Friday, April 30, 2010

On Second Thought

A thought occurred to me the other day as I was reading about the Senate Democrats' efforts to pass a bill on financial reform. It suddenly struck me that they might be barking up the entirely wrong tree.

Consider this: the hugely influential report "A Nation at Risk" was published in 1983. In one of the more memorable phrases to ever come out of a government commissioned report, it said that if our education system had been forced on us by another country it would have been considered an act of war. In other words, things in schools were really bad.

That was 27 years ago. Obviously, the problems in education haven't been fixed yet, so we must still have a really bad education system. No wonder our economy nearly collapsed!

For at least 27 years (and probably at least a few before that), we've been working with such a terrible system that there's no way that we could be producing productive members of society. It's not the financial system or derivatives (which are invariably described in the press as "complex") or anything to do with Wall Street at all. It's probably the fault of teachers unions for making schools bad for the better part of three decades so now we have a dumb workforce that's ruining our economy.

And yet, even as I type this, I can't help but think that it doesn't quite ring true. Do we really believe that we've produced three decades of educational failures? Are we really willing to say that everyone born after 1977 (so they would be 6 in 1983) has gotten a bad education? Forget everyone, are we even willing to say that most people born after 1977 are unable to deal with the real world because they were poorly prepared by their school experiences?

I just don't think we can make that assertion. (And I say that as someone who was born after 1977 and is doing just fine, thank you.) I think, in fact, that anyone trying to make that point would be laughed out of the room.

So where does that leave us? Pretty much where I've been saying all along. The American education system is, for the most part, a success. Failure is not the norm across all schools. There are schools that are spectacularly failing and those schools tend to be concentrated in poor and minority communities. That's a problem that needs addressing. But it means that we need to focus on those schools, not on remaking an entire system. Let's fix the problems. Let's not worry about fixing the things that aren't broken.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't know about "born after 1977." I was born in the 1960s, and I know that the public education I received in the 1970s was absolutely terrible. We had lots of reading on carpets, no science, no history, no homework in elementary school. My feeling is nobody really cared about education for the kids in the 70s. Parents certainly care more now, at least the ones that do. Believe it or not, my kids are getting a much more rigorous education today than I ever did.