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Malaise and America's Schools

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One of these days, somebody is going to run for local office in this country on the basis of an education-reform idea so dramatic that everyone would have to pay attention to it. Maybe it will be something like this: Award diplomas to students at the beginning of high school rather than at the end, both to increase students' self-esteem and to cut the official dropout rate to zero. That would shake up the system overnight. It could be called the "Graduation Investment Initiative.''

Of course, it wouldn't get very far in a political campaign. The average American voter, fortunately, has the ability to spot crackpot schemes a mile away. What worries me is that I think there's a good chance the press would buy it. I'm pretty sure the champion of such an idea could attract some favorable editorials in newspapers around the country as a bold new theorist willing to challenge conventional wisdom in the interest of generating the revolutionary change American education has to have.

Not very long ago, it was conventional wisdom in most places that the newspapers did a lousy job of covering education. They wrote about public controversies--teacher strikes, busing cases, hiring new superintendents--and pretty much ignored the whole question of what was going on inside the schools the rest of the time.

Lately, though, newspapers all over the country have been acting as if they needed to make up for lost time. They are treating the schools as an exotic and fascinating foreign battle zone, sending reporters off for months at a time to hang out in the classrooms and corridors of big-city school systems and come back and tell stories about life at the front.

The results are voluminous. We are getting 10-part exposÀes, special sections, feature after feature, profile after profile, millions of words introducing the American reader to education as if it were an institution he or she had never come into contact with before. At the end of the road there is always is an editorial, or, more likely, a whole series of editorials, explaining just what the local state of education is and what ought to be done about it.

I know about these lavish productions because I have spent the past few months reading many of them, in an array of papers all over the country that for some reason decided the winter of 1993 was the time to turn their guns loose on education. Just about all of them come to the same conclusion: The schools in our community are a mess. Children aren't learning to read. Indiscipline and violence are endemic in the higher grades. The degree of inequality between the best schools and the worst schools in a community is enormous.

Many intelligent people, faced with evidence like that, would come to a common-sense conclusion: The society at large has a serious problem with literacy, violence, and inequality--with its values in general--and the schools happen to reflect it. But that is not the way newspaper editors think, at least not when they are in battle armor and setting off on crusade. They think like this: If the schools are failing, it is because the people who run them are incompetent, or insensitive, or both. The way to solve the problem is to make these people behave, or replace them. And the time to do it is NOW--or else.

I could produce a dozen specimens of such journalistic harrumphing published in American newspapers over the past year or so. None quite measure up, however, to the crusade being waged in Nevada by the Reno Gazette-Journal against the local Washoe County school system and its superintendent, Mary Nebgen.

Last year, the Gazette-Journal turned loose two reporters, two photographers, one graphic artist, and one editor on a seven-month investigation of virtually every aspect of the 41,000-student countywide system. The result, published in December, was "Failing Our Children,'' a 16-page collection of "school report cards,'' school profiles, interviews with parents, teachers, and students, fiscal information, and exhortations to reform, kicked off on the front page by a screaming headline in letters two inches high.

The conclusion, stated in the very beginning of the lead story, was this: The schools are better in rich neighborhoods than they are in poor ones. "How much you earn,'' the study declared, "tends to determine where your kids go to school--and how well they do.''

In fact, it is likely that the investigators could have found that out from almost any reader of their own paper before they even began. It would be nice if affluence had nothing to do with school standards or educational performance. Unfortunately, it does--in Reno and in every other city in America. The vaccine for inequality has yet to be discovered.

However, the Gazette-Journal, like many other papers that crusade on the subject of education, chose to treat inequality and overall school failure first and foremost as a problem of local government performance. In Washoe County, it declared, "thousands of kids attend schools plagued by high student turnover, low test scores, and troubling dropout rates. These schools tend to have high concentrations of minorities and students who can't speak English. District officials have known about the problem for years, but they've done little to fix it.''

On page 15 of its report, the newspaper announced a 24-point program to end the crisis. "Excuses can't be accepted,'' it proclaimed at the top of the page. "Action is needed.'' Among its points were a variety of ideas that have shown no notable results when tried in other places: hiring more social workers, encouraging teachers to work in at-risk schools, launching adopt-a-school programs on the part of business. The report also asked the state legislature to "pump more money into education,'' but did not suggest where most of the money was to come from.

In the months since then, the Gazette-Journal has continued to hammer away steadily at the inequalities of the school system. In March, it accused the administration of being "indifferent to equal education.'' Meanwhile, Superintendent Nebgen has attempted wearily to point out the obvious: The existence of a social problem does not imply the ability of local government to provide an instant solution. "I am being asked,'' she says, "to correct the economic state in which some of our students live. I can't do that. I can't fix all that. I can't provide long-term family counseling. There has to be some societal acceptance of responsibility.''

It is hard to imagine anyone saying it any better. Unfortunately, we do not like to hear those things. Most of us would much rather believe that some willful and incompetent set of bureaucrats is at the root of all of our social problems. We don't want to be told that those problems are somehow embedded in the depths of our end-of-century values and culture.

School superintendents aren't the only people who find that out the hard way. Jimmy Carter learned it rather painfully in 1979 after he delivered his famous "malaise'' speech--in which, incidentally, the word "malaise'' never once appeared. What Mr. Carter did tell the American people was to stop blaming government for all of the country's problems and looking to government for all of the solutions. "All the legislation in the world,'' he said, "can't fix what is wrong with America.'' Then he quoted something he said an ordinary voter had told him: "Mr. President, we are confronted with a moral and a spiritual crisis.''

That speech accelerated Jimmy Carter's decline in popularity, contributed to his re-election defeat, and stamped him forever as the only modern President silly enough to go on the tube and tell voters that their problems were their own fault. For this, at the very least, we owe Mr. Carter a collective apology. He was right.

That is now ancient history. But it is worth resurrecting if it could somehow be forced into the heads of the crusading journalists who declare all-out war on the social dysfunctions of the 1990's. They need to stop pandering to the American people as innocent victims of government and begin talking to them candidly as co-conspirators. And they need to show some respect for the complexity of the problems they set out to solve.

This doesn't just apply to education. If the public-housing authority in virtually every major city in America is in a greater or lesser state of chaos, then common sense suggests the local housing director in any given city is not the root of the problem. If gangs and teenage violence are plaguing towns from Topeka to Little Rock, then a new police chief is not going to get rid of them in six months.

This is not an argument for a new war on poverty or any other form of massive federal intervention. It is not an excuse for bureaucratic incompetence, which exists in police forces, housing authorities, and school systems in lots of places in America. It is not an argument against innovation--we need new ideas in every field of government, and the courage to keep trying them. Some of them are going to make a difference.

But the unpleasant fact is that when inequality begins to recede in the society at large, it will start to recede in the schools in Washoe County, Nev., and in the schools in localities all over America. Until then, it is a cheap shot to blame everything on the school district or on the superintendent.

"There's a tendency,'' Mary Nebgen says, "to look for someone, some institution to blame, to point a finger at someone and say it's all their fault. 'Do this, do that, and everything will be fine.''' She says it is a dangerous illusion. Perhaps she is the Jimmy Carter of Reno.

Alan Ehrenhalt is the executive editor of Governing magazine, where this essay first appeared. It is reprinted with permission, copyright 1993, Governing magazine

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