When we lay blame for what’s wrong with education we talk about “failing schools” and “bad teachers,” but we have not paid enough attention to the actual children who are failing to pass classes and who are not getting an adequate education. How do we help them?

Our current batch of policy proposals in Connecticut — implementing the Common Core, teacher evaluations, universal pre-kindergarten — do not get at the root of the problem. 

Here in Connecticut we’re spending more than ever before — from 2003 to 2011 our spending went from $10,788 per child to $15,600 per child. But while our spending increased by 45 percent, student test scores only improved by 1 percent.

Even while funding increased, the number of school-aged children in Connecticut dropped from 577,403 to 530,132.

Now the governor is talking about universal pre-k as though that’s the answer to all of our problems. While advocates claim the research on the benefits of preschool are clear, that is not the case. For example, a government-led study on Head Start found no long-term or even short-term benefit for the low-income children enrolled in the program.

Spending more on education has always been a rallying cry for Democrats at election time, and Republicans seem afraid to argue back. Really, can’t you see the ominous political ad now showing a Republican candidate being branded a child-hater because they don’t think ever-increasing education budgets are the panacea for all our problems?

The problem with larger budgets is that the onerous tax burden and high cost of living in Connecticut are already drumming the middle class out of existence, sending families with children looking for another place to live.

(And if you’re thinking ‘Good! Fewer children means less spending on education!’ — just remember that those same children are the future workforce who will pay taxes to provide for your services when you retire.)

If spending millions on implementing the Common Core and universal pre-k was going to solve all our problems and pull all of our at-risk children out of poverty, then it would make absolute sense to do it, at least in part because it would save us money in the long run. But that is not the case.

Elizabeth Natale, who wrote an op-ed for the Hartford Courant on wanting to quit teaching, which quickly went viral, wrote another op-ed on what she believes will help children — parental involvement.

It is true that parental involvement is crucial to a child’s education. I have four children in school right now, and I spend hours helping them navigate academic and social stresses with the hope that it will help them succeed.

Not every child has a parent who is able to do that, for a variety of reasons. We should continue to encourage parental involvement, but there are children who will not have involved parents despite our best efforts, and we need to come up with plans to help them.

I have two family members who didn’t graduate from high school, and I asked them recently what would have helped them. They spoke about their own lack of direction during those years, social pressures, the (untrue) belief that they weren’t smart enough, and lack of parental and school involvement.

I was left with the following thoughts and questions:

  • How do we help teens take ownership of their high school educations? How do we help them better understand the long-term consequences of their choices?
  • Does “school choice” help teens feel more engaged? Do themed high schools help kids pick a career path?
  • Let’s stop telling teens that they are doomed economically. Even though there are some problems, the U.S. still has the strongest economy in the world. Fostering entrepreneurism and optimism among the rising generation should be our goal, not hopelessness.
  • How about making high school freshmen take a class called “How to Make Money.” It could focus on teaching them to monetize their talents and skills and to understand what career choices are available.
  • How do we help kids navigate all of the things pulling at their attention, like social media, video games, apps, texting, television, drugs and alcohol, and all of the other social pressures they face?
  • What do we do for children who are caught up in peer groups that do not value education?
  • I’d really like it if we stopped telling children their schools and teachers are failing them. Yes, problems exist, and let’s work to make things better. But let’s also tell our children that they are blessed to live in a country where their education is paid for, and that they are fortunate to have teachers who are willing to teach them, and that it is up to them to take advantage of the opportunities they’ve been given.

    Suzanne Bates is a writer living in South Windsor with her family. While traveling across the country as an Air Force spouse, she worked for news organizations including the Associated Press, New Hampshire Union Leader and Good Morning America Weekend. She recently completed a research fellowship at the Yankee Institute.