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Tired of Education Silver Bullets

By Matt Impink on November 26, 2013 in Civic Blog

It’s crucially important to Civic Health in America to ensure a highly educated public. Recently, education has become an increasingly controversial issue in the public square. And while I’m not surprised education has become a hot topic, as a former public school teacher, I am surprised by the shape of the debate. There is a growing clamor, especially in urban areas, pointing out how poverty contributes to substandard educational performance. Others continue to point out the massive dysfunctions in the education delivery system. Whether you sit on the right or the left of the political spectrum, you have to admit that education is an incredibly complex problem that has no single “silver bullet” solution. Ultimately poverty, dysfunction and many other factors all contribute to the United States continuing to slip in international rankings.

US Education

% 25-34 year olds with Higher Education

K-12 Reading

K-12 Math

K-12 Science

International Rank

14th (42%)




Source: http://www.oecd.org/education/CN%20-%20United%20States.pdfhttp://ourtimes.wordpress.com/2008/04/10/oecd-education-rankings/


Education, like many public policy issues, is what Rittel and Webber call a “wicked problem.” It is a problem that cannot be defined in any single way; it is a problem that has many causes and therefore many solutions. If progress is ever to be made in education, we cannot continue to only push politically convenient solutions. To adequately address wicked problems like education, we need to understand that this complex problem may require multiple solutions simultaneously.

9875757_lMy Hoosier State likes bragging about our fiscal health through the recession, but low tax low spending policies can have disastrous effects for the most vulnerable. Kyle Stokes of StateImpact had a wonderful piece last week on the impact of poverty on students in East Chicago, IN. In East Chicago, 95% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch and contributes to the over 350,000 children living in poverty in Indiana. Poverty rates in Indiana have increased to 16.2% during the recession and have climbed to 14th highest in the nation while growing sixth fastest of all states during that span. Indiana, like most states, cut about $300 million each year during the heart of the recession. While average scores for Indiana students improved in the most recent school year, this masks the vast divide in our education system. As Southern Education Foundation’s Steve Suitts stated when asked about poverty in Indiana schools:

The upper-class students in the U.S. can compete with anyone in the world… What we have is, in fact, a system that is not serving low-income students well.

Some argue that a child cannot focus on getting homework done when he or she is worried about getting his or her next meal. Others argue that schools need to be better designed to mitigate the effects of poverty for students. Still others say that kids in poverty can learn if we have high expectations and excellent teachers. The fact is that all of these perspectives are accurate.

Wicked problems cannot be solved easily and it takes a great deal of leadership to coordinate a multi-pronged approach to attack such problems. Too often we are fighting amongst ourselves about what the priorities should be instead of getting something done. In this upcoming Legislative Session, let’s encourage lawmakers to continue addressing education, including restoring more of the funding that was cut during the recession now that the state has a substantial net surplus. Let’s have the guts to take on structural reforms while also addressing the pernicious effects of poverty that are no doubt effecting the educational health of Indiana and the rest of the country.

Matt Impink is a former US History Teacher and Education Policy Advocate. He is currently a Graduate Student at IU’s School for Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) in Indianapolis and currates the Civic Blog. He can be reached at mrimpink@iupui.edu and tweets @mrimpink.


1 Comment

  1. Matt Impink December 2, 2013 Reply

    From John Poynton:
    Thank you for your post. Here’s what I think:
    While it sure sounds alarming, I question whether the alleged “slip in international ratings” is based on any reliable or meaningful measures. And rather than education being a wicked problem, perhaps it’s freedom itself. After all, in a free and democratic society, fairness—even for school children—is not a given.
    While poverty (especially concentrated poverty) certainly presents the biggest challenge to teaching and learning in schools, I feel confident that it’s not our public schools that are failing, they’re just the last remaining public institutions in communities devastated by widespread and generational poverty.
    It’s easy for naysayers to point the finger at public schools and teachers rather than examining the effects of poverty. Bashing public education rouses popular indignation while ignoring the need for an apples-to-apples comparisons of our educational system and demographics with that of other countries.
    In any event, it’s hard to imagine legislators being persuaded to invest in public education without being challenged by informed citizens who know how their schools are funded and managed, are active in schools locally, and are willing to leverage their knowledge, relationships and experience in an advocacy role.

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