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.