"Failing Public Schools"

One thing we, as a nation, need to get straight is that our public schools are not a failure, not now, nor have they ever been.  Yes, there are individual failing schools, and all schools could be improved, but the meme of “failed public education” is nonsense.  Especially so, if one looks a little at the history of public education in America.

The whole idea that our schools are failing has arisen since the advent of busing for integration in 1974, when desegregation forced the citizens of the United States to see its educational system as a whole, not simply as the part that educated middle-class and rich children (or poor children, or white children, or black children, etc.–depending on one’s perspective).  If you come from a white, middle-class background, public schools have indeed declined since the 1970s, a decline compounded by white, middle-class flight from public schools, to home-schooling and private academies (something that has not only removed the children best prepared, culturally, to take advantage of the educational system but that makes it more and more difficult for school-bond issues to pass).  If you come from most other backgrounds, educational opportunities are better, now, than they ever were.

This was brought to mind again this morning as I read a New York Times Book Review piece on Steven Brill’s new book Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools.  Reviewer Sara Mosle says that “Brill wants us to believe that unions are the primary — even sole — cause of failing public schools.” She goes on to demolish this argument quite quickly:

hard evidence for this is scarce. Many of the nation’s worst-performing schools (according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress) are concentrated in Southern and Western right-to-work states, where public sector unions are weakest and collective bargaining enjoys little or no protection. Also, if unions are the primary cause of bad schools, why isn’t labor’s pernicious effect similarly felt in many middle-­class suburbs, like Pelham, N.Y., or Montclair, N.J., which have good schools — and strong unions?

More problematic for Brill’s thesis, charter schools, which are typically freed from union rules, haven’t succeeded in the ways their champions once hoped. A small percentage are undeniably superb. But most are not.

What Mosle doesn’t address is, again, that underlying meme, the idea that all of our schools are failing.  The closest she comes is at the end of the review, where she writes:

Brill likens the battle over the nation’s schools to “warfare,” but the better analogy may be to the war on cancer. For years, scientists hoped a magic pill would cure this ravaging disease. But increasingly, doctors have recognized that they will have to fight a multifronted war, as cancers (like failing schools) aren’t all alike. Each comes with its own complex etiology.

Talking in generalities about failing schools, just like the blaming of teachers for this “failure,” is too easy, and extremely misleading.  And, generally, such talk stems from particular political and cultural biases, and not really from a concern for education.  Blaming teachers leads to blaming unions, something quite useful to those who want to demolish the power of America’s working class, power that arose through unions and is still, to some degree, wielded through them.  Blaming schools deflects from questions of race and class, and excuses parents who want to remove their children from situations involving people from other classes and races.  Blaming schools allows us to ignore greater problems, such as those generated by poverty, in our society, for we can then pretend that improving schools will somehow itself get rid of poverty.

As a whole, our schools are probably as good as they have ever been.  That we now see problems that once we ignored, that now we now include what once we refused to see, does not mean that the whole is not as good now as when “we” looked at only a partial picture.

Somehow, we need to change the debate, stopping focusing on failure and, instead, exploring means for improvement.  Do that, and the nature of our national conversation on education will change, and the likelihood that our schools will get better will increase.

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