Friday, August 10, 2012

The Myth of the Myth of the Myth of America's Failing Public School System

For years now the American public has simply accepted as fact that its public school system is "a failure" - this despite the overall satisfaction with their own schools and their own education.  Thus, of course, it's not surprising that we have a "failure" in perception about our "failing public schools."  The conventional wisdom is always drawing from shocking statistics and disappointing standardized test scores, as well as comparisons of schools to other nations.  This "truth" by comparison is the most troubling, and it seems to never end.  Thomas Friedman mentioned it again this week in the New York Times.  The problem is the validity of the comparison.

However, recently some education writers have been parsing the data and challenging the notion that our schools are "failing" or that "we have  fallen behind the rest of the world."  And that has unleashed debate about whether America's schools are "failing" or whether that's a myth.  As I've noted before, Mel Riddile of the National Association of Secondary School Principals NASSP was the first to parse the poverty data - and argue that international comparisons are flawed and, minus our high poverty schools, the United States actually leads the world in test scores.  As Riddile points out, America has much higher poverty than the leading nations like Finland and Singapore, and when we remove the scores of high poverty schools to more accurately compare conditions, America's test scores actually top the list.  Interestingly, then, when our bottom thirty percent of schools are taken out of the equation, we have the best  schools in the world.

Michael Lind took up the case as well this week of "America's failing public schools" in an article for Salon that argued again that this failure is a myth, and that a culture of poverty is the root of the problem.  In following up on Riddile's research, Lind argues - accurately I'd say - that our school system is not  "failing" because our poorest and most disadvantaged kids are  not succeeding.  Certainly, we can not be proud of these conditions or accept them.  However, if 70% of kids are doing well, going to college, and posting reasonable scores, it's  tough to argue the public education system is a failure.  I argued this years ago after Sean Hannity indicted the entire system.  Systemic failure is simply not true - for if the system had been failing for  all these years then the effects on the nation would be profound.  And America is not failing.

Granted, the explanation is tough to accept, and it seems to be a cop out to say that  kids  are simply failing because they are poor.  And education blogger Marilyn Rhames challenges Lind's position by arguing about the lack of opportunities and poor  schools for the bottom 30%.  She is not  wrong about the poor state of these  schools - though she is a bit mistaken when she blames the school, as opposed to seeing a school  as a reflection of a much larger problem.  Certainly, all kids  can achieve, and the most  disadvantaged  actually need the most  education.  However, she cannot deny that  successfully educating  poor, disadvantaged minority and immigrant children is literally the toughest task in education.  It's just not  that easy to overcome all the barriers to success.

And, of course, education seems to be the only field where 100% success is the standard and the only acceptable result.  Thus, the issue is more complex than any of these  writers makes it.  But, Lind and Riddile are correct in asserting the successes of the system, even as Friedman and Rhames have points in challenging the failures.

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