The Real American Education Crisis

Arne Duncan

“There’s a crisis in education…”

“Our schools are in crisis…”

“Schools are failing…”

“We’re failing our kids…”

You hear some variation of the above almost every time the subject turns to American education – especially the public schools. It’s usually the first thing out of a corporate education reformer’s mouth before he/she unveils the disruptive, top-down, data-driven solution that will save us all. Davis Guggenheim made a famous corporate reform propaganda film claiming we were all “Waiting for Superman” to come save education. Well, if we’re waiting for superman, the above phrase and its variations are his theme music.

However, when we hear these words, the gut level reaction is to deny them. “What? Our schools are failing? Of course not!”

And then we look like deluded pollyannas trying to hide our heads in the sand from an obvious problem. Our schools are failing. It MUST be true. I heard Wolf Blitzer say it on CNN. The US Secretary of Education says it. The President even says it!

So I’d like to make a suggestion the next time you hear someone say this ubiquitous phrase. Agree with him.

Say, “Yes. Our schools are failing. Our state and federal education policy has failed them.”
Say, “We’ve spent billions of dollars on No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top and none of it has helped kids learn any better!”

Say, “We’ve been trying high-stakes standardized testing, test prep and teacher accountability programs for at least the last dozen years with the sole goal of bringing up student test scores. It hasn’t worked.”

Give them the old saw that “Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.” Tell them this is exactly what we’re doing in our school system. Common Core, value-added measures, school vouchers, charter schools – it’s all the same failed educational scheme that just doesn’t work.

They may want proof. Turn their attention to International PISA scores. (They’ll love that! Data! Drooool!)

We know that students from wealthy districts earn some of the best test scores in the world. It’s the kids entrenched in poverty that don’t do so well. AND (This will probably be news to your corporate education reformer interlocutor) a majority of all public school students in one third of America’s states now come from low-income families.

Social science research over the last several decades has shown that two thirds of student achievement is a product of out-of-school factors — and among the most powerful of those is economic status. That’s not exactly shocking: Kids exposed to destitution and all that comes with it have enough trouble just surviving, much less succeeding in school.

Then you can turn to real reform tactics – things that might actually help kids learn!
Things like increasing public money to fund extra tutoring, child care, basic health programs and other wraparound services at low-income schools.

Talk about equity (They’ll love that! They try to sell their snake oil as a cure for our Civil Rights abuses. Hit them with a real one!) Tell them high-poverty schools must finally receive the same amount of funding as schools in wealthy neighborhoods. Tell them we actually should do like the rest of those high achieving PISA nations and give high-poverty districts MORE funds than rich districts because combating poverty is expensive.

Tell them we need to help impoverished students’ parents – we need to expand the social safety net, raise the minimum wage, provide funding for daycare, single-payer healthcare, introduce a real jobs bill to get people back to work.

And if they shy away from poverty (Because they will! They don’t really want to solve society’s ills!) tell them how we need to change the antiquated school system, itself.

Yes, antiquated. Our public schools are still organized as if they were preparing kids to work in a factory. The industrial revolution has been over for some time now. Those mill jobs mostly have been shipped overseas and they aren’t coming back. Our schools need to educate kids for the jobs of the future – science and technology jobs, for instance.

How do you do that? You do exactly the opposite of what the corporate education reformers propose. When they say “standardize,” we should say “individualize.” It’s a head scratcher in the teaching profession these days that educators are told to individualize their lessons but standardize their tests.

We can change the paradigm by allowing students to have more of a say in their own educations as they get older. For instance, instead of arbitrarily forcing teachers to make their students read a certain percentage of nonfiction texts (i.e. Common Core), let the students pick a certain percentage of the texts they read based on… gulp… personal interest.

Let children follow their hearts. Teach them to be media savvy and computer literate, but don’t give them any answers. Help them find the answers.

That’s what a 21st Century education should look like, not children sitting all in a row filling in bubbles on a standardized test.

I offer this bit of advice not because I think we’ll convince the reformers. Let’s face it. They’re in the pockets of the rich and powerful who are making billions off of the poison these shills are selling. However, if we challenge this basic assumption, if we change the narrative, we may begin to convince the voting pubic.

To be fair, I think this has already begun. The tolerance for these top-down reform methods has started to wane. If we can shut down their schemes before they’ve even begun, we may have a chance of increasing erosion to their policies acceptance.

And then the crisis in education may actually find a solution.