Ordinarily, I would dismiss someone who thinks that the K-12 educational system is the U.S. is good as a lunatic because ‘everyone knows’ that our primary educational sucks. Then I think about the conventional wisdom that Social Security is DOOMED, and I realize that maybe the conventional wisdom about education is wrong. Gerald Bracey has an interesting post about U.S. education (italics mine):
I once had occasion to tell my son-in-law about how well American kids had done on an international comparison.
“That’s amazing,”” he said. “Why,” I asked, “is it amazing?” “Well, I just assumed our schools sucked.” An interesting comment since he wasn’t too long out of those schools and was heading towards an MBA at an elite private institution.
A packet of emails from Reid Lyon, Susan Neuman and the Reading First gang finds the group at one point complaining about a Washington Post article pointing out that NCLB “will result in the majority of the nation’s schools being deemed failing.” Lyon says, “The fact is that the schools are failing.”
No they’re not. Some are, no doubt. But in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, American kids in low poverty schools stomped the top-ranked Swedes. Even kids in schools with up to 50% of the students in poverty attained an average score that, had they constituted a nation, would have ranked 4th. Only American students attending schools with 75%+ poverty scored below the international average of the 35 participating countries.
Bracey has a very interesting take on the history of the “schools suck” concept (emphasis mine):
Worries about the quality of the schools intensified in the late 1940′s as we entered the Cold War. We needed manpower. Would the schools deliver it? When Sputnik soared into orbit in 1957, the answer appeared to be “no.” Most people believed that the Russians had got into space first because the schools suck. Admiral Hyman Rickover put it succinctly in a book title: American Education: A National Failure. (Rickover’s solution: A National Standards Committee and tests. Plus ca change…).
In fact, Wernher von Braun, our leading ex-Nazi rocketeer, pointed out that we had ignored ballistic missiles from 1945 to 1951, a period when the Russians were busily developing them. He diplomatically did not mention that the Army, Navy, and Air Force all had rocket programs and squabbled incessantly and dysfunctionally over who would get to go first (NASA did not exist until 1958).
Von Braun could have noted that while he in Germany was building the V-2 rocket that so terrified England during the war, he drew immensely from the work of Robert Goddard. Goddard, our native rocket genius, was being ignored and even mocked at home. The New York Times had scoffed at Goddard’s 1920 rocket he said might be able to reach even the moon. A rocket, Times editors declared, would be useless in a vacuum (when Apollo 11 lifted off for the moon in 1969, a note referring to the 1920 editorial said, “The Times regrets the error”).
The schools never recovered from Sputnik, but the next major blow didn’t land until 20 years later in On Further Examination. This booklet reported the findings of a panel assembled by the College Board to figure out what had caused the then 14 year decline in SAT scores. The panel blamed mostly demographic changes in who was taking the tests along with the social upheavals of the 60′s and early 70′s. The public blamed the schools.
In a Washington Post op-ed, Bracey speculates on the motivations of the “schools suck” bloc (italics mine):
Recently, Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in The Post that constant references to a “war on terror” “stimulated the emergence of a culture of fear. Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of policies they want to pursue.” Happens all the time in education. The most recent phony alarm comes from Eli Broad and Bill Gates, who are putting up $60 million hoping to “wake up the American people.” If the fear-mongers can scare you sufficiently (how many times have you heard the phrase “failing schools” in the past five years?), you might permit them to do to your public schools things you would otherwise never allow.
When it comes to Social Security, I’ve actually read the Trustees’ report (which makes me, I think, one of a very small number of people to actually have done so), so I am confident in discussing this. Bracey is so opposite the conventional wisdom and I’m not familiar enough with the data to rigorously assess his claims.
What do you think? Do our schools suck? Or do our problems (economic and technological) stem more from bad policies in those areas?
I’m definitely going to have to get his books on the subject.