So, what's the biggest threat to public schools today? Teachers - at least public school teachers. There are two reasons why this is true. The first is the increasing polarization of public school teachers. The second is their institutional incompetence.
A tenth grade teacher named Jay Bennish recently made the news after a student recorded a long rant Bennish made in class. Bennish not only compared Bush to Hitler, he rejected capitalism, insisted that the US is the most violent nation on earth and called for air strikes against tobacco growers. Interviews about his teaching style indicate that Bennish politicized everything. One example given was that, for the history of Japan, he had the class study WWII Japanese/American interment. The syllabus for his history class gives the primary goal of the class is to teach critical teaching. This relates to my second point and I will get back to it later.
Bennish is not alone. Teachers make up a big block of the Democratic Party. A quarter of the delegates to the 2004 national convention were teachers and teachers' unions have been major contributors to Democrats for decades. As schools become more polarized to the left, parents are perusing other options. At the same time that schools moved to the left, other alternatives have sprung up. The result is that, in many areas, most children get their education somewhere besides public schools.
An other factor here is competence. Too often, teachers insist that their job is not to teach specific subject but to teach "critical thinking" or to "instill a life-long love of learning". This is the culmination of decades of education theory. The problem is that these theories do not work. In some cases, they have been proven wrong but they are still used. An example of this is arithmetic. Studies have shown that the best way to learn to do simple math is through repetition but this is boring so teachers no longer require it.
This attitude is found in other subjects. Reading has somehow become a religious war (really). The method of reading being taught has students looking at the shape of the word, the first couple of characters, and the context. In the early grades, any word that fits these parameters is considered correct. Any form of reading that includes sounding out words (phonics) is associated with Christian fundamentalists and avoided.
Students are encouraged to find their own "best way" of doing arithmetic. For multi-column addition, this involves estimating the result working from the left then adjusting from the right. If this fails... well, everyone carries a calculator, anyway.
Is it any wonder that most colleges spend the first year teaching remedial courses?
Often teachers no longer regard the subject of the class as its primary goal. Jay Bennish gave "critical thinking" as the main goal of a history class.
My own experience matches this. My daughter had considerable trouble passing one teacher's classes. A big factor in this was the assignment to write down information from the board every Monday and have the parent sign it by Tuesday's class. This is something that my ADD daughter could not possibly do but it was worth more of her grade than a major test. This assignment along lowered my daughter's grade by one or two letters. I asked the teacher how she justified something that had nothing to do with the subject (history) having such an effect on the student's grade. Her answer was that it helped prepare the students for responsibility after school. Not long after that my daughter transferred to a charter school where post-graduate responsibility was handled through internships, not history class.
So we have teachers who indoctrinate rather than teach and use ineffective methods when they do teach. No wonder so many parents opt for alternatives to public education and no wonder so many alternatives exist. There is a nationwide group of charter schools that do nothing but try to salvage at-risk students.
The more students who leave the school system, the fewer votes for funding for the public schools. This becomes a cycle that will soon threaten public education. At some point the public will have to decide if it wants to fund huge school districts or to simply give grants of money to parents and let them choose their children's education.
I am not sure that this is a good thing. I support being able to shop around for a teaching style that works for your individual child. I had to do this with my daughter. I am much more apprehensive about people shopping for content.
Education professionals dismiss home schooling, private schools, and school vouchers as a way for parents to teach creationism instead of science to their children. I will admit that there is a bit of truth to this and it worries me that some students are being taught religion as science. The ruse of Moslem schools is similarly troubling.
On the other hand, I have no idea how wide-spread this really is. Education professionals make it seem universal but my own experiences (private and charter school for our daughter, home-schooling for various nephews) was all about failures of public education. Religion was never an issue.
What would be best would be a public education system that actually worked but the teachers will never go for that.