The appointment of a person who knows literally nothing about the profession as Secretary of Education reignited interest in our deeply flawed educational system. During her confirmation hearings, this was perhaps the best commentary I saw on an internet that overflowed with them.
The most basic problem with the educational system (K-12 only; colleges have a different set of issues) is that it is increasingly expected to show improvement in a society in which so many of the measurable things affecting educational outcomes are getting worse. When you have students who are basically on their own before the age of ten, or move eight times in three years, or live in violent and impoverished homes, or go days at a time without seeing their substance-abusing parent, or spend evenings trying to decide whether to call the cops because that man is beating up Mom again but you don't want to be taken away into a foster home so what should you do, or have reached adolescence without once seeing an adult set an alarm clock to wake up and go to work, very little in terms of policy is going to matter. Give 'em vouchers, send them to charter schools, public schools, Catholic schools, whatever you want; those kids are not going to succeed. Teachers are expected to extract good test scores from students who are absent 50% of the time or don't have an adult to reliably feed and shelter them.
Teachers are equipped, at their best and in the best environments, to be teachers. They are not prepared to be psychologists, social workers, parents, guardians, and miracle workers. Certainly not every public school draws from a population of students as poor and disadvantaged as what I described here. But it's hardly rare. Increasingly – and vouchers will serve only to worsen this problem – public school systems are a grease trap for the students no other school would take. The kid didn't do well enough on tests for a charter or magnet school, and whatever adult supervisor is responsible for him or her can't shell out for private school. Public schools, in essence, are expected to show constant and near-miraculous improvement with a student population from which the best and most well-supported students have already been plucked out.
So, when people ponder the solutions to the problems of education in this country, feel free to cut off anyone who starts ranting about teacher salaries, classroom sizes, No Child Left Behind, or any other education-specific issue. The problem is poverty. The solution is to mitigate poverty and the other social problems that flow from it. We don't want to face that reality because we don't like doing things that are hard; we want to maintain a delusion that there is some magic policy that will get our schools to start churning out great, well educated students. It does not exist. Teachers and schools have only so much contact with students and no power to solve or even push back meaningfully against the growing pile of problems many of these kids face outside of school. A good teacher will always get the most out of his or her students, and our elected officials will never recognize that many of them are doing exactly that – they are getting the most out of students who have everything stacked against them in life. The unfortunate reality is that sometimes "the most" a teacher can produce with a given child is not much.
We have to stop considering the problems of our schools in a vacuum. Throw all the money you want at schools or enforce whatever "teacher accountability" BS the Koch think tanks are pushing this month – none of that will make a lick of difference in the outcomes of students in communities that are both literally and figuratively falling apart.