If only policymakers, practitioners, and parents agreed upon what “success” and “failure” mean for schooling. No such agreement exists leading to miscommunication and contradictions. Just as there are complications in figuring out the meaning of these common words in business, military operations, and hospital care, so it is for the nation’s public schools (see Parts 1 and 2).
Recall that for the past half-century, there has been an on-going controversy between political conservatives and liberals over whether the nation’s schools are failing or have failed (note the difference between using the present tense–they are failing–as opposed to present perfect tense–they have failed; the latter is a judgment closing the door while the former offers, even invites, hope for improvement). What makes determinations of failing U.S. schools perplexing is that on Gallup polls parents give low grades to the nation’s schools (47 percent satisfied in 2017) but express higher satisfaction (79 percent in 2017) for the local school their sons and daughters attend.
I date the current controversy’s origin to the late-1970s with the official bemoaning of the drop in Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs) scores. Concerns for the declining quality of public schools accelerated with the A Nation at Risk report (1983) that linked U.S.’s public schools to an economy that must compete globally. U.S. students doing poorly on international tests was to policy elites a forbidding sign of decline in quality of the nation’s public schools.*
The Report’s recommendations prompted changes in state graduation requirements and beefed up academic plans for public schools. Many initiatives throughout the 1980s and 1990s came from business leaders, political liberals and conservatives, academics and think tanks. They viewed the nation’s schools as crucial to a strong economy and in need of major curricular, instructional, and organizational reforms to get students to measure up to their international counterparts.
Over the past three decades, expanded parental choice in the form of vouchers, charter schools (especially in poor and minority neighborhoods) and business-inspired plans of setting national goals and holding schools accountable for student outcomes entered public schools (see here, here, and here).
Both Republican and Democratic Presidents supported these reforms (except for vouchers which Democrats opposed and charters over which Democrats split). These reforms created higher curriculum standards, more testing, and accountability in state after state. The capstone bipartisan effort was the federal law No Child Left Behind (2001-2016).
NCLB called for all public school students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014 and established a federally-driven testing and accountability system managed by the states to insure that students scored well on standardized tests. Schools meeting their numerical targets set by the law would be rewarded and those falling short would be penalized. By 2011, the weaknesses of this federally-driven system had become obvious to legislators–48 percent of U.S. schools had been labeled “failing.” In 2016, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act and President Obama signed off on a law loosening federal regulations on accountability (but not testing or publishing of racial and ethnic statistics) and giving states far more latitude in designing reforms (see here).
As the polarized political climate worsened, right-of-center supporters of vouchers and charter schools coalesced supporting policies that would rescue the nation’s failing schools. Ditto for left-of-center critics increasingly challenging the charge that U.S. schools have failed or are failing. These critics on the political left pointed to national reports, improving test scores, and the trash-talking about failing schools a “manufactured crisis” (see here, here, and here).
Some critics went further and charged that reformers with a politically conservative bent who sought more vouchers in schools and expanded numbers of charter schools were trying to “privatize” public schools (see here and here).
Thus, the controversy that began four decades ago over whether U.S. schools are “succeeding” or “failing” continues with another generation of politically polarized reformers split over how best to improve the nation’s schools.
What complicates the debate over schools are errors in policy thinking and different perspectives being ignored. I offer a few examples of these errors in making sense of this ongoing controversy over all public schools failing.**
#In analyzing the four-decade debate, I have found repeatedly that advocates and opponents of either schools as “failures” or “successes” do not distinguish whether they are talking about all public schools or really have largely minority and poor urban schools in mind. The confusion can be cleared up–but seldom is–if one sees the nation’s schools as a three-tiered system of schooling based upon performance and socioeconomic status.
Top-tier schools—about 10 percent of all U.S. schools–such as selective urban high schools in New York, Boston, and San Francisco and schools in mostly affluent suburbs such as New Trier High School (IL), Beverly Hills (CA), Scarsdale (NY) meet or exceed national and state curriculum standards. They head lists of high-scoring districts in their respective states. These schools send nearly all of their graduates to four-year colleges and universities.
Second-tier schools—about 60 percent of all schools often located in inner-ring suburbs (e.g., T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, VA) often meet state standards and send most of their graduating classes to college. But, on occasion, they slip in and out of compliance with federal and state accountability rules, get dinged, and continue on their way as second-tier schools.
Then there is the third tier of schools located in big cities such as Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, and Atlanta where largely poor and minority families live. Most schools in these cities are low-performing and frequently on the brink of being closed. Occasionally, stellar principals and staffs will lift such schools into the second tier but that is uncommon.
Such a three-tier system in the U.S maintains social stability (and inequalities) yet, and this is a mighty large “yet,” good teachers and schools even in the lowest tier of schools can promote positive intellectual, behavioral, and social change in many children and youth .
But too few members of the policy elites see these crucial differences in the U.S. system of schools and instead mush together potatoes, onions, green beans, and zucchini into one sticky veggie stew.
#A second error is that the concepts of “success” and “failure” become “either/or thinking,” “good vs. “bad” ways of making policy and running schools. As if there are no degrees of “success” or “failure” in either children learning, teacher outcomes, school, and district performance. Omitting the in-between, the gray, surely makes decisions less complicated and simpler to make but such decisions are mistaken. Not distinguishing between, for example, between partial or complete “success” and “failure” or sudden or gradual, or sustained and precarious are just a few ways of avoiding dichotomous thinking.
#Another error is forgetfulness about the historic multiple (and changing) mission of tax-supported public schools. Presently and for the past four decades, the highest priority for public schools is to produce graduates ready for an ever-changing labor market in a fluid, growing economy. Schools serve the economy. Yet in other periods of schooling, becoming a contributing member of a school and adult community, building strong moral character, and graduating thoughtful problem solvers were front and center as the mission of public schools.
In each instance of these multiple goals for public schools shifting over time, definitions of what is a “success” or “failure” vary depending upon what policymakers and reformers see as the prime target that schools must hit. Those policymakers advocating that schools must go beyond preparing all children and youth for college and engage students in using their knowledge and skills acquired in school to become active members of the community, serving the old and the young and helping to build strong relationships between differing groups would have different metrics for “success” and “failure” beyond test scores and percentages of students going to college.
As I see it, this continuing controversy over U.S. schools “failing” over the past 40-plus years between and among political conservatives and liberals has been worsened by policy elites’ errors in trying to improve U.S. schools. These errors, I believe, have confused defining “success” and “failure” and consequently had mercurial effects upon reform after reform applied to public schools.
*The current reforms launched since the late-1970s are, of course, part of a historical continuum. Earlier generations of reformers have assailed the failure of public schools beginning in the late-1890s–John Dewey’s cohort–extending through the post-World War II generation who pointed to schools lacking in rigorous academic content and skills before and after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957. And on and on the soap opera of school reform marched forward to the present moment (see here, here, and here)
**I offer a few of these policy errors here reserving others for subsequent posts.