What’s Wrong with Our Schools and What Can We Do About It?

By Paul F. CumminsJanuary 20, 2019

What’s Wrong with Our Schools and What Can We Do About It?
I. Introduction

AMERICAN SCHOOLS COULD become everything that all parents want for their children: enlightened places that reliably challenge students to become their best selves and thus eventually to develop into productive citizens. Unfortunately, this is not the reality that now exists. We — citizens, parents, educators, and students — know that the actual state of things is otherwise; far too many schools range from the mediocre to the sordid. Why aren’t things better? Because we don’t care? Because we don’t know better, or even realize what is wrong? Because our priorities are out of order? Because we lack leaders with vision and the courage to lead us where we would all want to go if only someone would show the way?

All of the above, I would claim. The problems are interrelated. We don’t care because we don’t know better and because our leaders present us with wrong, unenlightened, or shortsighted solutions to major problems. Too often, schools are blamed for society’s messes, and solutions are then sought, wrong-headedly, in the schools themselves rather than at the societal level where the mess originated. As Albert Einstein famously wrote: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Society and education are so intermeshed that it is impossible to talk of issues or problems in one area without discussing the other. In California, for example, many public schools are seriously underfunded and overcrowded. Yet these conditions have been imposed on the schools by elections in which voters have hollowed out the tax base for education and welfare spending, or have voted down proposed school bonds. Another important factor, of course, is changing immigration and demographic patterns. Gangs on campuses have their origins in multinational profiteering in the drug trade, and gangs flourish partly because of the disintegration of the family and the entertainment media’s incessant glorification of violence.

Also, because of budget cutting and consequent underfunding, a host of interesting activities that engage students and make them eager to come to school have been removed from the curriculum, leaving a generation of angry, disengaged, and alienated young people who are being forced to go to school rather than attending willingly. Where then do we assign blame?

The answer is certainly not just in the schools. The enemy is us: any citizen who has passively watched the deterioration of American society and its schools, anyone who has voted from narrow self-interest rather than to promote the common good. A host of educational reform movements are underway across the country, and some good should come from these efforts. But until we get a lot smarter and resolve to make sacrifices, act boldly, and confront each crisis directly and forcefully, we will achieve less than we can — or should. And so, our steady national decline (educational, economic, cultural, and moral) will continue unabated.

Quite simply, we as a nation are neglecting/abusing our children. We may not be the first generation of adults to do so, but we have the poorest excuse in history. For us, it need not be this way. As Jonathan Kozol wrote in his classic 1991 book Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools:

Standing here by the Ohio River, watching it drift west into the edge of the horizon, picturing it as it flows onward to the place three hundred miles from here where it will pour into the Mississippi, one is struck by the sheer beauty of this country, of its goodness and unrealized goodness, of the limitless potential that it holds to render life rewarding and the spirit clean. Surely there is enough for everyone within this country. It is a tragedy that these good things are not more widely shared. All our children ought to be allowed a stake in the enormous richness of America. Whether they were born to poor white Appalachians or to wealthy Texans, to poor black people in the Bronx or to rich people in Manhasset or Winnetka, they are all quite wonderful and innocent when they are small. We soil them needlessly.

The deplorable conditions in American schools could be radically and rapidly improved, had we the will to do so. We have the wealth, the knowledge, and the capacity to bring about immediate change. What are the problems? What could we do to solve them? What social, cultural, and moral commitments would we as a nation need to make to effect change?

This essay is definitely not intended to be yet another prophecy of doom. It is, instead, a call to action and a list of some simple yet crucial steps by which we could restore (in some cases) or revise (in others) programs and policies that serve children and young people. In 1961, the United States decided to land a man on the Moon. Eight years later, this remarkable feat was accomplished. Between 1969 and 1972, six American expeditions landed on the moon and 12 men walked on its surface. If we as a nation could carry out this astonishing accomplishment, surely we can find the resolve to overhaul and improve our schools.

II. Reform of Public Education: Issues and Needs

It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times.

— Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

To be sure, there are first-rate schools sprinkled across the United States. Yes, there are students who are brilliant, well educated, and happily engaged in their studies. And, yes, there are schools that offer state-of-the-art technology and well-designed arts and environmental studies programs.

Yes. But sadly, such positives are limited to the few and — all too often — to the very, very well-to-do schools that serve extremely fortunate pupils. Inner-city schools, low-income rural schools, border schools, schools with overcrowded classrooms and low budgets, and schools that are impossibly diverse (as in 30 to 40 languages spoken) — these schools simply do not have the resources to offer a high-quality, comprehensive, and engaging education to their students.

So before we look at what we should be offering, I will set forth what our inadequate, state-by-state, low per-pupil funding does not allow for. In our underfunded schools we do not get: 

  • Small classes: 20 or fewer students per class in K–12.

  • Reasonable loads for teachers (five classes per day of 30 to 40 students each is not reasonable; in fact, it is deplorable).

  • An enriched curriculum:

    • Music (instrumental lessons and ensembles: jazz, classical, folk);

    • Dance (classical ballet, jazz, modern, hip-hop, ballroom);

    • Science (often not even offered);

    • Theater (classes in improv, acting and directing, technical theater, productions, plays);

    • Human development classes (yoga, meditation, small groups led by trained facilitators in which students can discuss their “life issues”);

    • Physical education (physical fitness, nutrition, lifetime athletics);

    • Visual arts (painting, photography, filmmaking, sculpture, ceramics);

    • Environmental-education classes and field trips (no funds for overnight trips, no visits to beaches and forests).

  • Functioning libraries with trained librarians, offering both in-school and after-school programs.

  • Money for paperback novels, or collections of poetry and plays, which enable students to build home libraries and in so doing gain respect for books and the life of the mind.

This list is just a starting point to show how low per-pupil spending impoverishes low-income neighborhood schools and their students. (Note that the above list enumerates what privileged neighborhoods and private schools routinely do provide their students.)

So just what do I mean by lack of funding? Here is a simple example:

School District or Entity                                           Per-pupil Funding

Private schools (Los Angeles)                                    $40,000+

New York                                                                   $22,366

California: Los Angeles Unified School District       $11,000–$16,000

Idaho                                                                           $7,157

Utah                                                                            $6,953

Arizona                                                                       $7,613

Also, before we look more deeply into funding, I suggest we examine a few significant concepts that at present cloud our vision when we think about education:

  • Averaging — i.e., ignoring individuals’ needs and capacities. (According to Todd Rose in The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness [2015], “No one is average,” and measurements seeking to set an average “always erase the individuality of the person being judged.”)

  • Standardization — a word that should be relegated to the trashcan.

  • Testing — we don’t need to categorize and rank students; we need to inspire and engage them.

  • “Measurables” — these are thought to be everything. But, as the Little Prince claimed, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

  • STEM — thought to be the “magic bullet.” Yes, science, technology, engineering, and math are important, but not to the diminution or neglect of the humanities, foreign languages, and the arts.

  • A national trend toward anti-intellectualism. We need to reread Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 classic on the subject, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, and fight back against what John Taylor Gatto calls “dumbing us down.”

The nation’s education establishment is replete with those who (though they would probably deplore anti-intellectualism) are firmly committed to concepts like “average,” “standardization,” “testing,” “measurables,” and “STEM,” which are believed to be the mental tools that school personnel should use to respond to — and cope with — chronic underfunding (i.e., to double down firmly on “basics,” “rigor,” or activities informed by similar convenient harsh-sounding bywords).

There is one crippling drawback to this regrettable set of “rigorous” concepts: they manage to completely erase the sense of joy in learning that should be every student’s basic right.

Another way we might look at the issue of what should constitute a proper education is to use the notion of nourishment. In this context, “nourishment” signifies “to imbue with meaning”: giving students the inward sustenance that is capable of incubating in them a desire to engage joyfully in their education rather than merely enduring it (or, in the worst cases, abandoning it in despair).

So, if inadequate funding and misguided concepts drag us down, then let’s change; let’s recognize that these two critical issues are related. We can’t change if we are unwilling to fund improvements, and our inadequate concepts and the consequent lack of appropriately diverse curricula prevent us from seeing and treating our students individually — even humanely.

III. The Five Other Solids

A democratic society makes choices,
and those choices will reflect what its
people truly value.

— William Greider

For years as an educator I have heard talk, over and over, of the five solids: English, history, math, science, and foreign languages — the unquestioned foundations upon which all middle- and high-school curricula should be built. Anything else is accorded the diminished status of “extra”-curricular or “after school.” It might even be called a luxury, or “frill,” or allowed to be a club, but it is certainly nothing that can’t be jettisoned if it — whatever “it” is — doesn’t fit within the budget.

Consequently, these “others” are the first to go when budget trimming is needed. Often, they are simply not budgeted for at all. The problem is that these “others” should be the essence of education in a school; they are crucial to engaging students and providing them with a sense of meaning. They are the life’s blood of schools, and their removal or absence diminishes the whole enterprise. I believe that to deny any child any or all five of these “solids” not only provides a less than adequate education but also — and even worse — runs the risk of doing harm to the child.

What I call the “five other solids” are: 1) the arts, 2) human development, 3) community service, 4) physical education, and 5) environmental/outdoor awareness. Each of these five areas engages students; each is experiential, hands-on; each involves communal and cooperative learning; each allows students to discover aspects of their own personalities, talents, and inclinations — often leading to career paths — in ways different from and not available to the “five academic solids.”

Of course, calling one set of five solids “academics” and labeling another five as “the other” is itself misleading; it implies a greater substance to the former, and further implies that the latter are not academically challenging. In actuality, each of the “other” five can be as academically demanding as English-history-math-science-foreign language. The point is that the other five solids have a profoundly trans-academic, experiential, active, and cooperative character unique to themselves, and it is these qualities that engage students. What we really need to do is to define the curriculum as having 10 solids — or, even more appropriately, 10 interdependent solids.

Without engagement, there can be no real learning. Without engagement, students may tune out, drop out, or drop in to all sorts of self-destructive and socially harmful behavior. The five other solids — not surprisingly — engage students because they share a common ingredient: by their very nature, all five of them engage students in action.

  • The arts: students paint, sculpt, dance, act, play, and perform.

  • Human development: students engage in vision quests, retreats, drug- and sex-education workshops, leadership training, and “councils” (small group circles led by trained facilitators in which students discuss their “life issues”).

  • Community service: students work in day-care homes, senior homes, teen lines, HeadStart centers, and the like.

  • Physical education: students are engaged not just in sports but also in yoga, fitness, weight-training programs, et cetera.

  • Environmental awareness: students plant trees, clean up beaches, hike, and sleep under the stars.

Each of these activities can instantly capture the attention of students. Of course, all five require competent, well-trained teachers to be truly successful, but the same is true of teaching in general. Once students have participated in any or all of the above five, they may wake up to life in general, and many will even improve in their “academic” classes. The widespread failures and drop-outs we see in public schools across the country are simply the hordes of students who are currently sleepwalking through their lives. But put them in a play or on a mural project, take them hiking in a redwood forest, place them in a teacher-assistant role at a HeadStart center, and they wake up. They feel that they are doing something meaningful; they experience (often for the first time) a degree of success and achievement. Often these feelings spill over into the rest of their lives. Teachers look at them differently. They look at themselves differently.

Yet no matter how often various educators and citizens come to realize these truths, whenever there is a budget crunch — which nowadays is almost a constant state — it is the “five other solids” that are curtailed or deleted altogether. This is totally counterproductive, yet we do it anyway and, of course, students continue sleepwalking, dropping out, and turning off to life. It is nothing short of tragic.

IV. The Elephant in the Room: Funding 

There must be a passion to end poverty,
for nothing less than that will do.

— Michael Harrington

Yes, the “F” word — the arena that most educational reform studies, monographs, books, conferences, et al., shy away from or even completely ignore: the funding needed for reform. Yet while we ignore “the elephant,” the rich continue to get richer, the poor sink into a morass they can’t extricate themselves from, the middle class barely hangs on, and education — supposedly the great equalizer — founders. Schools in inner-city, urban, and poor rural neighborhoods suffer great deprivations while public and private schools that serve mainly the affluent flourish. Is this just a coincidence, or is it the result of institutionalized and unexamined classism? Whatever it is, it is not benign. A country that prides itself on its morality, equality, and sense of fairness is clearly moving in a contradictory direction: toward aristocracy and oligarchy.

When the economic playing field is dramatically uneven to begin with — and becoming more and more so by the day — education is the only way of leveling the field for poor and low-income students. But when the education they are offered is itself inequitable, then the game is virtually over before it has begun. This is not how a democracy is supposed to function, nor can a democracy so survive.

In the June 2018 issue of The Atlantic, Matthew Stewart provides a brilliant and accurate account of the current social divide and the extraordinary growth of an American aristocracy. We now have three economic groups: 1) the top 0.1 percent, 2) the next 9.9 percent, and 3) the other 90 percent, who for the most part die where they are born, with very little upward mobility. As Ben Funnell wrote in The Financial Times in 2009, “The Walton family of Walmart fame is wealthier than the bottom third of the U.S. population.” If you are born middle class or poor, you stay middle class or poor. It is now clear that the disparity of wealth in the United States is not only bizarre but also counterproductive to economic growth and to preserving any trace of democracy.

What then would be fair, equitable, and simply decent? It would be to provide every child and young person in America with the same high-quality education that the rich routinely provide for their children. Elite private schools in California spend about $40,000 per pupil per year. This is what funds the “five other solids,” among other benefits. So why not allocate $40,000 for every child in the United States’s public schools, K–12. Why are we willing to watch some children receive a superior education while allowing poorer children devastatingly less? Shame on us.

What would quality for all cost us? Currently there are approximately 77.2 million K–12 students in America. According to the Department of Education, we spend about $13,119 per student per year. Obviously, to bring that up to $40,000 per student would be a huge increase — an increase from rampant mediocrity to quality. Instead of talk-talk-talking about reform, here’s a novel idea: let’s fund it! As expensive as that would be, the results would be dramatic.

Finally, where would the money to provide real quality come from? That’s the easy part; the difficult part is to inspire and unite our populace to make this a priority. Then we could readily find the funds. For example:

  • Reduce, monitor, abolish tax havens

  • Restore a reasonable (no evasions) progressive income tax

  • Restore reasonable corporate taxes

  • Cut the defense budget substantially

  • Cut “corporate welfare” (i.e., subsidies)

  • Require foreign multinational corporations to pay US taxes

  • Impose a “wealth tax”

  • Hire more IRS investigators to reduce tax cheating

  • Impose eco-taxes (e.g., carbon-based pricing)

  • Reform CEO pay

  • Bring inheritance taxes back to a sane level

And this is just a sample of where funds could come from by reallocating our tax priorities. Of course, such solutions would impinge upon the super-wealthy and their Congressional “employees.” Change will come only when a majority of voters demand it.

At present we do not tax ourselves excessively, not even reasonably. As we routinely complain that we lack the funds to rebuild our inner cities, provide housing and health care for all our citizens, and give every child a superb education, the disconnect is easy to see. We do have resources and revenue possibilities; we simply need the courage to harvest the funds available.

V. Conclusion 

The eyes of the future are looking back at us
and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time.

— Terry Tempest Williams

Not all of our educational problems can be solved by an infusion of money; very few, however, can be solved without increased dollars. Very few genuine and substantial improvements — as outlined above — can be implemented without proper funding. Class-size reduction requires more teachers. Recruiting more high-quality teachers requires increased revenue. Expanding and enriching the curriculum: same issue.

I have suggested just a few taxation reforms that, however dramatic, we could easily afford (though they would not be so easily implemented politically). Still, the funds are there; it is our priorities that need recasting.

Furthermore, we need some truly creative, bipartisan, idealistic yet practical new thinking. Other countries (e.g., Finland) have done this, why not the USA? We need to seek a new trinity for educational support: it must be 1) national, 2) fair, and 3) secure for the long term. National so that every child receives quality; fair because down deep that is who we are as a nation; and secure so that our reforms are constant and sustainable.

Where, then, might we look for such new ideas? Here is one suggestion: let’s begin with the goal of $40,000 per pupil per year, then commission various foundations, bipartisan Congressional committees, unions, corporate leaders, and think-tank scholars to accept this funding goal as a God-given mandate that must be achieved. Then let’s see where this joint attempt at problem solving would lead. Sometimes just stepping “out of the box” can lead to new solutions. Such a project must combine the efforts of conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, CEOs and union leaders, and so on. We must get back to being a nation that cares for and brilliantly educates all of its children.


A Brief Bibliography

Atkinson, Anthony B. Inequality: What Can Be Done? Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Catterall, James S. The Creativity Playbook: A Guide to Our Creativity Debates. Los Angeles: I-Group Books, 2015.

Chomsky, Noam. Requiem for the American Dream. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2017.

Cummins, Paul F. Confessions of a Headmaster. Los Angeles: Red Hen Press, 2015.

_____. Proceed with Passion: Engaging Students in Meaningful Education. Los Angeles: Red Hen Press, 2004.

_____. Two Americas, Two Educations: Funding Quality Schools for All Students. Los Angeles: Red Hen Press, 2006.

Dintersmith, Ted. What School Could Be: Insights and Inspiration from Teachers Across America. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2018.

Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. New York: Bantam Books, 1995.

Harrington, Michael. The Other America: Poverty in the United States. New York: Penguin Books, 1962.

Hedges, Chris. War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. New York: Anchor Books, 2003.

Hoftstadter, Richard. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963.

Koretz, Daniel. The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Jacoby, Susan. The Age of American Unreason. New York: Pantheon Books, 2008.

Lane, Diane Luby. Get Lit Rising: Words Ignite. Claim Your Poem. Claim Your Life. Hillsboro, Oregon: Beyond Words, 2016.

Reid-Henry, Simon. The Political Origins of Inequality: Why a More Equal World Is Better for All of Us. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Rose, Todd. The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness. New York: HarperOne, 2016.

Russakoff, Dale. The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2015.

Stewart, Matthew. Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. New York: W. W. Norton, 2014.

Tyler, George R. What Went Wrong: How the 1% Hijacked the American Middle Class and What Other Countries Got Right. Dallas, Texas: Benbella Books, 2013.


Paul F. Cummins was, until recently, the executive director of the New Visions Foundation in Los Angeles. He has been the primary founder of many innovative charter schools in Los Angeles, including the renowned Crossroads School in Santa Monica, where he was also the longtime headmaster.


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LARB Contributor

Paul F. Cummins was, until recently, the executive director of the New Visions Foundation in Los Angeles. He has been the primary founder of many innovative charter schools in Los Angeles, including the renowned Crossroads School in Santa Monica, where he was also the longtime headmaster. He has published two collections of poetry, A Postcard from Bali (2002) and Under Cover (2009); a book on understanding poetry, Why Poetry? Reflections on Poetry, Writing, and Culture (2016); two books about education, Proceed with Passion: Engaging Students in Meaningful Education (2004), and Two Americas, Two Educations: Funding Quality Schools for all Students (2007); and a memoir, Confessions of a Headmaster (2015).


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