In her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein castigated conservative reformers who construct a narrative of government failure as the justification for privatization. Over the years, education writers have documented that the narrative of the overwhelming failure of American public schools is fake news—a distorted story to justify the expansion of charters and vouchers and to trash teachers and their unions.
Twenty years ago, in The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools, David Berliner and Bruce Biddle documented that school “reformers” were constructing a specious narrative of public school failure: “(O)n the whole, the American school system is in far better shape than the critics would have us believe; where American schools fail, those failures are largely caused by problems that are imposed on those schools, problems that the critics have been only too happy to ignore. American education can be restructured, improved, and strengthened—but to build realistic programs for achieving these goals, we must explode the myths of the Manufactured Crisis and confront the real problems of American education.” (The Manufactured Crisis, p. 12)
Then in 2012, tracing a trend of modest but consistent improvement over the decades in scores from the National Assessment of Education Progress, Diane Ravitch reached the same conclusion: “In the early years of the twenty-first century, a bipartisan consensus arose about education policy in the United States. Right and left, Democrats and Republicans, the leading members of our political class and our media seemed to agree: Public education is broken… Furthermore, according to this logic… blame must fall on the shoulders of teachers and principals… Since teachers are the problem, their job protections must be eliminated and teachers must be fired. Teachers’ unions must be opposed at every turn… (W)hat is happening now is an astonishing development. It is not meant to reform public education but is a deliberate effort to replace public education with a privately managed, free-market system of schooling… The reformers say they care about poverty, but they do not address it other than to insist upon private management of the schools in urban districts; the reformers ignore racial segregation altogether, apparently accepting it as inevitable… What began as a movement to ‘save minority children from failing schools’ and narrow the achievement gap by privatizing their schools has not accomplished that goal….” (Reign of Error, pp. 2-6)
Now Jack Schneider, an education professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, refutes the myth of school failure again—in a new book (due out in mid-August), Beyond Test Scores: A Better Way to Measure School Quality—and currently in a series of articles being published by The Atlantic. Schneider deconstructs the fake news of widespread school failure and identifies what needs to be improved. His analysis is urgently needed at a time when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is dominating the airwaves with a mindless, libertarian reiteration of the importance of parents’ freedom to choose. Schneider accepts the conclusions of sociologists like Stanford University’s Sean Reardon, who has demonstrated that the rich are retreating into wealthy enclaves where the schools are pockets of privilege. States reward these high scoring schools with “A” grades and punish schools in mixed income and poor communities with labels of failure—a self-reinforcing cycle that encourages further economic segregation and ignores society’s responsibility to its most vulnerable children.
Here is Schneider in a reflection published in late June, America’s Not-So-Broken Education System: “American education has some obvious shortcomings. Even defenders of the schools can make long lists of things they’d like to change. But the root of the problem is not incompetent design, as is so frequently alleged. Nor is it stasis. Rather, it is the twofold challenge of complexity and scale. American schools are charged with the task of creating better human beings. And they are expected to do so in a relatively consistent way for all of young people. It is perhaps the nation’s most ambitious collective project; as such, it advances slowly.”
Schneider concludes: “Perhaps the most serious consequence of the ‘broken system’ narrative is that it draws attention away from the real problems that the nation has never fully addressed. The public-education system is undeniably flawed. Yet many of the deepest flaws have been deliberately cultivated. Funding inequity and racial segregation, for instance, aren’t byproducts of a system that broke. They are direct consequences of an intentional concentration of privilege. Placing the blame solely on teacher training, or the curriculum, or on the design of the high school—alleging ‘brokenness’—perpetuates the fiction that all schools can be made great without addressing issues of race, class, and power… (I)t is important not to confuse inequity with ineptitude. History may reveal broken promises around racial and economic justice. But it does not support the story of a broken education system.”
In a second article published earlier this week, Schneider examines the policy consequences when ideologues convince politicians that public schools are a failure: “If the nation’s schools are generally doing well, it doesn’t make much sense to disrupt them. But if they are in a state of decline, disruption takes on an entirely new meaning. Seizing on the presumed failures of the education system, reform advocates have pushed hard for contentious policies—expansion of charter schools, for instance, or the use of value-added measures of teacher effectiveness—that might have less traction in a more positive policy climate.”
And what about the misuse of data? “For the past 15 years, since the passage of No Child Left Behind, Americans have had access to standardized achievement scores for all public schools. But test scores tend to indicate more about students’ backgrounds than about the schools they attend. As research indicates, out-of-school factors like family and neighborhood account for roughly 60 percent of the variance in student test scores; teachers, by contrast—the largest in-school influence—account for only about 10 percent. And test scores convey little else about the many things parents and other stakeholders care about… They indicate nothing, for instance, about how safe students feel, how strong their relationships with teachers are, or how they are developing socially and emotionally. They indicate nothing about what teaching looks like, how varied the curriculum is, or the extent to which parents and community members are involved. It’s impossible to know the quality of a school without knowing these things.”
I hope you will read both of Schneider’s articles. I look forward to reading his new book. Schneider brings the focus back to our collective responsibility to keep improving the public schools themselves—the public institutions we trust to serve all children, meet their many needs, and protect their rights.