Equity & Diversity Opinion

Reforming the ‘Myth’ of America’s Failing Schools (It’s Actually True)

By Marilyn Rhames — August 08, 2012 6 min read
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I recently read a Salon article by Michael Lind stating that the failure of the American public school system is just a myth perpetrated by education reformers to justify school vouchers and charter schools. I laughed—before realizing he was serious.

The article asserts that white suburban children actually score the highest on the international assessments—rivaling the coveted student achievement of Finland and South Korea. The article blames 35 percent of our student population—poor blacks and Latinos—for pulling down our otherwise stellar scores, making America’s ranking plummet. Lind writes:

“If you look at the facts, then, they don’t suggest that the U.S. public K-12 system is a failure. Rather American public education is a world-class success except among poor natives and immigrants, whose educational challenges have more to do with poverty and rural cultural legacies than alleged failings of public K-12.

“The challenge remains of how to improve the results for Americans of all races from disadvantaged backgrounds. And here all of the right, and much of the neoliberal center, thinks it knows the answer: choice! Americans should be given education vouchers to spend on schools of their choice, either within the public school system (charter schools) or outside, in a purely privatized system.”

Lind’s article implies that as long as white and Asian students are succeeding in public schools then the system is fine; that African American and Latino kids are mostly poor with uneducated parents, so it’s understandable why they are not achieving within our public school system.

If 33 percent of our population got life-threatening infections after surgeries, would you consider our medical system top-notch? If 33 percent of our bridges were crumbling and weak, would you have confidence in our highway infrastructure? When one out of three teenagers drop out of high school, does American public schools still qualify as a “world-class success”?

Lind’s article also argues that learning failures among minority students are mainly because they are poor or culturally damaged, not because of their schools. This logic is eerily similar in the flawed, racist theory that public schools are separate but equal.

Lind’s analysis of the data from the PISA (Programme of International Student Assessment) assumes the differentiating variables between the white and Asian kids and the poor black and Latino kids were economic and cultural. He completely dismisses the fact that the resources, rigor, and quality of the two educational experiences also greatly contribute to the disparities of the test results. The argument that Johnny can’t read because he’s black and he’s poor just doesn’t have the ring of truth to me. Could his school possibly have anything to do with it?

While I agree that poverty and culture do play a role in a child’s educational experience, the problem is much more complex than that. Having grown up in a low-income, urban, African American home and as a teacher in the schools, the truth is that poor communities tend to get the worst teachers, principals, schools, grocery stores, hospitals, libraries, policemen, politicians—everything. The expectation for excellence is often low, and the level of accountability for people working with the poor is also often low or nonexistent.

I’ve seen this thought process in action all too often: “Nothing I can do will really make that big of a difference. The poverty in this neighborhood needs to be fixed first before any meaningful change in the schools can be made. If I’m a little lazy, or incompetent, or selfish, no one will even notice. They should be happy I’m even working here ... I could be doing so much better somewhere else.”

Meanwhile, the hardworking, demanding individuals on the job often challenge and get challenged by administrators and colleagues who accuse them of being sellouts, overachievers, or “neoliberals,” whatever that means.

Dr. John Jackson of the Schott Foundation on Public Education says in his research that the achievement gap with whites and Asians far exceeding blacks and Hispanics is actually a reflection of an “opportunity gap.”

In fact, Jackson’s research shows that black students who attend predominately white schools in states like North Dakota and Vermont do just as well or better than their white classmates. Those African American students in more resourced districts have robust learning opportunities that inner city, poor African American students can only dream about.

A recent Schott Foundation report on New York City school system highlights four main findings:

▪ A Black or Hispanic student is nearly four times more likely to be enrolled in one of the city’s poorest high schools as an Asian or White student.

▪ High-poverty districts have significantly fewer high-quality teachers.

▪ Students from low-income families have little chance of being tested for eligibility for gifted and talented programs.

▪ Any student who is eligible for free or reduced-price meals is most likely to be enrolled in one of the city’s lowest performing high schools.

So Lind, what do you think: Are poor black and Hispanic students failing in an otherwise promising school system, or is a poor school system failing otherwise promising black and Hispanic students?

To Lind’s point, though, there are situations where school choice is ridiculous. Naperville, a suburb of Chicago, has one of the most successful school districts in America and is often dubbed as one of the best places in America to raise a family. Naperville’s school district recently announced that two of its schools didn’t meet federally mandated Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) and are forced to become “choice schools.” So if your child attends that school and you are dissatisfied with the fact that students with disabilities or limited English failed to reach 92.5 percent on the state test, you can transfer your child to another school in the district that scored 95 percent. Silly.

But choice on the South Side of Chicago, in, say, the Roseland community where my little sister got shot at six times, makes a whole lot of sense.

Choice is not perfect. Choice is often times ‘chance’ because students are selected by lottery and there are often many more applicants than slots available in any one classroom. Parents also take a chance with choice because the quality of a charter school can range from exemplary to deplorable.

I agree with Lind that choice is not the solution—but it’s a practical part of the solution. Much more needs to be done, but having a few options is better than having no option at all.

Calling the failure of public education a myth is a slap in the face to parents like me and my guest blogger Faren D’Abell who have agonized over finding a safe, quality public school in Chicago for our children. D’Abell was so frustrated that he moved himself and his son out of town.

I wouldn’t dare send my two daughters to our over-crowded, dysfunctional neighborhood school. I would venture to say that if Lind lived next door to me he wouldn’t send his children or grandchildren there, either. And since I don’t have an extra $1,000 per month per child for private school tuition, public school choice is the best deal in town.

When people stop pontificating and see the mayhem that exists within many large urban school districts and neighborhood schools, the partisanship and conspiracy theories about educational privatization begin to dissolve. At this point, I don’t care if the school is district, contract, charter, voucher-accepting, or parochial—all I want is affordable, sustainable, safe, engaging, rigorous, best-fit-for-my-child school options for my daughters and the kids in my community.

When better school options come to the inner city, more poor blacks and Hispanics will stop scoring poorly on PISA test and stop bringing worldwide shame upon all those well resourced, magnificently manicured, wealthy white public schools in the suburbs.

Art: “America’s Failing Schools - A Myth?” by Lindsay Johnson, added on 8/10/12

The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.