The public schools are awful. We are told this over and over, again and again, by politicians of both parties. They are terrible. They fail students. They are the reason America is not competitive. They are leaving children behind. Teachers in public schools aren’t accountable. They aren’t good. They don’t care. If you’re lucky, or rich, you can get your kid into a private school. Otherwise, you’d best hope for a charter school. God forbid your kid ends up in a public school. She’s pretty much screwed if she does.
We are told this over and over again. And very soon, we will be told this by a professional, heart-rending film, Waiting for “Superman,” by the same guy who directed An Inconvenient Truth. It’s a film that tells the story of students desperate to get out of public schools, because public schools suck.
But do public schools suck? We take it as an article of faith that they do, of course, because all the serious people agree they do. In reality, public schools do as good a job as any other school at educating students – they just don’t do it with flash and publicity. Instead, they do it day after day, year after year, under withering, unyielding attack from all sides.
We should know this, of course. The percentage of Americans who hold high school degrees has never been higher. The percentage of Americans with bachelor’s degrees, likewise, is higher than it’s ever been. And these trendlines have not suddenly changed since the advent of charter schools; no, educational outcomes have showed slow, steady improvement over the past three decades, improvement that builds on top of rapid improvement between the 1940s and the 1980s. And this growth has not been built on improvement for white students only; African-American students have seen significant improvement in outcomes, to the point where 84 percent of African-Americans aged 25 now hold high school degrees, compared to 87 percent of the population at large. And all at a time when private school enrollment was declining.
Still, we hear that the public schools are terrible. Awful. Waiting for “Superman” wrings drama out of five students who are trying to win lotteries to get into charter schools, where they’ll do much better, we’re told. But will they? No. They won’t. Students who attend charter schools have the same outcomes as students who attend public schools.
This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who knows education policy on a deeper level than slogans. Charter schools were never supposed to take the place of public schools. Instead, they were supposed to function as educational laboratories, places where educators could attempt novel experiments with willing parents, to see if educational theory x was a great idea or not. If ideas worked, they were supposed to be used in the public schools; if not, the charters were supposed to be disbanded.
Instead, charter schools have functioned mainly as a way for hucksters to gain public funds to grind their personal axes. This is not to say all charter schools are bad, of course. But too many charter schools function as barely concealed religious schools, or schools that think education has been declining since the fall of Rome. Needless to say, unions, certification, and qualifications are verboten at many of these schools, founded by anti-union true believers, who think that the only thing standing between our children and utter enlightenment is the fact that teachers are teachers, and not temps.
This is not to say that America’s education system is perfect. No system is perfect. And we can have a reasonable discussion about how best to address that. I would start by eliminating high-stakes testing, myself, and I’d continue by getting schools out of the social-justice business. There’s no reason, for example, that schools should be providing breakfast for hungry children – they simply do because we refuse to fund any other safety net, and schools manage to wring money out of the lunch budget. We could also talk about ways to better identify “good” teachers and ways to eliminate “bad” teachers – for everyone, including teachers’ unions, agrees that both exist. But hopefully that discussion would not focus on test outcomes.
Yes, of course we should do things to improve our public schools. But all things considered, our schools do a pretty good job of doing what they’re supposed to do – teach our children. They can’t, unfortunately, fix imbalances in the socioeconomic system, stabilize unstable families, and provide students with an equality of opportunity. But that isn’t the fault of the schools – it’s the fault of the country.
All public schools do is serve as the one institution in our society that takes all comers, no matter your race, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. For that, they are demonized, and for that, they are marginalized in favor of newer, shinier, non-public options. And for that, we should all be ashamed.