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The Crisis in U.S. Education Isn’t Overblown: A Response to Nicholas Lemann

In this week’s New Yorker, Nicholas Lemann argues that education in America is in much better shape than the political debate lets on:

…by the fundamental test of attractiveness to students and their families, the [U.S. education] system—which is one of the world’s most ethnically diverse and decentralized—is, as a whole, succeeding. Enrollment in charter schools is growing rapidly, but so is enrollment in old-fashioned public schools, and enrollments are rising at all levels. …
In education, we would do well to appreciate what our country has built, and to try to fix what is undeniably wrong without declaring the entire system to be broken.

Lemann, dean of the Columbia School of Journalism and author of The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, certainly isn’t wrong on many of his central facts. Compared to the early twentieth century, more students go to school, and more Americans, generally, value education from kindergarten up through college. But it’s one thing to acknowledge we’ve come a long way. It’s quite another to suggest we’re doing pretty well today. Doing so involves looking backward, rather than forward, when looking forward is what we need.

Think about it this way: We’ve eradicated smallpox and built hospitals across the country. But that doesn’t mean our health care system is mostly succeeding; in fact, it is demonstrably broken. Lots of people get lousy care. Lots of people can’t afford to get care, period. That’s why we debated, and eventually passed, health care reform—because what matters when discussing change is the magnitude of what still needs to be fixed, not what we’ve already tackled.

And, relative to other industrialized nations and to our own expectations for what our country should be able to achieve, U.S. public education is failing. Students drop out of school at an alarmingly high rate (about 30 percent); there are scarcely any methods in place for removing bad teachers from the classroom; minority and poor students don’t have equal access to necessary resources, making the achievement gap intolerably large; and we score well below peer countries in key subject areas.

In his article, Lemann bemoans the “stock drama” of K-12 school reform—teachers’ unions as the enemies, Michelle Rhee and Teach for America as the heroes, charter schools as the championed solution to every woe. He worries that a strong push to “wash away” and replace the education system as we know it could reap terrible consequences. He compares it to bank deregulation and Iraq.

But who wants to wipe out the existing system? The whole point of the reform push is to make public schools better. Yes, charter schools can be good options; we should support and replicate the successful ones. But they shouldn’t replace regular public schools entirely. We should experiment with changing teacher tenure—which, despite what Lemann intimates, is in need of reform—and try innovative approaches to performance pay, raising student achievement standards, community schools, and developing better, more comprehensive standardized testing methods. We should double-down on the plans that work. But none of this amounts to upending the system with “heroic ideas … that don’t demonstrably [work],” or inviting anything remotely resembling an Iraq-like quagmire.

I’m all for praising what we get right when it comes to education. But I also believe that patting ourselves on the back won’t get us very far. Unlike Lemann, I think the most important first step to fixing U.S. schools is getting more people to admit that we are in a serious crisis. From there, we can look forward.