BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Yes, we have failing schools in the United States. And yes, there are schools that any American with an ounce of patriotic blood should be ashamed of sending a fellow citizen to. But we also have some of the best public schools in the world.
You heard me right.
The United States has great public schools and great teachers, lots of them. In fact, a recent Department of Education study that linked our Nation’s Report Card exams with the international test TIMSS showed that when we break our educational system down by state, 47 of 50 states are above the international average. And Massachusetts and Vermont scored higher than 43 of 47 participating countries in science with similar findings in math. Clearly, this is far from a failing system!
That said, some states like Alabama and Mississippi fell well below the international average, to a degree that it’s surprising every resident isn’t standing at the front steps of their state Capitol demanding answers.
Particularly in Alabama, the state Legislature should be called on the carpet, given that these results follow a 20 percent cut in state educational funding since 2008. Of course, money isn’t necessarily the silver bullet. But losing 20 percent of a budget is not going to help.
Taken together, these examples suggest that, while some systems need work, the U.S. public education system is not failing as a whole.
In fact, I contend that although in a technology-rich global arena, reform is and always will be necessary, drastic changes proposed by many “reformers” are misguided and ignore the success of an educational system that was key in creating and is critical to maintaining the largest economy in the world.
Things seem to be working pretty well in Massachusetts and Vermont and pretty poorly in Alabama.
Why then, is there a constant and pervasive call for drastic national educational reform?
One reason may be that many if not most educational reforms seem to be concentrated at the national level with both private and public officials claiming that (1) there is a national crisis; and (2) blanket reforms and standardization can solve this problem.
The federal government has been a major culprit behind unnecessary blanket educational reforms. Over the years, federal leaders have devised misguided policies such as No Child Left Behind and its current cousin, Race to the Top.
Such federal initiatives were not only premised on the erroneous ideas of a failing national educational system, they have empowered the federal government with the ability to highly influence every public school in our nation.
Unlike my conservative counterparts, my point is not to argue that the federal government does not have a role in education. The federal government has played an important role in promoting equity, special education, and civil rights.
Departments within the federal system also collect important statistics and provide funds for groundbreaking educational research. The federal government is an important part of our educational infrastructure.
But I do take issue with disproportionate federal influence: An arm of government that pays for about 12 percent of your public school’s budget seems to have 80 percent of the say in matters most crucial to schools, such as curriculum and spending.
As one superintendent recently shared with me, “We teach to the test; everyone knows that.”
Reform may be necessary in some schools, but it needs to be specific to the context and not the type of reform that suggests everyone is a failure.
The federal government should play a role in educational policy formation, that is clear; but this role should be commensurate with its financial stake. Otherwise, we, as a nation, are allowing a 12 percent stakeholder to design a one-size fits all reform movement that is needed by some but not needed by others.
Rutkowski is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies of the Indiana University School of Education.