Thursday, April 24, 2008

It Takes More Than Words

In a New York Times column published on Tuesday Bob Herbert tries to sum up what's wrong with education in America. I can't say that I'm entirely convinced that he did that. However, he did a knockout job explaining what's wrong with education reform in America. In fact, he exemplified it.

Herbert cited some pretty stark facts. For instance, an American student drops out of school every 26 seconds. The dropout rate is too high and the literacy rate is too low. He also uses the great line that "Ignorance in the United States is not bliss, it's just widespread."

After going on for the length of a column about the importance of education and the various measures that show what a mess things are, Herbert comes to this brilliant conclusion: "We've got work to do."

You think?

The problems with education won't get solved just by saying we need to work on them. People have been saying that we need to work on education for about 25 years now (if not longer). The notion that public education in the country is in need of work is hardly new. The problem is that people still seem to think that saying we need to fix education is the same as actually fixing it. Herbert and so many others fall into this trap. Simply saying we need better education doesn't make it so.

Part of the problem is that we're really not sure what's going to make schools better. For everyone who says you need to put more money into the system you find someone who says we need to dismantle public education and go toward a more market-based (read as private) system. Find someone who says you need greater attention paid to the basics like math and reading and you find someone else who says that we have to be devoting more time to art and music. Say that teacher quality is the way to improve education and you get 50 ways to try to bring in better teachers in addition to the people saying that teachers are the problem in the first place.

I'm not saying that the problem is hopeless. There certainly is a way to improve schools. I am saying that it's not yet clear what exactly that model looks like.

This is part of the problem with saying that education reform is the civil rights movement of our generation. From a moral standpoint, that is absolutely right. But from a practical viewpoint it's less helpful. The way to cure the problem of legalized segregation and other Jim Crow laws was to end segregation and repeal the laws. In contrast with today's challenges in education that's a fairly straightforward task. Not only is the end result clear, but the path to get there was clear.

That's a clarity we lack today. We can see the promised land where every kid knows how to read and write and do math. We just don't know what road to take to get there. And saying "We've got work to do" doesn't help us find that path.


Sam said...

I agree with your sentiment, and I would add that even more useless than Herbert's banal "we have work to do" approach is the silver bullet, one-reform-fixes-all approach that you alluded to (free market approach, charters, etc.). I have a personal opinion about the solution. I believe that there is ample evidence that children's socio-economic background has a direct impact on their educational outcomes. There is also plenty of evidence to show that even with more education, college graduates continue to have difficulty finding jobs that live up to their qualifications. Therefore, we can't keep hoping that if we educate everybody they can pull themselves out of poverty. If we want people to receive a better education, we have to be honest enough to acknowledge that the solution will take more than just fixing the school system. Effective education policy has to do more than improve schools, it has to improve children's chances of success in schools.

Would love to hear back from you on this.

Peter said...

I agree with much of what you write. I feel similarly whenever I read something like this in the paper or elsewhere. However, I think it's important to consider Herbert's role in the process. He's not an educational expert, and doesn't claim to be. One could argue that as a columnist with an interest in changing the educational landscape, his main job should be articles of this type; direction- or solution-free, yet with the capability of arousing interest and action in those that may very well have the experience or knowledge to provide solutions. I think of Jonathan Kozol in the same light; his writings inspire anger and action, though he does not offer many concrete solutions.