Teaching Profession Opinion

Misguided Things People Say About Public Schools

By Nancy Flanagan — April 09, 2017 3 min read
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All it takes is one look at the comments following any story on education, in any digital-news venue, to know what I’m referring to here: People say idiotic things about public education. And it’s been going on for centuries.

All the way back to Horace Mann (who encountered “strong resistance” to his ideas, from clergymen and municipal leaders), there’s always been low-information “blah blah” about public schools circulating. Rumors, myths, generalizations, clichés and outright falsehoods, from taxpayers who haven’t stepped foot in a public school for decades and from parents who ought to know better.

In the past few decades, ordinary school talk has morphed from gossip, whining and PTA chitchat in the bleachers at Little League games—Are private schools worth the money? Which teacher is best for rambunctious boys?—to unsubstantiated disparagement. Savvy parents have been encouraged to stop thinking about investing time, energy and resources in their local schools, turning to “choice” instead. Not all parents have done so—but the “bad school” and “bad teacher” concepts are sexy, and have a daily spotlight in digital and print media.

Now, in fact, we have the president of the United States saying the “numbers are horrific” for education, and that kids can’t read, and oh, by the way, ending Common Core will “bring education local.” To places like, say, Iowa (which must be the most godforsaken, unsophisticated “local” place he can conjure).

With these comments—there’s much more in this piece from the Washington Post—the president has become a kind of uber-education commenter, mixing and matching fiction, oversimplification, and misunderstandings with his own unique brand of garbled confusion. (He also praises Betsy DeVos, saying she’s “highly respected.” As a resident of Michigan, where DeVos has been self-righteously chipping away at public education for decades, I’m not sure where Trump got that idea.)

I do know where Trump heard the rest of his misconceptions, however: They’re Things People Say about Public Schools, a running narrative launched in the 1980s by reports of the “rising tide of mediocrity” and moved forward by the Billionaire Boys, their deep pockets and their desire to “disrupt” one of America’s best ideas: a free, high-quality public education for every child.

The unexamined national goal now seems to be a productive, compliant workforce at the lowest cost, not an educated citizenry. Instead of building on our public education infrastructure, we talk about “failing schools” and bogus international-testing data.

Here’s how deceptive the conversation has become: fellow EdWeek blogger Rick Hess, a respected education scholar and author, recently had a bad travel day. Anyone who travels by air frequently knows how frustrating that is—missed flights cascading into more missed flights and meetings. But Hess tries to turn this into a parallel lesson on school reform:

My grim mood speaks very directly to the strange back-and-forth that's unfolding around the "evils" of privatization, the wonders of school choice, and how school reform helps real families. I'm annoyed today less because my flights were goofed up (which happens), and more because no one who works for the airline seems especially interested in doing anything about it. Instead, I'm staring at the face of a big, bureaucratic morass, a face that displays a remarkable lack of passion for doing the job well.

What we’re supposed to understand: Public education is also a “big, bureaucratic morass” with a “remarkable lack of passion.” Charters and choice to the rescue!

My response: Teachers do not fly around the country giving speeches. They’re home, grading papers and making lesson plans and calling Jose’s mother in the evening when she gets home from work. And that is genuine passion for doing their job well. Passion, I might add, for remarkably low pay (probably similar to what desk agents for any given airline make).

How to turn this national conversation around? Hard to say.

I’ve been meeting with a local group of educators and public education supporters, part of the Indivisible movement, hoping to do our part to preserve what’s good in public education locally. We’ve spent time turning over a counter-meme that educators are fond of using: If only Congressman ________ could spend some time in my classroom, he’d understand how difficult the job is, and how hard teachers work.

Is that the answer? Opening our doors and sharing the world of public education with the general public?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.