Just Because the Sky’s Not Falling Doesn’t Mean Your School is Good

Far be it from me to take on Nicholas Lemann – former Managing Editor of the Washington Monthly, former staff reporter for the Washington Post, staff writer for The New Yorker, author of The Big Test (about the SATs), and current dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism – but….

…his current “narrative of crisis” complaint in The New Yorker gets the plot wrong.

The American public education story these last 50 years is not about heroes and villains; it’s about victims — in this case, the tens of thousands of children who have passed through our public schools without getting educated  – and what to do about them.

Since I haven’t seen Waiting for `Superman’, I don’t know whether it deserves to be the straw man Lemann creates here.  (He also cites, lamely, it seems,  “two short, dyspeptic books about colleges and universities… and a lot of positive attention to the school-reform movement in the national press” to buttress his argument.)

Mike Petrilli’s hubris alert! yesterday makes a similar point, but in a more deft manner; he takes Superman director Davis Guggenheim to task for claiming, in an interview, that “we’ve cracked the code” of school reform and rightly warns reformers not to be over-confident.

Lemann’s point, that that there is no “systemic failure” and no crisis, is a kind of reverse hubris – Hey, what’s the problem? — and more dangerous because it emboldens those who fight improvement:  we have the best system in the world, love it or leave it!  (See this wonderful exchange (thanks to Whitney Tilson for the alert) between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and a teacher who asks Christie to stop “lambasting” the Garden State’s public schools, which she says are pretty darn good.)  It is a slippery slope and usually takes you to the swamp of bad parents and bad neighborhoods.

Lemann finds it odd that the systemic failure arguments are so persuasive when, in fact, “over all, the American education system works quite well.”  How many kids have to fail to move the “over all” meter?

If you have ever walked through a poorly performing school or visited with high school graduates who can barely read or write, or gone to court on behalf of a dropout caught selling drugs, the word crisis surely comes to mind. And when you confront those failures in an organization run by people driving BMWs and clamoring for pay increases, you’d be tempted to view them as systemic problems.

Lemann seems to write off “the heartbreakingly low quality of the education that many poor, urban, and minority children in public schools get” with a  wave of the rhetorical hand: “this problem isn’t new.”

So, what’s the point?  That we shouldn’t be heartbroken by the failures? That we shouldn’t lobby to fix the failures? That we shouldn’t make movies documenting the failures? We can, of course, have the debate about whether the failures constitute a national crisis – was our nation really “at risk” in 1983?  – or whether the number of dysfunctional schools in our urban centers add up to a nationwide systemic failure, but where will that take us?

I prefer to agree with Lemann’s conclusions, even if his road to them is suspect. Yes,

We have a moral obligation to be precise about what the problems in American education are—like subpar schools for poor and minority children—and to resist heroic ideas about what would solve them, if those ideas don’t demonstrably do that.

That’s good. But let’s also resist the distractions that take us away from the  tough and urgent task of making public education better.

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