Everything in American education is broken. Or so say the policy elites, from the online learning pioneer Sal Khan to the journalist-turned-reformer Campbell Brown. As leaders of the XQ project succinctly put it, we need to “scrap the blueprint and revolutionize this dangerously broken system.”
This, they explain, is the sad truth. The educational system simply stopped working. It aged, declined, and broke. And now the nation has a mess on its hands. But there’s good news, too. As Michelle Rhee’s group, StudentsFirst, declares: Americans can “work together to fix this broken system.” All it takes is the courage to rip it apart.
This is how the argument goes, again and again. The system used to work, but now it doesn’t. And though nobody inside schools seems to care, innovators outside the establishment have developed some simple solutions. The system can be rebuilt, reformers argue. But first it must be torn down.
American education has some obvious shortcomings. Even defenders of the schools can make long lists of things they’d like to change. But the root of the problem is not incompetent design, as is so frequently alleged. Nor is it stasis. Rather, it is the twofold challenge of complexity and scale. American schools are charged with the task of creating better human beings. And they are expected to do so in a relatively consistent way for all of young people. It is perhaps the nation’s most ambitious collective project; as such, it advances slowly.
For evidence of this, one need look only to the past. If the educational system had broken at some point, a look backward would reveal an end to progress—a point at which the system stopped working. Yet that isn’t at all the picture that emerges. Instead, one can see that across many generations, the schools have slowly and steadily improved.
Consider the teachers in classrooms. For most of American history, teachers received no training at all, and hiring was a chaotic process in which the only constant was patronage. To quote Ted Sizer on the subject, the typical result was one “in which some mayor’s half-drunk illiterate uncle was hired to teach twelfth-grade English.” There were other problems, too. As late as the 20th century, for instance, would-be educators generally had little if any student-teaching experience prior to entering classrooms, and they received no preparation for teaching particular content areas. Even as recently as mid-century, prospective teachers had no background in adolescent cognition and received no training in how to work with students from diverse backgrounds. All of that has changed. Does that mean that today’s system of teacher education is without flaw? Hardly. There’s lots of work yet to be done. But there is also no question that the average teacher in the U.S. today is better prepared than the average teacher from any past period.
The same is true of the school curriculum. Sure, it’s somewhat arbitrary and, at least for some students, insufficiently challenging. But Americans are regularly told that the modern curriculum is a relic of the past and that it has grown increasingly out of date. That simply isn’t true. Prior to the 20th century, high schools focused heavily on Latin and Greek, required coursework in subjects like zoology and mechanical drawing, and rarely offered any math beyond algebra. In 1900, the average school year was 100 days long—40 percent shorter than the current school year—and classes were commonly twice as large as contemporary ones. And well into the 20th century, girls and students of color were regularly offered a separate curriculum, emphasizing domestic or industrial training. Do students still read books? Yes. Do they sit in desks? Typically. Do teachers still stand at the front of the class? For the most part. But beyond that, there are more differences than similarities. Again, this doesn’t mean that present practices are ideal—but it does mean that Americans should think twice before dissolving into panic over what is being taught in modern classrooms.
Finally, consider the outcomes produced by the educational system. Critics are right that achievement scores aren’t overwhelmingly impressive and that troubling gaps persist across racial, ethnic, and income groups. Yet scores are up over the past 40 years, and the greatest gains over that period have been made by black and Hispanic students. They’re right that the U.S. finishes well behind exam-oriented countries like Taiwan and Korea on international tests. But scores are roughly on par with countries like Norway, which was named by the United Nations the best place in the world to live; and students from low-poverty states like Massachusetts outscore most of their global peers. Critics are right that 40 percent of college students still don’t graduate. But almost half of all American high-school students now head off to college each year—an all-time high. And whatever the doom-and-gloom about schools failing to address workforce needs, it’s worth remembering that the U.S has the strongest economy in the world—by an enormous margin.
Are the schools perfect? No. But they are slowly improving. And they are certainly better today than at any point in the past. So why the invented story about an unchanging and obsolete system? Why the hysterical claims that everything has broken?
Perhaps some policy elites really believe the fake history—about a dramatic rise and tragic fall. The claim that the high school “was designed for early 20th-century workforce needs,” for instance, has been repeated so frequently that it has a kind of truth status. Never the fact that the American high school was created in 1635 to provide classical training to the sons of ministers and merchants; and never mind the fact that today’s high schools operate quite differently than those of the past. Facts, it seems, aren’t as durable as myth.
Yet there is also another possible explanation worth considering: that policy elites are working to generate political will for their pet projects. Money and influence may go a long way in setting policy agendas. But in a decentralized and relatively democratic system, it still takes significant momentum to initiate any significant change—particularly the kinds of change that certain reformers are after when they suggest starting “from scratch.” To generate that kind of energy—the energy to rip something down and rebuild it—the public needs to be convinced that it has a looming catastrophe on its hands.
This is not to suggest that educational reform is crafted by conspirators working to manufacture crisis. Policy elites are not knowingly falsifying evidence or collectively coming to secret agreement about how to terrify the public. Instead, as research has shown, self-identified school reformers inhabit a small and relatively closed network. As the policy analyst Rick Hess recently put it, “orthodoxy reigns” in reform circles, with shared values and concerns emerging “through partnerships, projects, consulting arrangements, and foundation initiatives.” The ostensible brokenness of public education, it seems, is not merely a talking point; it is also an article of faith.
Whatever the intentions of policy leaders, this “broken system” narrative has had some serious unintended consequences. And perhaps the most obvious of those has been an increased tolerance for half-baked plans. Generally speaking, the public has a relatively high bar for replacing something that works, particularly if there is a risk of failure, and especially when their children are concerned. Historically, this has been the case in education. A half century ago, for instance, the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll asked public-school parents what the schools were doing right. The response: Almost everything. The standard curriculum, the quality of teachers, and school facilities came in first, second, and third on the list. Not surprisingly, when parents were asked in another PDK/Gallup poll if the schools were “interested enough in trying new ways and methods,” 42 percent responded that the schools were striking the right balance. Twenty-one percent felt that the schools were “too ready to try new ideas,” and 20 percent felt that the schools were “not interested enough.”
When it comes to replacing something broken, however, the bar for intervention is much lower. Doing something, even if it fails to live up to expectations, is invariably better than doing nothing. Only by doing nothing, Americans are told, can they fail. Thus, despite the fact that there is often little evidence in support of utopian schemes like “personalized online learning,” which would use software to create a custom curriculum for each student, or “value-added measures” of teachers, which would determine educator effectiveness by running student test scores through an algorithm, many people are willing to suspend disbelief. Why? Because they have been convinced that the alternative—a status quo in precipitous decline—is worse. But what if the schools aren’t in a downward spiral? What if, instead, things are slowly but steadily improving? In that light, disruption—a buzzword if ever there was one—doesn’t sound like such a great idea.
A second consequence of the “broken system” narrative is that it denigrates schools and communities. Teachers, for instance, have seemingly never been more disillusioned. Roughly half of teachers report feeling under great stress several days a week, job satisfaction is at a 25-year low, and almost a third of teachers say they are likely to leave the profession within the next five years. Parents, too, have never had less confidence in the system. According to the most recent Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, roughly 80 percent of Americans give grades of “C,” “D,” or “F” to the nation’s schools—a far larger total than the 56 percent who issued those grades three decades ago. This, despite the fact that 70 percent of public school parents give their children’s current schools an “A” or a “B” rating. In other words, despite people’s positive direct experiences, the barrage of negative messaging has done serious damage to the public school brand. Consequently, many anxious parents are now competing with alarming ferocity for what they believe to be a shrinking number of “good” schools. As research indicates, they have exacerbated residential segregation in the process, intensifying racial and economic inequality.
Perhaps the most serious consequence of the “broken system” narrative is that it draws attention away from real problems that the nation has never fully addressed. The public-education system is undeniably flawed. Yet many of the deepest flaws have been deliberately cultivated. Funding inequity and racial segregation, for instance, aren’t byproducts of a system that broke. They are direct consequences of an intentional concentration of privilege. Placing the blame solely on teacher training, or the curriculum, or on the design of the high school—alleging “brokenness”—perpetuates the fiction that all schools can be made great without addressing issues of race, class, and power. This is wishful thinking at its most pernicious.
This is not to suggest that there is no space for criticism, or for outrage. Students, families, and activists have both the right and the responsibility to advocate for themselves and their communities. They know what they need, and their needs have merit. Policymakers have a great deal to learn from them.
Still, it is important not to confuse inequity with ineptitude. History may reveal broken promises around racial and economic justice. But it does not support the story of a broken education system. Instead, the long view reveals a far less dramatic truth—that most aspects of public education have gotten better, generation by generation.
The evolution of America’s school system has been slow. But providing a first-rate public education to every child in the country is a monumental task. Today, 50 million U.S. students attend roughly 100,000 schools, and are educated by over 3 million teachers. The scale alone is overwhelming. And the aim of schooling is equally ambitious. Educators are not just designing gadgets or building websites. At this phenomenal scale, they are trying to make people—a fantastically difficult task for which there is no quick fix, no simple solution, no “hack.”
Can policy leaders and stakeholders accelerate the pace of development? Probably. Can the schools do more to realize national ideals around equity and inclusion? Without question. But none of these aims will be achieved by ripping the system apart. That’s a ruinous fiction. The struggle to create great schools for all young people demands swift justice and steady effort, not melodrama and magical thinking.
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