The Myth of Failing Schools
THE WAR AGAINST “GOVERNMENT SCHOOLS”
|The War Against America’s Public Schools by Gerald Bracey, published 2001. The war continues…|
In a New York Times op ed, Katherine Stewart reminds us that the phrase “government schools” carries a negative connotation. She then goes on to connect the phrase to radical market guru Milton Friedman, and before him, Jim Crow.
…in certain conservative circles, the phrase “government schools” has become as ubiquitous as it is contemptuous.
What most people probably hear in this is the unmistakable refrain of American libertarianism, for which all government is big and bad. The point of calling public schools “government schools” is to conjure the specter of pathologically inefficient, power-mad bureaucrats.
David French, writing in the conservative National Review, responds to Stewart’s article and says that the right calls public schools “government schools” because that’s what they are.
Public schools are government schools…Too many Americans are stuck in a time warp, believing that the local school is somehow “their” school. They don’t understand that public education is increasingly centralized — teaching a uniform curriculum, teaching a particular, secular set of values, and following priorities set in Washington, not by their local school board. The phrase is helpful for breaking through idealism and getting parents to analyze and understand the gritty reality of modern public education. The phrase works.
Technically, French is correct. Public schools, like any public service, is, by definition, a branch of the “government.” That’s why governments at most levels have departments of education. That’s why school boards are (or should be) elected. That’s why teachers can’t engage in religious proselytization while they are working and are “agents” of the government.
But it’s the negative connotation Stewart wrote of that French promotes in his condescending attempt to support the privatization of public education. While disingenuously claiming that public schools are indeed government schools so the name doesn’t mean anything negative, he goes on to use the phrase negatively. He claims that, since public school supporters can’t defend the “failing” public schools, we take to name-calling to support our argument.
Even worse for the government-school loyalist, the fight takes place on unfavorable ground. Public schools are failing large segments of the public. They’ve been failing for decades. So rather than defend public schooling on its meager merits, all too many ideologues fall back on the old insults. “Racist!” they cry. “Theocrat!” they yell.
What could be more democratic than choice, he claims, falling back on the old argument that poor children ought to have the same “choices” that wealthy children have…without noting that…
- Vouchers do not pay the whole cost of private school tuition so many of the poorest children are still unable to attend them.
- It is often the schools which do the choosing while feeling perfectly comfortable in denying “choice” to students who are difficult or expensive to teach.
- Milton Friedman notwithstanding, competition doesn’t work, and is, in fact, counterproductive when it comes to children’s education (see also here, or even better read a random selection of these).
- Privatization has increased racial and economic segregation.
Ignoring these facts he begs us not to deny private school excellence over public school failure.
…Spend much time with America’s wealthier families, and it’s not uncommon to see parents with three kids in three different schools. They made choices based on each child’s unique needs. They give their children the best possible chance to succeed. Why deny these choices to poor kids? Should we punish them for their parents’ economic performance? Faced with the difficult task of defending a failing system and limiting parental choice, all too many defenders of government schools fall back on name-calling, conspiracy theories, and their own anti-Christian bigotries. But they can cite Rushdoony all they want. It doesn’t make him relevant. It doesn’t make public schools better. And it certainly doesn’t invalidate the good and decent effort to use greater competition to improve education for everyone — white and black alike.
Three kids in three different schools? What poor family would have the transportation resources for this situation, unless French wants vouchers to cover the cost of taxis, time off work to transport children, or extra cars for kids to transport themselves. Why not? Should we punish those children “for their parents’ economic performance?”
Are public schools failing “large segments of the public?” Public schools struggle to effectively educate the shamefully high number of high-poverty students in America because they don’t have the money or resources to support them in the way they need to be supported. There aren’t enough counselors, nurses, and social workers in high-poverty schools. There aren’t enough librarians, books or materials. There isn’t enough science equipment. There aren’t enough learning specialists. School buildings are in disrepair. And the budget proposed by the current administration in Washington will guarantee that there won’t be enough after school programs. [For a good discussion of the needs of public school students see The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve: Research-based Proposals To Strengthen Elementary And Secondary Education In The Chicago Public Schools by the Chicago Teachers Union.]
Public school advocates are not “faced with the difficult task of defending a failing system.” Instead we’re faced with the difficult task of responding to the misinformation, deflections, and lies coming from privatizers who deny that poverty has anything to do with low school achievement and that it’s the politicians and policy makers who have failed to fully support public education. Policy makers ought to be held responsible by their constituents to provide full public school funding based on the needs of the community. Policy makers ought to be held responsible for relieving the pressures of our society’s economic inequality, rather than blaming the victims who are relegated to understaffed, and under-resourced institutions.
And we’re not faced with the task of defending a failing system. America’s public schools are not failing.
Public schools, when statistics are corrected for demographics, perform better than private schools. The University of Chicago Press reviewers of The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools, by Christopher and Sarah Lubienski, write,
Private schools have higher scores not because they are better institutions but because their students largely come from more privileged backgrounds that offer greater educational support. After correcting for demographics, the Lubienskis go on to show that gains in student achievement at public schools are at least as great and often greater than those at private ones. Even more surprising, they show that the very mechanism that market-based reformers champion—autonomy—may be the crucial factor that prevents private schools from performing better. Alternatively, those practices that these reformers castigate, such as teacher certification and professional reforms of curriculum and instruction, turn out to have a significant effect on school improvement.
Instead of accusing public school advocates of “anti-Christian” bigotry because we refuse to approve of mixing public tax dollars with religious school education, French ought to get his facts straight.
Another discussion of the “government schools” phrase. The people who are working to privatize public education hate government, and because public schools are government sponsored public services, they hate public education, too. This isn’t new.
Do they also hate public libraries? public parks? and public water systems? Do they hate the government run military?
…these people are working with a completely different ethical system than the rest of us and a different philosophy, but it’s a coherent one and they are pursuing their goals with very strategic, calculating tools.” That’s also why the right is so focused on the teachers’ unions. It’s not because they are only concerned about the quality of education and think that teachers are blocking that. First of all, this is a cause that hated public education—what they would call government schools; they don’t even want to say public education—before there were teachers’ unions.
THE MYTH OF FAILING PUBLIC SCHOOLS
Challenging the myth that public schools are failing is one of the greatest obstacles facing public school advocates. Some selected responses to that myth…
What I have suggested for ameliorating the low performance of low-income children, on all our assessments, are characteristics of schooling and the provision of health and other supports for children now present in wealthier communities. Perhaps, then, we should rely on John Dewey to help low-income students succeed, instead of putting our faith in vouchers, charters, test preparation, teacher accountability and the like. To paraphrase just a little, Dewey said:
“What the best and wisest … parents want for their children, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.”
In the rush to privatize the country’s schools, corporations and politicians have decimated school budgets, replaced teaching with standardized testing, and placed the blame on teachers and students.
…why do we believe that American public schools are doing such a terrible job?
Because far right policymakers have convinced us all that it’s true.
Let me repeat that in no uncertain terms – America’s public schools are NOT failing. They are among the best in the world. Really!
The problem that DeVos and others don’t understand, or just simply ignore, is poverty. American public schools accept everyone and test everyone. Not all countries do that. We don’t weed out our poor and low-achieving students as they get older, so everyone gets tested…
The fact is that students who come from backgrounds of poverty don’t achieve as well as students from wealthier backgrounds. And we, in the U.S. are (nearly) Number One in child poverty.
But when schools are doing better than ever before, the best way to encourage continued improvement is not a concerted attack on school governance and organization. A more effective approach would be praise for accomplishment, provision of additional resources to programs whose results justify support, and reforms on the margin to correct programs and curricula shown to be ineffective.