The Obama campaign has recently tried to squeeze their opponent on the issue of education, leading to anomalous situations like Obama criticizing Romney for supporting class size increases that his own Education Secretary agrees with. There is probably a debate to be had between the two campaigns over education, one that comes down mostly to resources. But the philosophy underpinning both sides on education comes from a similar place – the idea that America is slipping behind the rest of the world on education, and that drastic measures must be taken to reverse that trend. Usually these drastic measures fall directly on the heads of teachers and more specifically their unions.
There’s one problem with this scenario – the premise is wrong. An excellent article at Mother Jones takes issue with the idea that American education is all about “failing schools” and lower standards and backsliding on teaching our young people. In fact, Kristina Rizga takes a look at one so-called failing school and finds that, actually, it’s doing pretty well:
At Mission High, the struggling school she’d chosen against the advice of her friends and relatives, Maria earned high grades in math and some days caught herself speaking English even with her Spanish-speaking teachers. By 11th grade, she wrote long papers on complex topics like desegregation and the war in Iraq. She became addicted to winning debates in class, despite her shyness and heavy accent. In her junior year, she became the go-to translator and advocate for her mother, her aunts, and for other Latino kids at school. In March, Maria and her teachers were celebrating acceptance letters to five colleges and two prestigious scholarships, including one from Dave Eggers’ writing center, 826 Valencia.
But on the big state tests—the days-long multiple-choice exams that students in California take once a year—Maria scored poorly. And these standardized tests, she understood, were how her school was graded. According to the scores, Mission High is among the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the country, and it has consistently failed to meet the ever-rising benchmarks set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The law mandates universal “proficiency” in math and reading by 2014—a deadline that weighs heavily on educators around the nation, since schools that don’t meet it face stiff penalties […]
One of the most diverse high schools in the country, Mission has 925 students holding 47 different passports. The majority are Latino, African American, and Asian American, and 72 percent are poor. Yet even as the school was being placed on the list of lowest-performing schools, 84 percent of the graduating class went on to college, higher than the district average; this year, 88 percent were accepted. (Nationally, 32 percent of Latino and 38 percent of African American students go to college.) That same year, Mission improved Latinos’ test scores more than any other school in the district. And while suspensions are skyrocketing across the nation, they had gone down by 42 percent at Mission. Guthertz had seen dropout rates fall from 32 percent to 8 percent. Was this what a failing school looked like?
You can figure out the rest. Mission High School is an example of a diverse student body not necessarily contoured to standardized tests, that nonetheless is doing an excellent job preparing students for college and the real world. But under the circumscribed standards by which education policymakers, and their big-money benefactors, have created, Mission is a failing school. And thus, must be overhauled, perhaps by turning it into a charter. Which suits the investors and businesses which would convert the school very happy.
Incidentally, students are improving even by the metric of test scores, contrary to popular belief. It’s just that a narrative of crisis works better for those who want to reform the system to their financial benefit.
In short, big money is skewing the way in which we look at public schools, in an effort to take them over and use them as a profit center. And they’ve been helped along by politicians who benefit from campaign contributions. All of this comes together to generate a narrative, a false narrative, about a disaster in public education, about students being ill-served by the process, about the need for “reform.” It’s not all that true. Don’t buy it.