The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

The Myth of “Our Failing Schools” and How to Destroy It

on August 18, 2017

An interesting article on the public’s perception of the quality of our public schools appeared in The Atlantic on July 15, Why Americans Think So Poorly of the Country’s Schools, by Jack Schneider. I will summarize it today and add my opinions.


 As a long time reader of the Phi Delta Kappan, an education journal, I am familiar with the results of its yearly poll reports on the public’s perception of our public schools. As long I can remember, most parents have given their children’s school an A or B rating. But when it comes to rating public schools in general, the responders are not so positive. Around 70 percent of them have consistently given those schools a C or D grade.

What’s going on here? According to Jack Schneider, a researcher at the College of the Holy Cross, the answer is simple: When evaluating their own children’s school, parents know a lot about what is happening there first hand . Most of them are pleased with their children’s experiences, and what they see or hear happening for other children. But when asked to evaluate the vast number of schools elsewhere, they only know what they read in the newspapers or hear on television. And  most of those sources report that our public schools are failing to teach students what they need to know to succeed in college or the workplace.

Schneider identifies the source of this belief as the “politics of education.” He says, “Beginning with the launch of Sputnik in 1957, the leaders in Washington have argued with increasing regularity that our country’s schools are in crisis.” He adds that, “The failing-school narrative has been quite effective in generating political will for federal involvement in education.”  Unfortunately, that narrative is not an accurate description of any school; it is based only on a single piece of data: students’ test scores

Although the scores for their own school may also be low, parents get a much broader range of information about the progress of their children, which includes report cards, parent/teacher conferences, individual pieces of students’ work, and school events. They may also get monthly newsletters from the principal that highlight the good things happening at school. Even if their own child is not doing well academically or behaviorally, parents may very well be receiving information about the help he is getting and the progress he is making.

Although there doesn’t appear to be any change in the dominance of data in the news media, there is one thing in the new ESSA law that may give everyone a broader picture. In the plans for improving their schools all states are now required to report to the Department of Education on several other conditions beyond test scores, such as graduation rates, school attendance, and the numbers of students enrolled in advanced courses. The only trick in reporting all this information to the public is weaving it into a seamless report that will show the full quality of any school.

Unfortually, broader pictures would still not be enough to make all schools successful. High poverty schools need better financial support to keep class sizes small enough for all students to get attention to their needs and class behavior to be manageable. They also need sufficient funding to lure in high quality teachers and give them the school structures and extra time necessary to do a great job.

In addition, testing for all schools needs to be more reasonable than it is now. Instead of tests created to match the unrealistic expectations of the CCSS, every state should be able to get a test designed to fit its curriculum and the values of its people.

Right now it is not our public schools, but the federal government that is failing to educate our children well.  We must overhaul the system to allow,  support, and accurately report the greatness of which this country’s schools are fully capable.

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