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Public Education: Can We Be Proud?

By Helen H. Larson — November 20, 2002 6 min read
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No wonder people sit up and listen when a politician says the way to improve schools is to return to phonics and spelling bees. I wish it were that simple.

We live, as the Chinese would say, in “interesting times,” especially those of us who are public school educators. Ask teachers or principals what they dread most as a topic of discussion at a dinner party or neighborhood cookout, and the answer will likely be the high school graduate who can’t read, the employer who has a hard time hiring literate employees, the rampant drugs and alcohol on school property, or the overpaid, ineffective teacher. Polite and even lively conversation soon gives way to scorn and cynicism when these items are on the table. I’ve come to believe it is “politically correct” to bash public schools.

How did we get to this point? Has public education always been so bad that we’re just coming to grips with its ineffectiveness? What about the studies that compare our students with those from Japan, the Netherlands, and other industrialized nations? Is public education shortchanging our students in the global market? How do we make sense of all the controversy surrounding public schools?

For the last 15 years, I have paid close attention to the research comparing the ability, effort, and achievement of American students with those of students from other industrialized countries. And I have come to a number of conclusions. To be honest, though, I think that stating a case for public education that relies on research is probably a wimpy position. By itself, research is not bold enough to get at the truth. But that’s where I’ll begin.

International studies can be enticing. Research that compares countries, whether about annual crop yields, vaccination rates, or student achievement, speak almost by necessity in larger-than-life terms. When tens of thousands of people are being compared, the results are bound to impress. Add a topic that almost every American has experienced firsthand, education, and you have a powerful attention-getter.

But what do we know about these studies? What is taken into consideration when comparisons are made, for example, between American and Japanese students?

I've come to believe it is "politically correct" to bash public schools.

Let’s start with the easiest consideration—the population itself. Which is more homogeneous—has the most consistency in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, even religion—our population or Japan’s? Of course, it is Japan’s. And the same can be said of the Netherlands, or of France and Germany. Although the populations of these European countries may be changing because of immigration, there is no contest when we put them with the United States and ask the question: In which country would educating students be easier and more efficient?

The answer is simple. The more similar a population is in its outlook on life, in its citizens’ history and culture, and in the goals to which those citizens aspire, the more easily and efficiently can that country educate its children. And if anything is true about our country, it is that we have a very diverse population. The Statue of Liberty’s torch has for more than a century beckoned all who yearned for freedom and opportunity to our shores. And public education, from its beginnings to the present, has had to find ways to educate an ever-changing population.

Among the most intriguing (and, to my mind, most salient) ways of examining cross-cultural differences in achievement is through looking at cultural attitudes. Japanese attitudes about school, for example, couldn’t be more different from those of Americans. If a Japanese student or his parent were asked what accounted for success or failure in school, the reply would quickly be “effort.” Not only is school success attributed to hard work in Japan, but it is also seen as a reflection on the student’s family. Achievement upholds and expands the family’s honor and prestige.

Contrast that with what most American students and their parents credit for school success: luck, having a good or bad teacher, and innate ability. We believe, in other words, that school success depends most on factors that are outside a student’s control. So the Japanese put in the extra time and effort—intensive after-school tutoring, classes on Saturdays, and so forth—and we hope for better genes and schooling conditions.

Are these effort-focused attitudes something that American families ever would come to accept? Maybe, maybe not. It’s a tightly controlled path to achievement for our time-sensitive, nonconforming, sports-and-activity-loving culture.

How do we make sense of all the controversy surrounding public schools?

Another consideration we should factor into our thinking about cross-cultural comparisons is what I call the “social-ills solution.” In America, schools have become the solution to whatever ails society. And, of course, there’s no shortage of ailments: poor or inadequate nutrition, health-care concerns such as immunization, AIDS prevention and treatment, teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, neglectful families, sexual abuse, illegal use of weapons, and many others. Our schools are being asked to do something about all of them.

The school system is the one entity in our country where local political control is maximized. Everybody has gone to school, everybody pays local taxes, and everybody can elect, in some fashion, local representatives to make decisions about schools. Isn’t it a wonder that anything gets done in schools? It’s nothing short of a miracle, when we consider the different factions purporting to have the one, best solution, and competing for limited resources and public attention. No wonder people sit up and listen when a politician says the way to improve schools is to return to phonics and spelling bees. I wish it were that simple.

To what extent are schools in the countries we are compared with held responsible for solving their communities’ social ills? How many are caught in the vise of competing local interest groups that want to solve social ills with inadequate funding? These other countries, I would submit, have more governmental agencies ready to respond to health issues, family problems such as abuse and neglect, and other social maladies, leaving their schools better able to concentrate on the business of educating. Their schools are not allowed, as ours often are, to become the arena for political warring over social policy.

Research can tell us much more about the pitfalls of international comparisons, but for me, the time has come to stop wimping-out and take a stand:

I do not understand why we aren’t more proud of our country’s struggle to educate all students. I have no desire to move to Japan or France or the Netherlands or any other country so that my children might (purportedly) get a better education. I prefer our culture and history, and I like our way of educating children, warts and all, better than theirs. In short, I like our public schools.

We should be proud of our desire to battle inequities, however shortsighted we might have been in the past and may be in the future. I would not trade the limitations of our public schools for any other form of education. I am proud to be a public school educator in America. And at the next dinner party where I’m bashed, I plan to tell everybody who will listen just how proud I am.

Helen H. Larson is the assistant superintendent for curriculum for the Phoenixville Area School District in Phoenixville, Pa.

A version of this article appeared in the November 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as Public Education: Can We Be Proud?

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