Sunday, December 17, 2006
I was browsing in a used-book store the other day and came across a wonderful book. And of course, by "wonderful" I mean one that said just what I believe.
But where my beliefs have been based on personal observation, this book was full of hard data to prove the point. And that point is: Generally speaking, our public schools are doing just fine.
You sure don't hear many people preaching that idea, do you?
The book is The Manufactured Crisis – Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America's Public Schools. It was written by a couple of professors, David C. Berliner of Arizona State University and Bruce J. Biddle of the University of Missouri.
"This book was written in outrage," say the opening words of their preface. "We discovered how Americans were being misled about schools and their accomplishments."
After scanning the book, I flipped to the front to see when it was published. Copyright 1995.
Wow, I thought. Criticism of public education has only intensified since then. I wondered if the professors have since decided the critics were right – or if they are still outraged.
Dr. Berliner didn't miss a beat when we spoke last week. "I'm still outraged," he said.
Schools haven't worsened?
"No!" he said.
"In fact, I'd say the classes we are graduating today are the brightest, best-trained students America has ever produced."
He said SAT scores have climbed over the last decade. More students are enrolled in demanding Advanced Placement classes. Standardized test scores are up.
But Dr. Berliner and Dr. Biddle were both quick to say it's impossible to have a meaningful discussion about "public schools" – as if they can all be lumped under one term. Schools vary far too widely for that.
Dr. Biddle said, "In wealthier suburbs, like those around Dallas, you will find some of the absolute best public schools in all the world.
"On the other hand," he said, "in some inner cities, in places like the South Bronx or East St. Louis, Ill., you will find some of the worst schools in the modern, civilized world. They are unbelievably rotten places."
Unfortunately, the professors said, Americans tend to think of "public schools" as one thing. And the pockets of failure overshadow the far broader landscape of public-school success.
As I said, my views have been shaped by personal observation. With two children educated in public schools, with a wife teaching in public schools, with a job that takes me into many public schools, I mostly see bright, capable kids in orderly, focused schools.
Yet on an almost daily basis I hear from readers about the failure of our schools. An e-mail last week referred to the "cesspool" of public education.
The professors said this perception stems from a variety of sources. Part of it is simply the timeless tendency of oldsters to fret about "these kids today." Partly it's our fault in the media for playing up isolated horror stories.
A big part is the growing hostility toward anything governmental, regardless of success. (Rush Limbaugh repeatedly refers to "our public screw-els.")
The worst part, the professors said, is a deliberate, deceitful campaign by some to discredit public education and profit from privatization. "This is not an unmotivated group," Dr. Biddle said. "They are not shy about lying and creating all sorts of propaganda."
Because we have such a distorted view of our schools, we keep getting wrongheaded attempts to "fix" them, the profs said.
Poor, inner-city schools need much more money – for smaller classes, for longer days, for experienced teachers and other proven strategies. "The myth says money won't improve schools. That's just nonsense," Dr. Biddle said.
On the other side of the coin, successful schools get saddled with things like standardized, high-stakes testing, which does far more harm than good, Dr. Berliner said.
We've got to get smarter about our schools. Let's fix what needs fixing – and as the saying goes, stop trying to fix what ain't broke.
Sure, let's keep striving to improve. But for most of our public schools, a little more praise and respect is what they need most.