The Headline No One Clicks On

I’ll admit it: I’m a monster. I recently asked my students to take on an impossible task. One of the big questions of our graduate seminar this semester was this: Is American public education “good?” Students came up with several ingenious, nuanced, and insightful answers. But they could be excused for struggling with the question. As recent headlines show, the question is impossible. How can we tell if public schools are doing well?graph from edweek 1

On one hand, we see news every day that should convince us. A report in EdWeek, for instance, reveals the amazing news that high-school graduation rates are up for the fifth year in a row. For all types of students.

Most other headlines about education, though, are pretty rough. We hear that the achievement gap among demographic groups is widening in New York City. We read that American students are losing their number-one spot in reading scores. Queen Betsy tells us that the terrible state of our public schools is “unacceptable. . . . inexcusable. . . . [and] truly un-American.”graph from edweek 2

What we’re looking at here is the old blind-scholars-and-elephant problem. If we look at graduation rates alone, we’d say public schools are doing great and getting better. But if we look at the disparities between different groups of students, we’d agree that the system is woefully unfair and racially biased.

By and large, though, it seems hard to find good news, unless we avoid headlines and look at real schools and real teachers. The Gallup numbers show this consistently. When people describe the schools they know best, they’re very bullish. But asked about public schools in general, people are gloomy.

gallup people like their local schools

I can’t help but think headlines contribute to this situation. Talking about desperate crises appeals to our yen to confirm our fears. Talking about terrible schools allows us to blame the people we dislike for the current crisis. And much of the problem is due to deliberate culture-war obfuscation. In a recent speech, for example, Queen Betsy said,

A recent Gallup poll showed the majority of all Americans are dissatisfied with the overall education system in our country.

That’s true. But it hides the fact that bigger majorities of Americans are happy with the schools they actually have first-hand knowledge about.

We might say the same thing about our teachers. It’s easy to find headlines about bad teachers. Don’t believe me? Try googling “unprepared teachers.” If you have kids in school, you’ll be frightened by the results. But if people could spend a semester with the students in my department preparing to be teachers, they’d share some of my optimism and confidence.

Are there big problems with America’s public schools? Definitely. But we need to be careful with our questions if we want to get good answers.

Are there bad teachers out there? Sure. But the talent and energy going into the profession are overwhelming. It’s just not something we can cram into a clickbait-y headline.

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  1. It’s bad. It’s downright terrible — for any kid who doesn’t have the wherewithal or adult backing to understand what they need, and how to get it. There are a lot of those kids, and they drift — many of them right on through college to “successful” Dilbert jobs. Some end of “on the streets” too, but a lot of “quantifiable success” is mediocrity and worse from a Jefffersonian standpoint that values a critically-minded, engaged and informed citizen who might stand for voluntary and elected leadership roles, and who won’t stand for tyranny.

    What would be the real “big problems” of American public schools? Disruption and violence? The special plight of poor schools and districts? Terrible literacy skill output at every level? The loss of foreign language education? Regressive math programs that randomly meander from the first half of algebra to geometry and back to algebra, with most students never moving on? A nation of natural born English and Math lovers and haters who go to their graves with vivid memories of the terrible teacher who turned them off one of those subjects forever?

    Maybe the fact that American schools make no attempt to teach basic financial and economic literacy? A general lack of “how stuff works” in the real world, from civics to engineering? The decline of “vocational” classes? Large classes and tracking systems that make schools into prisons where a lot of students are simply distracted and disengaged to the point that merely reading random books for four years in “study halls” could be the most meaningful part of their education? If you want an autocratic kleptocracy, this is a great system.

    That sarcastically describes my experience in public and private, very rich, very poor, and average K-12 schools. Going from a very poor, gutted, failing territorial school system to 10th grade in one of the richest counties in New Jersey did not make much difference to me because in either case, I was invisible. If anything the bigger, wealthier system is harder to navigate and more stressful. At the same time there are enormous passive or default benefits and to growing up and graduating in a vibrant urban center versus a remote and possibly dysfunctional backwater. The anxiety of the A student in an American territorial school (much like a reservation school) contrasts with the foggy confidence of a C student in a class of 1000-2000 in the LA, CHI, NYC metro regions.

    The “radical” quasi-immersion bilingual and countercultural public education some of my kids had in Milwaukee was probably the best schooling anyone in our families has ever experienced. Their time in private schools Queen Betsy considers the summum bonum was the absolute worst. In both cases it was about the culture more than anything else. A bullying teacher or harassing classmates can ruin everything for one kid whose siblings are having a totally positive experience in the same place. (But if it turns out a junior high teacher has been molesting kids for over a decade, it raises other questions about overall quality and competence.) Now compared with their Canadian public school experience, it is apples for apples vastly superior to anything they or their parents experienced in the US. But that has to do with provincial wealth. Again, remote reservation-type schools or economically gutted communities in the maritimes earn national headlines for dysfunction — but not so much for gangs, guns, and mass shootings.

    Culture is everything, and when yours is in secular, terminal decline there is nothing that can be done about it systemically, or on a large scale.

  2. Is American public education “good?”

    What do we mean by “good”? That, I think, is part of the issue.

    I grew up in Australia, so my public education was there. And it was pretty good for me, though perhaps not for everyone.

    On coming to the USA (originally as a grad student), my attitude was that US education was not particularly good. Of course, I was comparing it to my own education.

    More recently, I visited the class of one of my grandchildren. And I thought the teacher was doing a fantastic job.

    My current attitude, overall, is from when it was time to send my own children to school. We lived in a neighborhood where the schools had a poor reputation. So I did what seemed right as a parent. I sent them to a private school, even though that greatly stretched the budget.

    And then I began to think of the unfairness — I was paying taxes for the public schools, but they were not good enough for us. And that’s about when I came to my current view.

    As I see it, there are two different requirements here. As a parent, I wanted the best for my children. So I used a private school. But, as a member of the community, it was still to my economic benefit for there to be an adequate basic education available to all in the community, so it would be wrong to object to paying taxes for that.

    Yes, it would be great if the whole community could have as good an education as my children. But so much of education depends on the home environment, that this would be an unreasonable expectation. The schools cannot do it all by themselves.

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