Even before Davis Guggenheim's school reform documentary Waiting For Superman began grabbing headlines, it's tough to remember a time when the education system in America wasn't a political lightning rod. The old truism goes that every candidate for the White House has at one point or another claimed to be "the education president." According to The New Yorker's Nicholas Lemann, this particular talking point should be scrapped. You see, America's schools, "on the whole," are doing fine. They've never been better, or at least never worse, so it's time to set aside the language of "crisis" and "systemic failure" and appreciate what's going well. Explains Lemann:
A hundred years ago, eight and a half per cent of American seventeen-year-olds had a high-school degree, and two per cent of twenty-three-year-olds had a college degree. Now, on any given weekday morning, you will find something like fifty million Americans, about a sixth of the population, sitting under the roof of a public-school building, and twenty million more are students or on the faculty or the staff of an institution of higher learning...The school-reform story draws its moral power from the heartbreakingly low quality of the education that many poor, urban, and minority children in public schools get. This problem isn’t new, and the historical context is important...The gap in educational achievement between black and white children narrowed during the nineteen-seventies and eighties, and has been mainly stuck since then, but it’s misleading to suggest that the gap is getting bigger....We have a lot of recent experience with breaking apart large, old, unlovely systems in the confidence of gaining great benefits at low cost. We deregulated the banking system. We tried to remake Iraq. In education, we would do well to appreciate what our country has built, and to try to fix what is undeniably wrong without declaring the entire system to be broken.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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