I have too many friends who are teachers in the public schools to accept the prevailing ideas about the school system being ruined by lazy, incompetent teachers and their greedy unions, but I have accepted more than I should the prevailing wisdom that our public school system is a complete failure.
Recently I’ve started reading a web log called The Daily Howler by a standup political comedian named Bob Somerby. Like Senator Al Franken, he is a comedian who is better informed than supposed experts. He formerly was a teacher in the Baltimore public schools and then a reporter specializing in educational testing.
His blog is in the form of a daily critique of stupid statements made by journalists, commentators and politicians. He covers politics generally, but of late he has put up a lot of extremely informative material about public schools and student testing.
You need to read his web log to get the full picture, but his main points are:
1. Scores in basic reading and math tests have been improving for both black and white students in U.S. public schools. The gap between blacks and whites has remained, but that doesn’t mean that black students aren’t progressing. Presumably at some point both black and white students will be performing as well as they’re capable, but we’re a long way from that point.
2. The reasons that American students tests scores are below middle-class European nations is that we have (1) a large population of students descended from slaves who were forbidden to learn to read and then from people who were deliberately consigned to inferior schools and (2) a large population of students from immigrant families whose mastery of English is none too good.
The top nations in terms of student test scores, such as Finland, are countries with strong unions, and the worst-performing U.S. states are states without strong unions, so union-bashing isn’t an answer.
I don’t deny there are bad teachers, bad schools and bad urban school systems, as well as indifferent parents, but there also are good teachers, good schools, good urban school systems, and parents who are deeply concerned with their children. It’s easy, and lazy, to lump them all together, but then you can’t tell the difference, and you can’t accomplish anything.
Charter schools have a place, even though only one in five outperform the public schools. The benefit of charter schools is that they provide a way to try out new ideas, so that the new ideas that work can be duplicated in the schools at large. They are not a replacement for public schools. Giving up on public schools is giving up on educating poor children.