Are schools really failing?

One of the charms of ‘retirement’ will be having the time to read and pass on commentary, blogs, research, and new articles that I find online day by day. An issue I have been following for my entire career revolves around the controversy of whether American schools are failing.

I recall reading Why Johnny Can’t Read when I was in junior high in 1958, though I admit I read the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version of the book and didn’t read the original until I started teaching.  The school success/failure debate rages on, reincarnating every few years, but generally it’s fueled by the same basic issues–why don’t all students succeed, and what can we do about it?  When you’ve worked with educators who comment on the status of school reform over a spectrum of 90 years as I have (the educators I started working with in 1968 had 45 years of experience to share with me, and I have 45 years of my own), you hear again and again that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

I want to feature two authors today who appear to support opposite sides of this debate.  Michael Lind, in Education Reform’s Central Myth, (, August 1) points out that when one considers the performance of most American schools where poverty does not affect achievement, our schools are actually pretty good.  He uses South Korea and Finland as examples, pointing out that the percent of GDP spent on education there exceeds that spent in the US.  He suggests the 35% of students in poverty produce the low international rankings, not the 65% of US students who are actually doing well.

Taking the other side, Marilyn Rhames, a Chicago Charter School teacher, in Reforming the ‘Myth’ of America’s Failing Schools (It’s Actually True) (Education Week Teacher, August 8) highlights her experiences in poor urban schools, suggests Lind is off-base suggesting poor kids can’t learn, and offers a coherent commentary on the danger of loosing sight of the problems of bad schools in low-income communities by suggesting schools are not really failing.

Interestingly, both are fundamentally correct, though I think Rhames has misread Lind, which is so often the case when authors point out the links between community incomes and poor schools.  When the reality of poverty’s connection to low achievement is made clear, those who are concerned about how to close this gap quickly raise the race card to say bad schools are the problem, not poverty.  But bad schools are found in communities where poor families have no political clout, fewer connections to schools, less awareness of what a quality education should look like, poor nutrition, children who come to school with large vocabulary gaps compared to middle class children,… the list goes on.  In this chicken or egg question, I believe poverty ’causes’ bad schools, and the effect is immensely challenging to overcome.

Lind does not suggest poor kids can’t learn.  I’ll offer a bit of extrapolation from Lind’s argument–schools are failing for poor children, but not overall. Schools in poor communities are under-resourced, often staffed by less experienced teachers, and have high turn-over rates and leadership issues that are less common in schools from higher income communities.  Schools are doing as well for middle class and well-off kids in America as they are anywhere in the world.  The issue gets back to community poverty.  Where nations deal with poverty (there is a massive social welfare net in Finland–poverty does not spill over to affect classrooms) they have good schools.  Where they don’t, schools suffer.

Lind is correct to point out that America chooses to paint all schools as bad and try economic models of competition to make up for inconsistency in performance.  No nation anywhere has tried this successfully, but we are driven by the notion that competition is the solution to everything, including poverty.  Rhames correctly notes that good teachers can go a long way to improve bad schools, and we can’t give up on kids because they are poor.  They are not in disagreement–they are talking about two different issues.

In future commentaries, I’ll dig deeper into international tests to highlight how American kids actually are doing.  In the meantime, interested readers can Google materials by Gerald Bracey and get his 2004 book, Setting the Record Straight: responses to misconceptions about public education in the U.S.  While it’s 8 years old, he does a fantastic job of skewering the selective and misleading use of data by public education critics.


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