Is There An Actual Crisis in U.S. Education?

Over at the American Journalism Review, The Washington Post's Paul Farhi has a much-needed critique on how the "education in crisis" narrative cropped up in journalism across the country. Farhi, a veteran education reporter, notes how widespread the idea of school failure has become, pointing out that in January alone, there were at least 544 stories about "failing schools" (He doesn't even mention the report from the Council on Foreign Relations arguing education has gotten so bad it constitutes a national security risk). While the stories tend to carry similar messages—in particular that self-proclaimed education reformers are helping to stop the downward spiral—these conclusions don't square with all the data. Elementary and middle school students have improved consistently in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, and matriculation to higher education has never been higher. "All told," Farhi writes, "America's long-term achievements in education are nothing short of stunning."

The point is not that education is perfect, but that the journalistic coverage paints an inaccurate portrait of where we're failing. "[R]ather than evidence of a 'crisis,'" Farhi states, "this new data may simply have laid bare what was always true but never reported in detail."

The article only hints at the obvious policy implications such coverage produces. It's easy to assume that things were oh-so-much better in the glory days of the 1950s. Of course, unmentioned in this fable is that thousands of black children were forced to go to all but unfunded schools with little oversight, few actually went to college and women were often limited in their course options and educational goals. Those with special needs were sometimes simply rejected from schools.

If you believe we simply know more about the system's weaknesses now, that means we don't have to re-do the entire educational system. If traditional public schools have redeeming values and even those struggling can be saved, efforts to implement school choice seem less necessary. Instead, it would seem like we should invest in building curriculum that encourages critical thinking skills, rather than fill-in-the-bubble testing to make sure students understand basic facts. We could trust educators to implement their efforts to improve.

If one believes the data shows that schools are getting worse, it brings a bevy of different policy goals. Assumptions that teachers are suddenly much less competent and education is awful has prompted punitive policies aimed at weeding out the failures in the system. Furthermore, while many education "reformers" look to improve the options for poor and minority students, they're sometimes partnering with those who would like to see education killed off in favor of cheaper free-market systems like vouchers or for-profit charter schools, approaches that have yet to yield superior results. While the factions have different motivations, the partnership has led to more school budget cuts across the country while states and the feds create higher stakes by demanding more test results. 

If anything is likely to cause a crisis, starving schools of funds while promoting for-profit alternatives seems like it might be a good start.


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