Saturday, August 12, 2006


The news on public schools

As I prepare my classroom this weekend for an onslaught of kids on Wednesday, I'm reflecting on the state of public education in America.

You probably didn't hear about the report released last month by the Department of Education which finds that elementary schools perform about as well as private schools. The research examined scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test for fourth- and eighth-graders in math and reading. According to the research, once socioeconomic status and race are isolated, public and private schools show similar results in educating children. In some areas private schools did better, while in other areas public schools came out on top. Statistically the two systems appear to perform about the same.

I say you probably didn't hear about the report because it was released with almost no public notification. The same Department of Edcuation that employs great fanfare and noise in releasing any shred of evidence that public schools are failing was oddly silent with this evidence that public schools might actually be doing a good job. The only notice of the report was a one-sentence item buried inside an e-mail communication from the department's National Center for Education Statistics sent out in limited release on a Friday.

As a former newspaper reporter, I well recall the old release-it-on-Friday trick. Any company with weak earnings reports or any public entity with bad news chooses to report it on Friday when their people have left early for the weekend and when reporters themselves are eager to wrap up their week. In this instance, journalists who caught notice of the report were told that Education Secretary Margaret Spellings would not be available for comment. And In the end, few media outlets reported on this significant report. When challenged later on the almost complete lack of public notification, Spellings said she didn't think parents would be interested. Hmmm. Research that allows parents to make informed decisions about their children's education. Doesn't that sound important to you? In fact, the report's executive summary mentions only the instances of private-school superiority and says nothing of areas where public schools come out on top. It took some intrepid reporters' and educational researchers' deep reading to discover what the study really says.

So is there a vast right-wing conspiracy here? I don't know, but my skeptical mind has been alerted. I know that most rank-and-file conservatives believe in the value of public education, and that most of them are quite pleased with the public schools their own children attend. Many conservatives are teachers and administrators in the public system. But there are a few significant subgroups of powerful right-wingers who are quite hostile to public education, and the White House loves to pander to them.

So who are these folks?

First we have the crowd on the Religious Right who believes our schools are hotbeds of left-wing social engineering. To hear these critics talk, we do little else in the schools these days but read "Heather Has Two Mommies," play the lifeboat game, legitimize all and any sexual activity for minors, persecute and ridicule all forms of religious exercise and teach children that they are in fact their own gods. The Southern Baptist Convention earlier this year considered and ultimately rejected (for now, at least) a resolution calling for all Southern Baptist parents to withdraw their children from public schools. Anne Coulter, in her latest juvenile rant, "Godless: The Church of Liberalism," categorically describes all public educators in America as "taxpayer-supported leeches" and devotes an entire chapter to chronicle isloated documented instances when teachers and administrators did attempt to trample a student's First Amendement rights. It's a transparent attempt, a favorite of the talk-radio outrage mill, to smear an entire system based on a few isolated outrages. In fact, the vast majority of us teachers prefers to steer clear of any social controversy. Really, we'd just like our students to sit still long enough so we can teach them to read and do some math. Maybe if they put their GameBoys down long enough, we could even throw in a little science and social studies.

The second group consists of the nothing-is-sacred crowd of money-changers in the education temple. These are the folks who are out to make a quick buck, and they definitely have President Bush's sympathies as we know he believes nothing is worth doing unless someone can make a whole lot of money doing it. Here's where we find snake-oil salesman Chris Whittle and his Edison Schools. This is the school of for-profit education, where children aren't seen as individuals deserving of the best education we can give them, but more as walking bundles of taxpayer-provided cashflow. I worked for a for-profit charter school for two years. We packed 25-30 students in each classroom with grossly inadequate facilities and teachers paid far less than in the public schools. The school was a dangerous place with test scores far below the public campuses we were competing against. At the same time, some folks in the corporate office were making a whole lot of money.

The final group is the bunch that simply hates public education and would like to see the entire system dismantled. Some are wannabe blueblood elitists, others are anti-tax zealots. These folks, in the end, really don't care if all children receive an adequate education - just so long as their kids get one. Others do care but only in theory. These are the libertarian goofballs like John Stossel, whose one-sided and slanted "20/20" report, "Stupid in America: How We Are Cheating Our Kids," presented the entire public school system as a collective of whiny, overpaid, incompetent teachers. In Stossel's free-market-worshipping, utopian la-la land, once we tore down the current system, a new system of private schools would rise up, tending to all children's needs and do so much more efficiently and adequately than what those public-school slugs currently do. Please refer back to my own for-profit charter school experience above.

Fortunately, most Americans disagree with all three of these groups, further illustrating how out of touch the Right is these days. Study after study has come to the same conclusion: Americans feel good about the schools their own children attend. The entire system, however, they're not so sure about, a perception I know is fueled by this concerted attempt to smear public education and by constant reports on the 6-o'clock news about gang fights and shootings at a tiny number of inner-city campuses.

So how do I feel about public schools in America? When I hear that only 70 percent of our kids graduate from high school (more like 40 percent in the 'hood), and that an achievement gap yawns between white and minority students, I don't feel like cheering too loudly. However, I do know that teachers and administrators work harder than ever, and that lazy incompetent types find less and less refuge in our public schools these days. I think we also need to demand more personal responsibility from students and parents than what our system currently demands. Finally, let's look at David Berliner's and Bruce Biddle's 1998 book, "The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on Public Schools" for some perspective. Berliner and Biddle do quite a competent job of pointing out the dangers of comparing American test scores vs. foreign test scores given the vast difference between our inclusive system of education vs. most countries' elitist systems. These comparisons often have lain at the bedrock of public-school-haters' arguments, and they're just not valid.

In the end, I know we have a lot of work to do, but I also believe we do have something to celebrate in our public education system. This recent report that the Education Department doesn't want us to hear about further illustrates it.

Hi Brian! Brett and I were reading your blog. It would be nice to have a system where all children have equal opportunities to succeed but unfortunately there isn't a clear cut answer.

Brett says that some public schools are better than others ie. Dallas ISD vs. Southlake or Highland Park. It all has to do with the tax payer role. Is Robin Hood solving the problem?

Hope you had a great summer - I was so sorry to hear about Martha :( But I'm glad I got to meet her (and you & Charlene). Have a great year in school!
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