seems not only Un-American, but foolish, since all must somehow forge a life together for the good of the common American community.
In the twenty-first century, the face of the American community can be expected to change dramatically. As discussed earlier, Census reports demonstrate significant increases in Asian and Hispanic populations, which are predicted to continue. By 2040, Caucasian students will make up less than half the population of U.S. schools. By contrast, in 1950, white students made up 85 percent of the population of U.S. schools.
Populations of people who indicate their heritage as African-American, Asian, and Hispanic continue a trend of finding homes in the suburbs, according to the Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative and Urban and Regional Research. Data released by the government for 145 metropolitan areas in March 2001 shows that many of the traditional large cities of the East Coast and the Midwest, such as New York and Chicago, continue trends of segregation in living areas, maintaining whole blocks as white or black in makeup. Such conditions result in schools that are predominantly made up of minority members, thereby making them segregated for all intents and purposes. That trend does not hold consistently across the country, as Las Vegas, for example, shows a tendency for neighborhoods to be more diverse.
Clearly, the attempt to make schools more effective must address this diversity. To that end, schools have instituted a wide array of cultural opportunities, including bilingual education, Head Start programs, Upward Bound programs, court-ordered busing, and so forth. Considerable federal support has earmarked programs to improve education, and dozens of reports and books have recommended upgrades in the quality of elementary and secondary schools. During the twenty-first century, many more recommendations can be expected to address the difficulties associated with the growing number of children who have social barriers to overcome, in addition to the learning challenges faced by students who live in homes where English is not the primary language.
In spite of well-meaning federal programs to help the poor lose their disadvantaged status, poverty-level children continue to score poorly in mathematics and science achievement tests. Critics of the Pell grants and aid to disadvantaged students say that the spiraling costs of tuition and living expenses associated with college have made it harder, not easier, for disadvantaged children to gain an education. In 2001, much discussion has occurred by members of the Congress to find ways for disadvantaged students to remain in college and to obtain their degrees, not merely to enter college and leave after one or more semesters.
Technology in Education: Many critics point to a failure of principals, school superintendents, and school boards to keep fully abreast of sweeping advances in technology instruction and the use of computers in schools. Thus while those in authority have little trouble seeing that science teachers, for example, must stay current in their fields, many have difficulty perceiving that competency in the use of technology requires similar perseverance and dedication. This requires not only the purchase of computers, but also constant updating of software, instruction, and support for teachers, and the availability of trained support staff. The ongoing process of instructional technology can frustrate principals, some senior faculty, and even younger faculty less skilled with computers. There may even be a tendency for such persons to downplay the need for technology or to denigrate those who grasp such skills seemingly effortlessly as "computer nerds." In turn, those in the vanguard of computer advances may deride those less willing to change as "technophobes."
As the gap between those comfortable with technology and those ill at ease widens, animosity between such parties may result. Those skilled in technology may lament that their school is "falling behind," while traditionalists may complain, "the basics are being ignored." Those skilled in technology may despair if computers are three or more years old, insufficient in network bandwidth, or even lacking the power to run the latest software upgrades. Unskilled administrators may consider their schools "wired" simply by having computers of any age and make on every desk in technology labs.
The fact that there is some truth to both positions may make resolution difficult, but team-building experts say it can be done if both camps can agree upon a shared vision for technology in education. The Milken Family Foundation contends that a basic change in educational philosophy and teacher-administrator mindset must occur in classrooms along with the addition of technology.
While schools have benefited from the donation of computers from benefactors and parent-teacher associations, institutions need to partake fully in teacher training available free or at low cost from such industry sources as Intel, the Bill Gates Foundation, Microsoft, Apple, and other foundations. Educational institutions at all levels can find generous funding from the Department of Education and other federal sources, some discretionary funding at the state government level, and foundations such as the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Paul G. Allen Virtual Education Foundation, and the AT&T Foundation Educational Programs, among others. In addition, a small number of schools have found creative ways to approach corporations in the community to suggest the donation of computers for educational purposes.
Political Trends: Public education is frequently part of a politician's platform, whether it is a lower-echelon candidate on the local level or a presidential candidate. The administration of George W. Bush announced in 2001 that educational reform was a major administration priority. The major premise behind Bush's push for reform is his position that too many children fall through the cracks and fail to obtain a high school diploma, with at least some of the blame attributable to school systems that he sees failing to measure up to first-rate standards. The Bush Administration's slogan for school reform is "No child left behind." The administration promotes a policy agenda that would hold accountable state and school officials who fail to fix sub-par institutions, with the possibility that such institutions could be taken over by the state.
The three areas most in need of improvement, as targeted by President Bush, are mathematics, reading, and science, the three areas where elementary and secondary students test below average when compared to their peers in other developed nations. In spite of a nationwide focus on educational improvements, gains in test scores have been negligible, according to Bush. Most dramatically, 68 percent of fourth-graders in poverty-area schools failed to pass the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading exam, leading the Bush Administration to recommend a back-to-basics emphasis on phonics in the primary grades. In math, science, and physics, American high school seniors performed near the bottom of a comparison chart ranking 21 countries, including last in physics. Literacy, math, and reading achievement scores of minority Hispanic and African-American students in high schools lagged significantly behind Caucasian student counterparts.
High up on the list of Bush priorities for the future were frequent testing and so-called "vouchers," a Republican-backed proposal that would allow parents to take their children out of schools where children test poorly, allowing them a set amount toward tuition at another public or private school. The National Education Association has strongly voiced opposition to vouchers as a solution. The NEA has also criticized a suggestion by some Republican leaders that teachers of mathematics and science be compensated with higher salaries than those of their peers in other disciplines.
Conclusion: Ahead of America and its educational system are change; discord; international networking; and the establishment, merger, and failure of schools ranging from elementary to university. Distance education may one day appeal to enough students so that traditional dormitories and student life may cease to exist. Without question, the Internet and Web-based programs someday will be integrated into every classroom, but whether that will actually improve the quality of instruction is any critic's guess. In an age when the new and technologically "spiffy" is revered, will there still be students who will embrace the classics and classical liberal arts learning?
In the future, Americans will be even more a blending of many cultures and races. And the entire world must worry, not only about education, but also about whether it can solve the energy crises and imminent global warming disasters. Addressing these issues will take an educated citizenry, capable of problem solving, creativity, and the display of strong character. Increasingly, learning and applying that knowledge in creative, revolutionary ways will become our best option for survival.
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