Despite what the critics say, public education is working. National media report that the U.S. educational system is broken and failing at promoting academic and social achievement of America's children.
How do we measure "working"? Are all kindergarten through grade 12 students meeting the criteria for yearly progress?
Are school behavior problems minor and easily corrected?
Sarah Jane DeHaas
Are recent high school graduates entering emerging adulthood prepared for career options that lead to financial independence? Will our graduates become good citizens?
First and foremost, public education is just that - public. All teachers understand the challenges associated with educating students representing various socioeconomic groups, ability levels and personal experiences.
Just as influential, students are products of a myriad of parenting styles and expectations, and clearly, influenced by their parents' attitudes toward education.
School administrators and teachers have no control whatsoever over these factors. Creating and implementing a school curriculum as effectively and efficiently as possible, while managing and adapting to these challenges, is the primary objective of public education.
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit three Altoona schools, Baker Elementary, Wright Elementary and Altoona Area Junior High.
As a teacher-educator, I am interested in observing the changes in teaching and public education, in general.
Altoona schools have a diverse student population, and its educators use innovative teaching models and methods, making this a prime district to visit.
As I walked through Baker Elementary, Principal Patrick Labriola greeted students by their first names and asked how they were doing. A schoolwide welcome via the public-address system and a reminder to the students to do their best kicked the day off to a good start. Positive school climate is essential to effective learning.
I observed a first-grade teacher and a special-education colleague co-teaching a class that included several children with disabilities. One student is learning English as his second language.
The teachers collaboratively taught to individual student needs and monitored progress daily, intervening as necessary to keep literacy skills on track.
At the Altoona Area Junior High, I observed a math teacher with a special education colleague co-teaching a class of 20 adolescents who are either at-risk for learning problems or identified as having a disability.
Together, the teachers engaged the students in a challenging lesson that required collaboration and problem solving in small groups. They guided the students with encouragement and provided positive feedback.
I was fortunate to meet with a group of 15 teachers and learn about their daily experiences. Despite typical challenges, their daily positive interactions with students reinforce their decision to be educators. They have the best intentions for their students.
Several of the teachers started their careers when teachers had more flexibility in what and how they taught. They have adjusted to state standards guiding what content and skills will be addressed in their lessons.
For most of us, our experience in public education was fairly simple. State and federal government mandates and oversight were minimal.
Each year teachers are required to complete more documentation on students. Teaching is just one of many daily tasks.
District administrators now have considerable external demands and responsibilities as fiscal support decreases each year.
Altoona's school district has an $89.2 million budget to run schools, develop and maintain extracurricular programs, maintain adequate transportation and a host of other responsibilities.
As with any social institution, public education has challenges and the "cause" of challenges is never one single factor to be identified and changed.
Public education will never be perfect. And it will never be totally flawed. In Altoona, public education is working.
Education administrators from Superintendent Dennis Murray to school principals make the best plan based on what they are given, the "public resources" afforded to them. And teachers carry out the plan. They keep on marching.
Sarah Jane DeHaas is Brumbaugh professor of education at Juniata College.