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.”