It's hard not to conclude that the skies over our public schools are falling around our children's heads when we read headlines such as "U.S. lags many nations in math," "U.S. students behind the curve," "Math + test = trouble for U.S. economy," "Crisis in education," and "U.S. high school seniors rank near bottom."
Or how about this, from the New York Times: "... a large majority of (college) students showed that they had virtually no knowledge of elementary aspects of American history (and) could not identify such names as Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, or Theodore Roosevelt ... Some students believed that George Washington was president during the War of 1812 ... "
Sound familiar? As if you just read them yesterday? Now, let's go back to our opening paragraph. The first three headlines come from newspapers published on Dec. 7, 1941; the fourth headline comes from a 1958 edition of Life magazine; and the fifth comes from the Washington Post in 1998. And that quote from the New York Times? 1943?
As Gerald W. Bracey noted, the "our-schools-are-failing" narrative is America's version of the Bill Murray movie "Groundhog Day."
"Americans keep waking up to headlines declaring that, apparently for the first time ever, the public school sky is falling," wrote Bracey.
As former No Child Left Behind supporter Diane Ravitch has noted "Reformers in every era have used the schools as punching bags.
And this debate over whether our schools really have been failing has been going on since at least the 1820s, noted Peter Schrag.
"The debate is driven ... by our favorite myths: That there was once a golden age, an era when schools maintained rigorous academic standards, when all children learned, when few dropped out and most graduated on time; that sometime in the past generation or so ... the system began to fall apart ... leaving America helpless against superior foreign education; and that the large amounts of new money that have gone to the schools in the past generation have largely been wasted," wrote Schrag ... in 1997.
In "Reign of Error," Ravitch wrote that in the 1940s, reformers complained that the schools were obsolete. In the 1950s, reformers said that the schools had forgotten the basics and needed to raise academic standards. In the 1960s, they said that the schools were too academic and that students were stifled by routine and dreary assignments. In the 1970s came the rise of minimum competency testing, and in 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education stated we were "a nation at risk" because of the low standards and low expectations in our schools.
"Our national slippage was caused, said the commission, by ‘a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.'"
Ravitch, who is a fierce critic of the corporatization of our public school system, also known as the charter school movement, noted that critics of America's schools fail to acknowledge that not only have our schools changed since the founding of this great nation, but so have the demographics of the families our schools are called upon to educate.
Despite the rhetoric coming from the right-wing and libertarian think tanks, our schools are not in decline.
"(T)hose who now sharply criticize the public schools speak fondly of an era when most schools were racially segregated; when public schools were not required to accept children with physical, mental, and emotional handicaps; when there were relatively few students who did not speak or read English; and when few graduated from high school and went to college."
Despite America's success at integrating and educating people from every nation and culture on the planet, the proponents of school privatization trot out the same old scare stories such as the ones at the beginning of this editorial.
Why? As then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich and University of California regent Ward Connerly noted in an editorial in 1997, "despite spending trillions of dollars on education over the past 30 years, American children are further behind today."
Many people hiding under the cloak of "reform" stopped listening after "trillions of dollars."
"If the American public understood that reformers want to privatize their public schools and divert their taxes to pay profits to investors, it would be hard to sell the corporate idea of reform," wrote Ravitch. "If parents understood that the reformers want to close down their community schools and require them to go shopping for schools, some far from home, that may or may not accept their children, it would be hard to sell the corporate idea of reform."
But, as Ravitch notes, there are problem schools with low test scores, low graduation rates and high levels of violence. What do all of those schools have in common? Poverty and high concentrations of racial minorities.
"Children who are poor receive less medical attention and less nutrition and experience more stress, disruption, and crises in their lives," wrote Ravitch. "These factors have an ongoing and profound effect on academic performance. Unfortunately, many people are unwilling to address the root causes of poor school outcomes, because doing so is either too politically difficult or too costly."
Too many of us have bought into the hyperbole that the private market can do a better job at educating our students and that our war on poverty has been a failure. We've been desensitized to the plight of the most vulnerable members of our community and we've been pitted against each other to the point we fail to see the real villains in our midst. It's not the poor and the hungry, it's the people who would pull the wool over our eyes while enriching themselves, leaving the rest of us holding the bag.