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10 Ways School Reformers Get It Wrong

When it comes to education reform, we're not trying to reinvent the wheel anymore; instead, we're building square ones.

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It’s widely agreed that American education is in trouble.  What is missed in both the response to the crisis and the cacophony of reform efforts is a true understanding of the nature of the problem.

In the early days of public schooling, Horace Mann called the schools the balance wheel of society. It was thought that schools served as a corrective for all kinds of problems ranging from skill gaps that needed to be remedied for the economy to flourish to culture gaps that were created by immigrants that needed to be Americanized. The school never worked in quite that way, but it was part of a web of social institutions that helped build a framework that allowed America to grow both in prosperity and in diversity. We face a lot of social and economic problems; we expect the schools to solve them. When they don’t, we think it’s a school failure. Instead, the schools are in fact a signal of a breakdown. Nowadays, the balance wheel is not working so well; it would be more accurate to think of public schools as the canary in the mine.

1. The school system as a whole is not a failure. For the children in the top 60% of the economic spectrum, schools serve pretty well to promote learning and educational mobility and achievement. The fact is, school failure is not high in suburban and middle-class neighborhoods. Schools have traditionally succeeded for middle-class students and families actively aspiring to climb the class ladder. In these families, learning readiness has been established in a culture that supports success and academic risk taking. Schools do well in partnership with this middle-class family culture.

When the bottom two-fifths is dropped from data in major city systems, those systems compete favorably with the best international results. Most efforts to reform school governance, create alternatives or bemoan teachers don’t address the real problem, which is poverty. They are, in fact, driven by a non-problem: Most students don’t fail in school. 

Parent education and income most predict the educational outcomes of their children. Public schools have to be in the business of combatting that equation for children from the bottom 40% of our population.

2. In the ways schools do fail, it is the same as it has been for 100 years. There is at the same time as traditional success, massive school failure and it’s historic. Schools have never succeeded with children from very low-income families. The failure rates we record in our schools, both now and in the past, are primarily the result of the failures sustained by the poor and the near-poor.

The real problem of American schooling has been endemic since early in the 20th century. And that problem is that America’s schools have historically and continuously failed low-income students, those in the bottom two quintiles of the socio-economic spectrum. The longstanding story of failure for the bottom two-fifths of the population, made up disproportionally of African Americans and immigrants, is seen in the data that shows a failure and drop-out rate of over 60% since 1900. These figures repeat for the first two generations of most immigrant groups. Indeed school success for ethnic groups has always followed economic opportunity, not created it. So it was not until 1970, when Irish and Italian immigrants had established economic stability via government service and industrial workplaces, that they began to enter college in large numbers. Gains for blacks followed where similar opportunities have been available (e.g. postal service, rail service, government agencies, and affirmative action career ladders and small business advantage).