Getting to the Truth—November, 2018

If we paid attention only to the headlines, we would believe that our education system is “broken,” “dangerously out of touch” or “failing.” We would also be asked to believe that our system was once great, but that it has aged badly, declined and slipped into irrelevance. Often, such dire diagnoses are followed up with a statement something like “we can fix this if we only_______________”, with the “fad of the day” inserted in the appropriate spot. Such black and white pronouncements fail to paint the complete picture. Are there areas in which American schools could (and should) improve? Absolutely. I could give you five off the top of my head. However, there are several facts which inform my understanding of who we are and what we are accomplishing.

  1. Complexity and Scale—The mandate of the schools is broad: all students must be educated to a uniformly high standard. Think about what that means in our diverse world; regardless of income, home environment, language, innate intelligence, personal drive and countless other ways in which human beings differ, Washington public schools are charged with ensuring every graduate passes tests that demonstrate the student calculates at a level equivalent to the 2nd year of algebra, understands the physical sciences, life sciences, earth/space sciences and engineering, technology, and applications of science and demonstrates the student is ready for college-level English. No other nation in the world mandates “college and career readiness” for all of its children. (
  2. Trained Teachers—For most of our history, teachers received no training. Hiring was based primarily on who was connected to whom. Even in the early 20th century, those training to be teachers often did not student teach and what training they did receive was much more general than specific to grade level or content areas. Until the latter half of the 20th century, topics such as adolescent cognition and how to teach dissimilar students were never addressed. Of course, there is always more to learn, but there is no question that today’s teachers are the best prepared we have ever had. (
  3. Curriculum—I would be the first to admit that public-school curriculum is inconsistent from school to school and sometimes irrelevant. However, the picture that is often painted of a completely out-of-touch curriculum simply is not true. Before the 20th century, our high schools were focused on teaching Latin and Greek, rarely offered math beyond algebra and often required mechanical drawing. Today we offer Spanish, calculus and computer-aided design; we build “tiny houses” and we teach code in class. For much of the 20th century, girls and students of color were routinely taught a separate curriculum. The length of the school year has gone from 100 days in 1900 to 180. In the 20th century girls and students of color were routinely taught a separate curriculum. (
  4. Results—US achievement scores on international tests are usually reported as being in the middle of the pack and there are consistent and troubling gaps across racial, ethnic and income groups. However, over the past 40 years those scores have increased, with the greatest gain coming from black and Hispanic students. If we compare the best US students with other countries’ best students, we compare quite favorably. Almost half of all US students go to college—an all-time high. (We have the strongest economy in the world, and number two isn’t even close. We must be doing something right.) (

Given these facts, why do we perpetually hear about the “failing” school system? I suspect the reasons include the following:

  1. Change is slow and lifetimes are short. The American school of 1635 bears little resemblance to the high school of 2018. However, few of us have that perspective.
  2. Public schools are inherently subject to politicization. Those who wish to win the rhetorical war and influence policy are more likely to state the issues in black and white terms. Sound bites are more influential than the more complete (but complex) facts. It’s easier to motivate people to change when something appears to be broken.
  3. There are enough instances of problems that it’s easy to over-generalize. Of the 3 million teachers in the United States, are there some bad ones? Of course, as there would be in any industry of that size. Of the 100,000 schools, do some have serious problems? Certainly. However, everything we know tells us that the vast majority of our 50 million students are learning more and are better prepared than their forebears.

None of this means that schools don’t need to improve. We are always working to better ourselves and our system. However, after more than 28 years in the system I feel it is time to provide a bit more context. Raymond, South Bend and Willapa Valley school districts consistently have graduation rates of 90%+. That is pretty good evidence that our students and staff are getting the job done!

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