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Is Our Education System Really That Bad?

New Yorker writer Dean Nicholas Lemann put reformers on shout, saying we're overblowing the problems with our education system.

New Yorker writer and Columbia Journalism School Dean Nicholas Lemann is no stranger to calling B.S. In 2006, he poo pooed the idea of citizen journalism (and the greater idea of blogging) as a substitute for traditional journalism. Now, he's put education reformers on shout, saying that two new books, the documentary Waiting for Superman—which opens this week—and the greater save our school system movement is "overblown."

His reasoning with regards to K-12 seems rather elegant:

It should raise questions when an enormous, complicated realm of life takes on the characteristics of a stock drama. In the current school-reform story, there is a reliable villain, in the form of the teachers’ unions, and a familiar set of heroes, including Geoffrey Canada, of Harlem Children’s Zone; Wendy Kopp, of Teach for America, the Knowledge Is Power Program; and Michele Rhee, the superintendent of schools in Washington, D.C. And there is a clear answer to the problem—charter schools. The details of this story are accurate, but they are fitted together too neatly and are made to imply too much.
It is a very tight story, isn't it?
The real problem—or at least a more honest one—Lemann states, is not that our entire education system is in tatters, but that it's still fraught with inequalities that affect minority and low income students. I agree that's the most pressing issue in education, but I'd also note that there aren't a whole lot of charter schools opening in high income, low minority areas. If charter schools are a supposed panacea for what ails our education system—and that's by no means the case—the disease they are most conspicuously targeting is the achievement gap.
Further, he says that, "Measures of how much American students are learning—compared to the past, and compared to students in other countries—are holding steady, for the most part, even as more people are going to school." He's right to note that the fact that increased access to education hasn't led to an enormous drop in its effectiveness, but in order to compete in the new global world, we'd probably want our kids to be better than 17th in science and 24th in math. Another nice goal would be to graduate a higher percentage of students from college, especially since we keep sending more of them on to higher education—an example of a stat that refutes Lemann's claim since it implies our high schools aren't preparing students for the next level.
Lemann may be missing one huge advantage to the fire and brimstone take on our schools: The current, tidy education narrative, while deceptively simple, may also be a marketing ploy.
As mentioned in the Los Angeles Times' first story on teacher effectiveness, ineffective teachers—at least, according to the Times' value-added methodology—are spread throughout the system. So, scapegoating teachers alone doesn't get at why minority and low income students get the shaft in our education system. But, making an issue about the unfortunate few—whether it be those without health care or gay people who can't marry—isn't always the best way to spur people to action. What Waiting for Superman and many other parts of the education reform movement do is put the onus on all adults—from parents to teacher, politicians to administrators.
Sharing the burden, even if it's via an imprecise narrative, might be the best way to get people involved—and to lift all boats.
Photo via David L. Ryan for the Boston Globe.\n

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