Public education should be the great equalizer in America — a system that gives all children, regardless of their background or race, the tools and support to achieve their goals. It should produce young adults ready to contribute to society.

The problem is, it doesn’t always do this. And complicating factors make this phenomenon even more complex and challenging. Here are three:

Respect Our Teachers

Teachers across the country are leaving the profession at alarming rates, citing low pay, increasing demands, and a lack of respect as reasons for their departure.

Considerable debate on this issue revolves around teacher pay. Pay for teachers must increase. Period.

What must also improve is respect for teachers and the profession in general. Ask yourself this: Do we treat teachers as professionals? Do we ensure our children respect our teachers and their classrooms? Do we give them adequate planning time? Do we ask for and value the opinions of teachers? Do we support their decisions?

Likewise, business leaders, politicians, and bureaucrats must value teachers’ voices. While they often host forums on education and discuss possible solutions or fixes, these groups rarely include the very people who truly understand the issues: teachers. A 10-minute conversation with any teacher will provide anyone a whole new perspective.

Teachers are often used as scapegoats to avoid facing the real issues in education. When school and district test scores are low, many district administrators and board members start examining teacher quality and training, gravely missing the mark in their response. Instead, they should question themselves about the allocation of resources, selected curricula, and outside barriers that impede students’ learning.

Focus on Mental Health

An increasing number of students are coming to school not ready to learn. Whether attributed to an underlying medical condition or past trauma, they are not getting the help they need. School counselors and psychologists routinely struggle to keep their heads above water as they drown in enormous caseloads.

These untreated issues lead to other issues like chronic absenteeism, low academic achievement, disruptive behavior, dropping out of school, and in some tragic cases, suicide. This is not just an issue for school-age children — mental health support for adults lags behind too — but school is where we must start providing more funding for additional school psychologists, guidance counselors, and mental health counselors.

Teach More, Test Less

Our country’s education system has an obsession with standardized testing. The United States spends an estimated $1.7 billion, billion with a B, annually on standardized testing. The cost is as alarming as the number of tests our kids are taking. Try reading all of these without falling asleep: SC Ready, SC PASS, SC Alt, myIGDIs, End-of-Course Exams Program (EOCEP), ACT, SAT, Measures of Academic Progress (MAP), FastBridge, Text Leveling, Kindergarten Readiness Assessment (KRA), CogAT, Iowa Test of Basic Skills, Performance Task Assessments, ACCESS.

As with anything in education, we must ask ourselves if these tests are contributing positively to the development of our students. Great teachers will tell you that assessments are not helpful unless they guide instruction. When a student takes a test in the spring and the school doesn’t get the scores until the fall, it does little good.

In 2019, let’s make sure we value teachers’ voices, demand increased funding for mental health services for our schools, and tell our legislators to spend time in 2019 taking a hard look at all standardized tests and whether they truly benefit our students.