Everyone knows that our public school system is a mess, far worse than it’s ever been. Teachers’ unions, more than any other factor, stand in the way of making progress toward a brighter future, where graduation rates are up, test scores stop falling, and we restore our education system to its former greatness. If we only convert the current public schools into charter schools, we can achieve this goal.
Everyone knows this.
Everyone is wrong.
Despite being underfunded, undervalued and vilified, America’s teachers are by any measure doing a better job today than they ever have before. Graduation rates are up. Test scores are, too. American students graduate from high school with better education than they ever have in our nation’s history.
You probably haven’t heard this. You’ve heard about failing schools and burnt-out teachers. You’ve heard Michelle Rhee tout her experience in Washington, D.C., arguing that college students with no education training make better teachers than 20-year veterans. You’ve heard that teachers are just greedy and don’t care about whether kids succeed or fail.
With the Chicago teachers’ union striking for the first time in a quarter-century, these stories — told by Democrats and Republicans alike — are circulating once again. Indeed, so pernicious are the tales that you probably doubt everything I’ve written so far. We all know our schools are failing us. We hear this tale every day.
The numbers tell a different tale.
Our Succeeding Schools
A high school diploma is considered the minimal education needed for success in our country, and not enough students are receiving them. The high school graduation rate is abysmal, and we need to do something — anything — to shore it up.
Does that sound familiar? It should. We hear, over and over again, how a quarter of high school students drop out, and how this is a crisis of epic proportions.
No, it’s not good when a student drops out of high school without graduating — but that’s happening less than at any time in recorded history. Moreover, the students who drop out rarely stay dropped out — most go on to earn a G.E.D., the equivalent of a high school diploma.
In 2009, 86.7 percent of Americans over 25 years old held high school diplomas. That was the highest rate in U.S. history, up from 80.2 percent in 1997, up from 73.9 percent in 1985. Moreover, 88.6 percent of people aged 25 to 29 were high school graduates, also a record.
The gains have been broad-based and remarkable. Since 1980, the overall rate of 25-and-overs with diplomas is up by more than 18 percentage points. The gains have been even more striking among African Americans, who have seen their graduation rate rise from just over 50 percent in 1980 to 84.2 percent in 2009 — just 2.5 percent lower than the national average.
The news is not all rosy. Latinos have continued to lag, with just 61.9 percent holding a high school diploma. Still, those numbers are still up 17.4 percentage points since 1980.
These gains are especially remarkable when compared to history. In 1960, just 41.1 percent of Americans 25 and over were high school graduates, and just 21.7 percent of African Americans. In 1940, those numbers were 24.5 percent and 7.7 percent, respectively. In about 70 years, overall graduation rates are 354 percent better, and African American graduation rates are 1,094 percent better.
Test Scores Are Up, Too
All right, you may say, but we all know that high schools are just giving diplomas to anyone, no matter their ability. Surely test scores have shown a serious drop, right?
Wrong. At worst, standardized test scores have remained relatively flat over the past 40 years, with a slight upward trend. Our elementary schools, especially, have shown a dramatic increase in math scores, and a significant increase in reading scores. The gap between white and non-white students has closed significantly. Gains have come in both public and private schools — private schools are up slightly more in reading, public schools slightly more in math — and reading and math scores have especially improved for lower-achieving students.
In short, while there’s always room for improvement, students today are better-educated than they were forty years ago. They earn more high school diplomas and more college degrees than ever. Simply put, the American education system is objectively better now than it ever has been.
The Problem is Poverty
This is not to say that every school is successful — certainly, there are plenty of schools that are “failing.” Those schools all share a common bond: they are schools that serve a disproportionately poor population. Children who grow up in poverty do worse in school, no matter what school they are in. Concentrate a number of students who are growing up in poverty in one school, and results are bound to look bad.
Geoffrey Canada, the President and CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone, has received a great deal of attention for his successful charter schools, which service poor students. While much of the focus has been on the charter school part of the equation, far less is paid to the social services provided by HCZ, from health clinics to foster care prevention services. HCZ has succeeded in no small part because it has taken steps to mitigate the damage done by poverty.
So-called “failing” schools don’t have the option of using private endowments to provide comprehensive social services. Certainly, schools do what they can to aid poorer students. But schools cannot and should not be expected to help ameliorate the damage done by poverty.
Unfortunately, we as a society don’t want to tackle the issue of endemic poverty; that would require us to ask hard questions and possibly even spend taxpayer money to aid children in need. It’s much easy to claim that teachers are simply failures, that they could do better if they just ditched their union, gave up tenure and started operating education like a business.
The Profit Motive
It is that last sentence that should get your attention. The leaders of the “education reform” movement — the Michelle Rhees, the Bill Gateses, the Walton family — have been pushing hard to make education function more like a business, profit motive and all. We are told that overpaid teachers are all that stand between us and a well-educated nation. We are told that more testing (designed by and run by private firms), more charter schools (which can and do earn profits), and Teach for America (a federal program that replaces experienced teachers with recent college grads) can fix all the problems of America’s school.
Among the solutions pitched are using Rosetta Stone language software instead of hiring foreign-language teachers, eliminating classroom instruction in favor of online classes and hiring “data-driven” leaders, who view education not as a mission to impart knowledge to the next generation, but rather a service to be delivered at the lowest-possible cost.
Therein lies the basis for myth of our failing schools. Education is big business. Literally every American is required to get schooling in some form for some time. Today, the vast majority of those students go to public school for free, where they’re taught by teachers whose only goal is to teach. If those students can instead be funneled into for-profit charter schools, supported by government money, they can become the same sort of profit-generators that for-profit online colleges have become.
There are a few things standing in the way of business and all this money, however. Chief among them are the teachers, women and men who chose a career that is not especially lucrative, and indeed is constantly disparaged. The vast majority of teachers decided on their career not because they wanted to get rich, but because they truly want to help children learn. They understand that providing education to every American free of charge is the precise opposite of running education like a business, and thank goodness — because business would spend less time educating the “unprofitable” kids.
We can, and should, continue to strive to improve our education system. We should not be satisfied with an education system that gets diplomas into the hands of only 88 percent of adults. But neither should we pretend that this system is badly broken, or in decline.
Improving educational outcomes does not depend on breaking the unions, or converting our public schools to charter schools. Rather, it depends on our ability to address problems outside of school — poverty, access to health care and child care, access to early childhood education. These are not problems our school system can fix. Indeed, as long as we continue to cut social services, these are problems that will only get worse.
Our schools have done a great job of improving outcomes over the past 70 years, despite a general lack of support. Our schools are not failing. Despite the demands of high-stakes testing, the attacks on educators as a group, the continuing sneering as schools in general, our education system just keeps doing what it’s always done — educating children, as best they can with what little we give them. They don’t deserve a free pass, but neither do they deserve the opprobrium heaped on them. Our education system is better now than it has ever been. For that, educators deserve nothing but respect.
Image Credit: Robert Couse-Baker