Three mildly heretical thoughts about American education: First, given the impossible assignment we've given them -- an egalitarian mission in a nation rapidly growing more stratified by income and class -- American public schools are probably doing a better job than they ought to be. One big reason is greater professionalism among teachers. A lot has changed since I wrote a Texas Monthly article documenting the awful state of teacher education back in 1979, mostly for the better.
Despite melodramatic pronouncements to the contrary by sundry politicians, tycoons, tycoon/politicians and media-enhanced "reformers" like former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, the available evidence shows American students performing steadily better on standardized assessments of educational progress over the past 30 years.
"The only longitudinal measure of student achievement that is available to Bill Gates or anyone else," writes Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute, "is the National Assessment of Educational Progress." Scores on the NAEP have trended steadily upward to where the most underprivileged African-American children do better in eighth grade reading and math today than white students did back when the measurements began in 1978. But no, they haven't caught up because white kids' scores have improved too.
This doesn't mean the United States is turning into Finland or South Korea, to mention two small, ethnically homogeneous nations education reformers like to cite as (quite contrary) examples of how to proceed, but it does indicate that much doomsday rhetoric we hear from the likes of Rhee and Education Secretary Arne Duncan is predicated upon false assumptions.
Yes, we could be doing better; no, the sky's not falling.
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