The One Thing We Know for Sure about Schools…

This week’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores prove it. When it comes to education, there is one reliable truth out there. It’s not news; any educational historian worth his or her mortarboard could tell you about it.

But first, the news: NAEP, the “Nation’s Report Card,” shows stagnant or declining scores in math and reading. A bummer, after fifteen years of emphasis on jacked-up standards and high-stakes testing in public schools.

Up, up, up, ... and down.

Up, up, up, … and down.

Understandably, teacher activists who have derided the latest test-heavy reform efforts have offered bitter I-told-you-sos. The test-hungry reformers have scrambled to explain the decline. Michael Petrilli at the Fordham Institute retreats to the obvious explanation: It’s complicated. It might be due to non-testing factors such as classroom confusion, Petrilli explains. It might be due to the declining economy. Most important, Petrilli says, we need to remember that this decline might be only a “blip,” not a “trend.”

But anyone who knows the first thing about educational history knows it’s simple. There is one reliable constant in American education.

We can see it in bombshell cases such as Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Reformers hoped that ending legal racial segregation in schools could go a long way toward healing racism in this country. Sixty-plus years later, those assumptions seem painfully naïve. Schools are still segregated by race; cities even more so.

We can see it all the way back in the roots of urban school systems. Two hundred years ago, school reformer Joseph Lancaster promised a new method of organizing schools that would solve America’s poverty problem. Hundreds of low-income students could be educated with a cheap and simple monitorial system.

How schools can save society, 1815.

How schools can save society, 1815.

Guess what? It didn’t work. As long as there have been public school systems in this country, there have been eager reformers who have offered one idea or another as a silver bullet. Each reform, we’ve heard, will be the ticket to healing America’s schools and society. We’ve been told for hundreds of years that America’s schools will FINALLY fulfill their promise to end poverty, fix the economy, and etc. etc.

It’s just not that simple. Today’s round of high-stakes testing made elaborate promises. No Child, we heard, would be Left Behind. Schools, we heard, could now finally fix social inequalities and heal society’s injustices.

Would that it were so.

What we have instead is another reminder of the one thing we can count on in schooling, the one reliable truth about education.

Ready for it?

Here it is: Schools can’t fix society. Schools ARE society.

Leave a comment


  1. This is a depressing report. Are there any ideas out there about how to fix our sagging scores? Should we abandon higher standards, throw out testing, etc.? My daughter is a teacher and I know she struggles to get her students ready for PA’s multiple assessments. It looks pretty bleak right now. I believe the greatest contribution to our society is good preparation in the schools. smh

    • Agellius

       /  October 29, 2015



      • With all due respect, parents don’t know at what age a child is capable of learning certain levels within education. For example, I am not fluent in biology or math, and I have no mechanism by which I can approach my BOE or school administrators to have a substantive discussion about the sequence and content of either. My knowledge of English has helped me communicate, but I have forgotten the rules of grammar and in which grades I learned them. I remember dissecting sentences, but today I would be unable to do so. Parents seem to want to repeal and replace testing and Common Core standards, but with what would they replace them? How would we determine the best approach in the 21st century as to how to impart the necessary skills to successfully navigate careers? Do we cut teachers and administrators out of the discussion? Are we willing to listen to them? Parents are the key to student attendance, good behavior, and completion of assignments, but I doubt they know much about classroom prep, lesson plans, and the complexities of ongoing learning pertaining to individual subjects. My daughter teaches high school math. She knows the sequence of which parts are taught. And, she knows the goals which need to be reached in each grade. I have no clue. I’m 60, by the way, so my learning took place a long time ago. What concrete ideas are out there to address my specific concerns?

  2. Agellius

     /  October 29, 2015

    “Schools can’t fix society. Schools ARE society.”

    Agreed. And government can’t either.

  3. Agellius

     /  October 29, 2015


    “Parents who want their children to succeed academically in school have more influence over that outcome than the schools themselves, according to a study by researchers from three universities.”

    Similar results were found in Great Britain:

    “Figures show that a child’s family background has a larger bearing on their chances of doing well at the age of 16 or 17 than teachers.”


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