Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Won't somebody please OUR SCHOOLS ARE FAILING

Have I mentioned my theory that the constant repetition of the words "failing schools" is a conspiracy by an evil subset of American society that believes that protecting private property rights is the first and last legitimate function of government in order to undermine what is the most public of our public institutions? (This sentence is unwieldy, but I like it.)

Recently Matt Yglesias, who is definitely on the school reform bandwagon but not part of the conspiracy, had a thoughtful post on why this isn't a cut and dried issue. Basically, if you're too lazy to read the whole thing, it boils down to this:
Like the bulk of the center-left “reform” wing of the Democratic Party, I’m very concerned about the plight of low-income black and Latino students in large urban school districts. But it’s important to recall that most American children aren’t poor, most American schools aren’t in large urban districts, and that in a very large country we actually have all kinds of different school systems.
I'll readily admit that a lot of my own instincts on the public school system are based on the exactly one school district that I have any significant experience with, and from the perspective of my extremely middle class and not particularly challenging-to-educate childhood. The weird thing is, I think my very middle American (or ok, Californian) perspective is kind of under represented in the media. It seems like you've got a lot of people, like Matt Yglesias, who grew up in the big cities on the east coast, mostly going to private schools...or whatever the heck Stuyvesant is in New York. I'm not sure how well they understand what it's like to come from a place where schools are intimately interlinked with neighborhoods; what it's like to have a mental map of your hometown that's divided up by which kids go to which elementary school.  In the context of my childhood, concepts like school choice seem sort of bizarre and the idea of closing a "failing" school is downright traumatic. How do you close a school that's synonymous with the community it's in? And don't they understand just how much community stands to be lost if schools are reformed to the point of being unrecognizable?

Of course, I also shouldn't let my own narrow experience prejudice me against reforms that may really genuinely be needed in some places...or that could even have been extremely helpful to a kid who sat in the exact same classrooms as me but got less out of it. But I dunno...I guess it all just circles back to where I ended up the last time I tried to write about this. The rhetoric against public schools really bothers me. Universal public education is one of the most successful endeavors this country has ever attempted...not a failure. Equality of opportunity obviously has a long way to come, and I understand why people expect the school system to be the vehicle to get us there (because honestly, what else even has a chance?) but that only counts as failing if  everything in the entire history of mankind ever counts as failing. Let's not be too eager to scrap a mostly working system in order to try out some ideas that we think might help us achieve a goal we hope is attainable.

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