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Is the Sky Really Falling When it Comes to America’s Education Predicament?

Is the sky really falling?To be in American education over the last 30 is to have been besieged by the constant chatter decrying the failure, shortcomings, need for revolution/reform, and failure of the American educational system.

Is everything we do in American education perfect, no. Do we need to make great improvement to certain elements of American education, hell, yes.

We have some big issues/shortcomings. There’s no denying that American education is awful in some areas.

But, as I like to argue. American education does much right. We include enormous numbers of students. Access- top-to-bottom, north-south-east-west is better than anywhere else in the world- maybe not good enough for our collective American goals. But, American educational inclusion and access continue to be the envy of the world.

Yet, the sky has been falling for as long as I can remember. Hell, I even wrote my college entrance essay on American public school shortcomings (roughly 26 years ago). But, are our shortcomings as bad as we make them out to be and is American public K-12 education really in the Chicken Little predicament that we hear about every day- locally regionally and nationally?

Maybe not when we challenge the conventional wisdom.

Nicholas Lemman turns a critics eye toward ‘the sky is falling’ educational establishment in his current New Yorker article, “SCHOOLWORK,” concluding quickly, that, despite the ragged edges and unevenness, American public education succeeds. (Lemann address both lower and higher education in his thinking. I’m sticking to K-12 education in this piece.)

Lemann writes:

“…Education is nowhere mentioned in the Constitution; the creation of the world’s first system of universal public education—from kindergarten through high school—and of mass higher education is one of the great achievements of American democracy. It embodies a faith in the capabilities of ordinary people that the Founders simply didn’t have.

It is also, like democracy itself, loose, shaggy, and inefficient, full of redundancies and conflicting goals. It serves many constituencies and interest groups, each of which, in the manner of the parable of the blind men and the elephant, sees its purpose differently. But, by the fundamental test of attractiveness to students and their families, the system—which is one of the world’s most ethnically diverse and decentralized—is, as a whole, succeeding. Enrollment in charter schools is growing rapidly, but so is enrollment in old-fashioned public schools, and enrollments are rising at all levels. Those who complete a higher education still do better economically. Measures of how much American students are learning—compared to the past, and compared to students in other countries—are holding steady, for the most part, even as more people are going to school…” (TNY)

By large scale measures, American education succeeds. The issue, it seems, is that we each see, or have, a story story about an instance or failure point in American education. Our stories get told and re-told, becoming conventional wisdom- those supposed truths that live-on unchallenged often assuming lives of their own like Internet hoaxes and urban legends.

Lemann points out the educational reform has become a stock drama; an assumed narrative with stock players and plot lines that have taken on their own lives beyond scrutiny. The reality of American education an our desire to improve it is that our thinking, and possible solutions require- like all complex problems- a nuanced view.

Burning the place down might not be such a good idea.

Lemann again:

“…It should raise questions when an enormous, complicated realm of life takes on the characteristics of a stock drama. In the current school-reform story, there is a reliable villain, in the form of the teachers’ unions, and a familiar set of heroes, including Geoffrey Canada, of Harlem Children’s Zone; Wendy Kopp, of Teach for America, the Knowledge Is Power Program; and Michele Rhee, the superintendent of schools in Washington, D.C. And there is a clear answer to the problem—charter schools. The details of this story are accurate, but they are fitted together too neatly and are made to imply too much. For example, although most of the specific charter schools one encounters in this narrative are very good, the data do not show that charter schools in general are better than district schools. There are also many school-reform efforts besides charter schools: the one with the best sustained record of producing better-educated children in difficult circumstances, in hundreds of schools over many years, is a rigorously field-tested curriculum called Success for All, but because it’s not part of the story line it goes almost completely unmentioned. Similarly, on the issue of tenure, the clear implication of most school-reform writing these days—that abolishing teacher tenure would increase students’ learning—is an unproved assumption…”

Large-scale, decentralized democratic societies are not very adept at generating neat, rational solutions to messy situations. The story line on education, at this ill-tempered moment in American life, expresses what might be called the Noah’s Ark view of life: a vast territory looks so impossibly corrupted that it must be washed away, so that we can begin its activities anew, on finer, higher, firmer principles. One should treat any perception that something so large is so completely awry with suspicion, and consider that it might not be true—especially before acting on it.

We have a lot of recent experience with breaking apart large, old, unlovely systems in the confidence of gaining great benefits at low cost. We deregulated the banking system. We tried to remake Iraq. In education, we would do well to appreciate what our country has built, and to try to fix what is undeniably wrong without declaring the entire system to be broken. We have a moral obligation to be precise about what the problems in American education are—like subpar schools for poor and minority children—and to resist heroic ideas about what would solve them, if those ideas don’t demonstrably do that.”(TNY)

What to do? Lemann implies my favorite operating conditions. Breathe, think and act prudently. Also, implicit in Lemann’s argument, skeptically consider catch-all, top down, grand, systemic solutions.

All for local and state solutions that work, raise their hands.

Brian Fisher

A product of both private and public education, Brian Fisher served as a teacher, coach, dorm parent, and administrator at three different boarding schools. Brian also fills the role of Director of Development at Wolfeboro, The Summer Boarding School, in NH along with being a partner at AdmissionsQuest.

More by Brian Fisher

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