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Whither Public Schooling?

When you wage war on the public schools, you're attacking the mortar that holds the community together. You're not a conservative, you're a vandal. Garrison Keillor

I know all the data and all the rationales for the get-tough (actually, get-brutal) perspective on what to do about public schools in America. I know people who think calling them "government schools" is the height of hip sophistication, an Ayn-Randish kiss-off of education as community rather than commodity. I'm thoroughly familiar with real and massaged international test numbers, dropout rates and the SAT scores of people who choose to become teachers.

But here's what I don't get: Who benefits when there's a concerted effort to paint a bedrock-of-democracy institution like free public education as massive failure?

I'm perfectly willing to admit that lots of public schools (and lots of charter schools, and more than a few private schools) aren't very good. Some are terrible. There are some terrible teachers, too--in all three kinds of school. Somebody ought to do something about that.

But must step one in that campaign be trashing the current--overwhelmingly predominant--form of educational service? What purpose does that serve--beyond reducing confidence in a system upon which our national well-being and economic health depends? Whose axe is being ground when the general consensus is that public schooling has failed?

I have had firsthand experience with both public and private schools--through the lens of scrutinizing parent with considerable experience in education. One of our two children attended a highly regarded, competitive-admissions all-girls Catholic Academy, in a tony suburb of Detroit. The other attended our local, small-town public high school, a half-mile from our home. Their experiences were considerably different--but I would be hard-pressed to determine which was "better."

My daughter got a rigorous traditional education--Latin and French, lots of research papers, exposure to the classical canon, classes in ethics and theology and nightly homework. My son's experiences in science and math were superior, however--replete with laboratory work and taught by considerably more skilled and knowledgeable teachers, who knew how to apply their content expertise. He also participated in a music program with a range of offerings including jazz band and guitar class, and took several technology classes, things that weren't offered at the private school. There were excellent, average and incompetent teachers at both schools, in roughly the same percentages.

My daughter went to school with the daughters of CEOs and city politicos. At graduation, 17 girls shared the distinction of valedictorian, carrying a 4.0 average. At my son's commencement, we knew half the audience--their children had grown up with ours, playing Little League and attending the prom. The boys he went to high school with are still close friends; they've supported each other at State U and through life crises. Both children have friends who excelled academically, sailing through challenging undergraduate programs--and both have classmates whose high school experiences did not prepare them for success in college.

Mine is just one perspective--but I have more fine-grained information on and understanding of "school success" than most parents. One of the things I heard all the time at the Catholic Academy was how grateful parents were that their daughters didn't have to go to (grimace) public schools. I knew the public systems that those girls would have attended--most of them were good districts with solid state assessment scores, a stable, capable teaching staff and signature programs. There was a certain cachet and exclusivity in being a Mercy girl, however.

These contrasting school experiences taught me two things:

Perception is reality, when it comes to schooling.

And there's a concerted, growing campaign to paint all public schools--collectively--as academically weak, ineffectual, bloated, staffed by lazy overpaid veterans, resistant to change, falling behind our international competitors. Failing, mostly. You see it in films, and on YouTube--even in women's magazines. Our failing schools.

I think this is dangerous on several levels. We have no adequate replacement for the common school, the core site of opportunity, when public opinion turns against it. Positioning public education as hopeless doesn't leave room for honest solutions--or allow time for investments in quality to pay off. Schools and teachers become scapegoats, rather than partners in solving an intractable problem. And--as Garrison Keillor says--schools are community institutions. When they are seen as broken and worthless, other community interests and services are negatively affected. I'm not sure I want to live in a world where everyone competes for a basic education.

One of the first lessons I learned, as a novice teacher, was that punishing all my students for the misbehavior or academic lapses of a fraction of the class was a futile and counterproductive exercise. The guilty parties seldom shaped up, and the rest of the group felt powerless and resentful. Far better to get everyone interested and working toward a common goal than singling out students, either for punishment or praise. Better for the strugglers to see themselves as the lower tier of a successful class than for the genuinely excellent kids to see their meticulous work as a fluke, the best that could be expected from a group of losers.

Public schooling in America was built on the theory of the rising tide--the one that lifts all boats, not the rhetorical "tide of mediocrity" that started this throw-the-bums out trend. Americans have been complaining about their schools for decades, in good times and bad. But lately, talk about failing schools has been incessant.

Cui bono: Who gains, when the public turns against a venerable institution?

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