Radical idea: Public schools aren't an awful mess
This post was written by Nancy Flanagan, an education writer and consultant focusing on teacher leadership. She spent 30 years in a K-12 music classroom in Hartland, Mich, and was named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 1993. She is National Board-certified, and a member of the Teacher Leaders Network. She writes for her blog "Teacher in a Strange Land" for Education week, and her work is featured on the Web site Teachers Lead.
By Nancy Flanagan
Here's a radical idea: Public schools in America are not a catastrophic mess.
Backed into a corner, beat up and wildly uneven in quality, yes. There's plenty of room for improvement, even in the schools that look terrific on paper. But perhaps it's time to take a deep breath and consider the words of Wendy Puriefoy:
In a society where the wealthiest are walled off in gated communities and the poorest are isolated in ghettos, our public schools—for all their faults and shortcomings—are still our best chance to give all children a shot at the American dream.
A friend who teaches in Kansas confessed recently that she feels a little guilty as bitter education reform battles rage in New York, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. Things aren't perfect in her school--they're not perfect anywhere, including the exceptionally rare charter academies that hold lotteries for admission--but she and her colleagues believe they're doing a good job for kids.
The big initiatives they're pursuing in her suburban Kansas middle school this year? Using professional learning communities to improve curriculum, upgrading common performance assessments and expanding effective use of Web 2.0 tools. Their test scores are solid, but they believe they can do a better job. They continue to identify and address weaknesses. And nobody has seen "Waiting for Superman."
There are plenty of good things happening in American schools, things that do not involve superheroes, multimillion-dollar federal grants or life/death lotteries. Good things do not make gripping copy or support melodramatic storylines. They're small-scale: Strengthening science knowledge and pedagogy in early-grades teachers. Students growing their own lunches in Iowa. Setting up on-line book clubs for sixth graders. Individual teachers reflecting on how to inspire their students. Transforming school cultures in Detroit, ground zero for economic despair.
The list goes on and on. David Cohen of Accomplished California Teachers just posted an impressive synopsis of promising ideas here, and Public School Insights offers a sampling of more than 100 impressive and encouraging programs, research reports and visionaries here. Evidence and good news galore.
So why is the Secretary of Education promoting Hurricane Katrina as metaphor and even, unbelievably, treatment for our most stressed public districts and schools? Why would the man charged with improving education for all children in America feel compelled to begin every speech with dire, hyped-up international test comparisons, the go-to explication of our failing educational prospects?
At times like these, we miss the voice of the late Gerald Bracey, who made a career of explaining why, for decades, parents and communities have believed their schools are pretty good, but schools everywhere else are terrible.
In a wonderful article in Kappan, Bracey used PIRLS reading data to perform this thought experiment: Of the 39 nations tested, the Russians took the top slot with a score of 565. American kids clocked in at 540, still above the median international score of 500. When the scores were disaggregated by ethnicity, however, Asian-American students got a 567; white American students, 560; Hispanic students, 518; black students, 503; and American Indians, 468.
In Bracey's model, Asian-American kids were #1, and white American kids were #3 in international rankings. Disaggregating by economic status is even more revealing—in schools where fewer than 10% of the students live in poverty, the score was 573. Well-off American kids are kicking their global competition to the curb, it seems—at least in 4th grade literacy.
Not that it matters to the critics. Bracey’s comment here is perfect: “One thing these rankings make clear is that anyone who makes statements about ‘American schools’ is speaking about an institution that doesn’t exist.”
And that's the bottom line. Education in America is too diverse and vast to make neat, unilateral prescriptions for saving the schools that actually need rescue--or improving the large majority of schools, whose performance ranges from mediocre to dynamic and outstanding. We have the tools to leverage advancement across the board, but it will take hard and focused work, school by school. The last thing we need is the suggestion that it would be more efficient to smash, then wash away, the fragile social and academic capital that schools in poor neighborhoods have built up.
Arianna Huffington says the "zeitgeist is calling" America's public schools. Perhaps it's not the zeitgeist, but a media-driven narrative created by people who wouldn't dream of sending their children to public schools--folks who would be astonished at how happy parents in Kansas and other pedestrian, middle-America places are with their public schools. The campaign against public schools is dangerous and deceptive. We stand to lose something great: the uniquely American idea of a free, high-quality public education for every child.
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| October 14, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories: Guest Bloggers, School turnarounds/reform | Tags: ariana huffington, arne duncan, gerald bracey, guest bloggers, hurricane katrina, katrina nation, nancy flanagan, pisa, public education, school reform, teachers, waiting for superman, wendy puriefoy
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