Too often, we look for easy answers and quick fixes to our problems. And if we can’t find those answers, we look to quickly blame someone else for the problem. We do this because change is hard, and it often requires admitting that the world is not one of lollipops and rainbows.
We see this on a daily basis in public education. Even in the face of recent NAEP scores and high school dropout rates, many say our schools have never been stronger than they are today. When confronted with questions about dropout factories and college remediation rates, the response is usually to blame poverty. If only those kids weren’t poor, all would be well in the world.
Of course, one can point to true exemplars of excellence and improvement in low-income communities across the country. Yes, poverty is a contributing factor. A significant one. But it is an obstacle that needs to be overcome, not a reason for inaction.
So it is disappointing when one sees the media buy into the blame game and offer an view that is so simplistic it is often nonsensical. That is the case of a recent piece published by In These Times, an online pub with the tagline “With Liberty and Justice For All …”
A recent piece by David Sirota, Teachers Were Never the Problem: Poverty still lies at the root of the “U.S. education crisis,” the author advocates all of the urban legends floating around, and does so with vague claims of “the research shows.”
Want some examples? Try these on for size:
“we know that American public school students from wealthy districts generate some of the best test scores in the world. This proves that the education system’s problems are not universal–the crisis is isolated primarily in the parts of the system that operate in high poverty areas.”“we know that many of the high-performing public schools in America’s wealthy locales are unionized. We also know that one of the best school systems in the world—Finland’s—is fully unionized. These facts prove that teachers’ unions are not the root cause of the education problem, either.”“All of this leads to an obvious conclusion: If America was serious about fixing the troubled parts of its education system, then we would be having a fundamentally different conversation.
We wouldn’t be talking about budget austerity—we would be talking about raising public revenues to fund special tutoring, child care, basic health programs and other so-called wrap-around services at low-income schools.”
Get the point? No, the problems in accountability and student performance and college/career readiness are not isolated in high-poverty areas. That thinking is part of the problem. It makes achievement an us-versus-them scenario, one where far too many people think this is just an issue of black and brown kids living in crime-ridden cities. Instead, the problem is everywhere, even in white suburbs.
Anyone serious about improving our schools is not saying the unions are the root cause of the problem. Instead, the argument is that unions often stand in the way of reforms and proposed improvements, choosing to protect the system as it is. And yes, most of our highest performing schools are unionized. But most of our lowest performing schools, particularly those in those urban centers focused on in point one, are also unionized.
And the obvious conclusion? Most would agree that we need to focus on how to fund tutoring and interventions and health and wrap arounds. Yes, all are important to overall learning environment and the community as a whole. But austerity is also an issue. We have never spent more per pupil on public education than we do today. And some of our lowest-performing schools reside in communities with some of the highest per-pupil expenditures in the nation. This shouldn’t be just an either or. Instead, we should be looking at ways to expand how we support our kids, but do so by making sure that our education dollars are well spent and are having the impact on students and student learning that we all seek.
It isn’t enough to just say “social science research over the last few decades has shown” to make a general point about a topic where there is plenty of high-quality research to prove the opposite side. And it certainly isn’t enough to offer up crass generalizations just to knock them down with questionable “social science research.”
I’m growing tired of this soapbox, folks. We need to engage in more responsible dialogues about our public schools and where we need to take them. Let’s stop playing to the lowest common denominator and have some real conversations where we all give a little to get further. Please?