Current Issues in Education

A number of issues and controversies now face educators and communities. Among them are discipline and security; race, ethnicity, and equality; mainstreaming; and public versus private education.

Discipline and security

Expressions of violence have increased in the culture, and so has violence in the schools. In the past, only urban or poor inner‐city schools worried about serious violence. With recent school shootings in small towns from Kentucky to Oregon, all U.S. schools and districts, however small, must now directly address the increased incidence of school violence. Teachers have found children as young as kindergarten coming to school armed.

Schools have reacted decisively. To reduce the threat from strangers or unauthorized persons, many have closed campuses. Others require all persons on campus to wear identification at all times. When the students themselves come to school armed, however, the schools have been forced to take more drastic measures. Many have installed metal detectors or conduct random searches. Although some people question whether the searches constitute illegal search and seizure, most parents, students, administrators, and teachers feel that, given the risk involved, the infringement on civil liberties is slight.

Educators recognize that metal detectors alone will not solve the problem. Society must address the underlying issues that make children carry weapons. Many schools include anger management and conflict resolution as part of the regular curriculum. They also make counseling more available, and hold open forums to air differences and resolve conflicts.

School uniforms constitute another strategy for reducing violence, and public schools across the country—large and small—are beginning to require them. Many violent outbursts relate to gangs. Gang members usually wear identifying clothing, such as a particular color, style, or garment. By requiring uniforms and banning gang colors and markers, administrators can prevent much of the violence in the schools. Advocates point out, too, that uniforms reduce social class distinctions and cost less than buying designer wardrobes or standard school clothes.

Race, ethnicity, and equality

The first major examination of race, ethnicity, and equality in education came as part of the civil rights movement. Ordered by Congress, the Commissioner of Education appointed sociologist James Coleman to assess educational opportunities for people with diverse backgrounds. His team amassed information from 4,000 schools, 60,000 teachers, and about 570,000 students. The subsequent Coleman Report produced unexpected—and controversial—results, unforeseen even by researchers. The report concluded that the key predictors of student performance were social class, family background and education, and family attitudes toward education. The Coleman Report pointed out that children coming from poor, predominantly non‐white communities began school with serious deficits and many could not overcome them. According to the report, school facilities, funding, and curriculum played only minimal roles.

Some studies supported the Coleman Report's findings, while others disputed them. Studies by Rist and Rosenthal‐Jacobson demonstrated that specific classroom practices, such as teacher attention, did affect student performance. Sociologists reconcile the opposite findings by pointing out that Coleman's large‐scale study reveals broad cultural patterns, while classroom studies are more sensitive to specific interactions. Sociologists conclude, then, that all of the factors named by the divergent studies do play a role in student success. No matter how different the study results, all researchers agree that a measurable difference exists between the performance of affluent white students and their poorer, non‐white counterparts.

  • Even though researchers widely disputed the Coleman Report, the report did bring about two major changes:

  • First was the development of Head Start, a federal program for providing academically focused preschool to low‐income children. This program is specifically designed to compensate for the disadvantages that low‐income students face. Head Start has proven successful, and most students who go through the program as 4‐ or 5‐year‐olds continue to perform better than students not enrolled in Head Start, at least through the sixth grade.

The other consequence of the Coleman Report proved to be less successful and far more controversial than the Head Start program. In an effort to desegregate education, courts ordered some districts to institute busing—a program of transporting students to schools outside their neighborhoods, that they normally would not attend, in order to achieve racial balance. This generally meant busing white students to inner‐city schools and busing minority students to suburban schools. Public opposition to busing programs remains high, and the program has achieved only modest results.

Bilingual education, which means offering instruction in a language other than English, constitutes another attempt to equalize education for minority students. Federally mandated in 1968, bilingual education has generated considerable debate. Supporters argue that students whose first language is not English deserve an equal educational opportunity unavailable to them unless they can receive instruction in their first language. Opponents counter that students not taught in English will lack the fluency needed to function in daily life. Numerous studies support conclusions on both sides of the issue, and, as funding becomes scarce, the debate will intensify.

Mainstreaming

Mainstreaming
is the practice of placing physically, emotionally, or mentally challenged students in a regular classroom instead of a special education classroom. Educators continue to debate the merits and problems of mainstreaming. In general, the practice seems to work best for students who can still keep pace with their peers in the classroom, and less well for students with more severe challenges. Experts note that exceptions do occur on both accounts and recommend careful consideration on a case‐by‐case basis.

Public versus private

Most of the public‐versus‐private discussion centers on public education. One cannot ignore the effect of private education and home schooling on American education, however. Many parents who are dissatisfied with the quality of public education, who are afraid of rising violence in the schools, or who want specific personal or religious values integrated into the curriculum, turn to private and parochial schools. The majority of private schools are religious, with the majority of those being Catholic.

Studies have found that private schools maintain higher expectations and that students in these schools generally outperform their public school peers. These findings support the Rist and Rosenthal‐Jacobson studies.

Because of the success of private schools in educating at‐risk students, more parents are seeking ways to afford these institutions, which have been largely available only to affluent white families who can pay the tuition costs. One proposed solution is a voucher system. The government would issue parents credit worth a dollar amount to take to the school of their choice, public or private. Advocates argue that this program would make private schooling more available to poorer families and create more equal opportunities. Critics charge that such a policy would drain public schools of needed funding and further erode public schools. The vouchers would not cover the entire cost of private school, and therefore still would not put private schooling within the reach of poorer families. The program would result, opponents argue, in further segregation of schooling. Other public school solutions include magnet schools that provide a selective academically demanding education and superior facilities for qualified students, charter schools that offer flexible and innovative education independent of the traditional rules and regulations governing public schools, and interdistrict and intradistrict enrollments that permit any eligible student in one school district to apply for enrollment in any district school or program.