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The U.S. Education System Is Not Failing

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By Steve Berlin, Senior Communications Manager of the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE)

The American education system — inasmuch as it's actually a system — is not failing. For readers stunned by a phrase not often seen in print these days, I repeat: The U.S. education system is not failing. I know that's not a popular position these days, but it is the right one. There are indeed problems that need addressing, but there is significant cognitive dissonance in how the public views K-12 education.

So, why do I say our schools as a whole are succeeding? Well, why not start with what is meant by "failing?" The term is a relic that defines education policy and growth as all-or-nothing propositions. It can be easily traced to 1983's A Nation at Risk, which made "failing schools" a part of the American vernacular. But it was truly burned into headlines and our collective consciousness with the 2001 iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, better known as No Child Left Behind — a law that uses all stick and no carrot as inducements for improvement, usually with the "failing" schools and districts that were struggling in the first place.

Worse, NCLB pointed to 2014 as the deadline for 100 percent proficiency. If schools, districts and states can't meet that deadline, well, they have failed. Doesn't matter that people are working hard to draft new policies and legislation, and devising new and improved means of integrating technology into curricula, or that greater instructional rigor than ever before is being demanded of our teachers. It's all-or-nothing.

We constantly hear that our schools, nationally, are failing, but in this year's PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, only 7 percent of respondents agree. More telling, however, is that only 4 percent of that same group think their own local schools are failing and a combined 48 percent think their local schools rate grades of 'A' or 'B.' So the system is failing, but their schools are OK. Hmm.

There are, however, metrics that are often used to illustrate how awful American schools are. PISA scores are quite popular in that regard. For instance, students in Finland, South Korea, Singapore, and in one city in China do better on these exams than their U.S. counterparts. After all, what better way to show how bad our schools are, and how inept our students, than comparing them to actual top-down education systems in ethnically homogenous countries (and city) with populations a fraction of the United States'? Which is, again, not to say we should neither see nor expect improvements in student performance. We should, and I think we do. So who's to blame for our perceived failure?

Teachers and teachers' unions are popular punching bags for our assumed mediocrity. Why not? It's easy to blame public servants — who spend almost as much time with students during the school year as their parents and whose salaries are paid for with tax monies — for the lack of students' progress.

Again, it's true that not every teacher is great, or even good. But most are good at what they do and work hard to improve all the time. I never really understood how hard that job was until I bombed while trying to convince high school juniors that American history is important and that they should be ready to write original papers if they planned to go to college.

Those who are quick to blame teachers and their supposedly inflated salaries use the familiar refrain that more money does not make for better results. Perhaps, but if they think there are so few high-quality instructors, what makes them think cutting their pay and making them public scapegoats will make the profession that much more attractive to the next generation?

More interesting, for the third straight year the PDK poll reports that 71 percent of Americans believe that public school teachers are worthy of their trust and confidence. Hmm. Must be all the other kids' teachers who stink.

It is rarely mentioned that teachers and unions are just one piece of the educational puzzle. We seldom hear at large that safe and healthy school environments are critical to student success; that safe and healthy students are important to this formula; that sound parenting is a must; that technology alone will not solve any problems.

The discussion here is larger than that. If you read EdWeek, it follows that you care about education. To you I ask, "Who's controlling the tone of the debate about public education?"

I will never say that we in the broader education community — from state board members to educators to custodians — should not aspire to greater academic success for our students. Indeed, we must. But I will not say that we are failing. And we should not let anyone who says so get away unchallenged, either.


Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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