Monday, January 14, 2013

Has our public school system failed?

Seems to me that it’s time to respond to the people who keep making the point that our public education system is failing.  Quite simply, it’s not.  From the time of A Nation at Risk in 1983 forward, we’ve seen a barrage of public comments about schools’ failures.  That continued and erroneous assault on our public education system has created a picture that just isn’t true.  Even more catastrophic than a false picture are the resulting public policies based on these false premises.  We’ve passed new laws, set up entire systems or accountability, and mandated changes that are based on the perception of a failed school system.  Are some schools failing?  Without a doubt, some schools have failed to meet the needs of the students they serve.  Has the system failed?  There’s no empirical evidence to support that. 

And, actually, the opposite is true.  Our system of public education has succeeded at the tasks we’ve given it.  In the 20th century, we asked schools to get more people to complete high school and to make certain that they could perform basic reading, writing, and computational tasks.  The people who tell us schools are failing claim that didn’t happen.  They suggest that schools have become progressively worse in recent decades.  But when we look at the rate of adults 25 years and older who completed high school in 1970, we see that only 54% did so according to the Bureau of the Census.  These days, nationally, the rate is around 88%, and in greater Seattle it’s closer to 93%.  That’s a different story than often gets discussed.  People sometimes look at on-time graduation rates (which hover between 60-70%) and assume that’s the end of the story.  But if 88% of 25-year-olds have earned a high school diploma, there’s clearly more of the story to tell.  If you believe the Census Bureau data, you have to accept this increase as a significant success.   

So maybe, it is sometimes argued, the increased high school graduation rates are the result of relaxed standards.  However, the data show that’s just not the case.  Standardized scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the same test given annually to fourth, eighth, and twelfth grade students over the past 40+ years, show that basic skills and knowledge scores have remained the same or have slightly increased in some areas.  The increased numbers of graduates have about the same skills that their predecessors did.  As we disaggregate by socio-economic status and other factors like English language skills or learning disabilities, we do see that some groups have not done as well as the overall averages.  And that’s where we need to look at improving education for those populations.  But we cannot focus on those needs we have until we understand where they exist.     

We also need to understand that we have shifted the mission of schools and schooling in the 21st century.  The basic skills and high school diploma of the past aren’t sufficient for the educational needs of an information society.  We need to acknowledge that our economic and societal needs require more than reading, writing, and arithmetic from the people our schools produce.  Dr. David Prince, of the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges conducted an analysis of the requirements for an adult to be economically independent.  His found that there is a “tipping point” that determines the level of education needed for economic independence.  That point comes when they attend at least one year of post-secondary education and attain a certificate to go along with that.  Once people reach that tipping point, they earn the wage levels required for sufficiency.  The Northwest’s fishing, logging, and farming jobs of 40 years ago gave way to new occupations that demand more education and a different kind of education.  While, in the past century, we asked schools just to get people graduated, in this century, we’re asking schools to prepare them to transition into opportunities that get them to the tipping point and beyond.   

To operate in this new role, it is imperative that we move beyond the ineffective rhetoric that decries systemic school failure.  Start by looking at the data.  That’s why I’m including links to the sources I’m citing.  We need to move away from politicized rhetoric and begin with fact finding based on reliable sources of data.  What are we doing well and what do we need to improve?  Whom are we serving well and whom do we need to serve better?  Instead of accepting any argument about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of schools, start by knowing what the ample research and school data tell us.  Then let’s move beyond rhetoric into creating the solutions for those areas where schools are struggling.  Let’s advocate for the resources for those areas and let’s work diligently toward solutions in those areas.  Let’s stop looking at reforming a system and, instead, let’s start looking at evolving it from its incredible history of success into the future successes we need.