Fiddling With Schools While Our Nation Burns

In the '60s I graduated from one of America's top-ranked public high schools. Among its great assets was the school orchestra, also considered among the nation's finest ensembles.

The truth is that the school had very little to do with the fine orchestra. In fact I can't recall a single orchestra member who learned to play an instrument in the school. Most of the advanced violinists, including I, studied with the same teacher at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Many of the school orchestra members came from musical families and frequently attended Cleveland Orchestra concerts.

The assumption, of course, was that the school had a superb music program. I can't recall anything good about it at all, other than that it was populated by kids who could already play.

And such was the case with the school's academic program; many National Merit Scholars and a fine college placement record. The assumption, of course, was that the school had a superb faculty and curriculum. I can't recall anything good about that either, other than that it was populated by kids who were good at doing school things and came from relatively privileged families. I had teachers who could cure insomnia, teachers who gave the same boring lectures year after year after year and teachers who drank on the job. I had one dynamic, interesting teacher whose zest was undermined by the suspicion many of us had that he was a sexual predator. The one other dynamic teacher was indeed revealed to be a sexual predator, albeit not until the year I graduated. He ran off to Las Vegas with his 17-year-old prey.

But the community was convinced that it had great schools. In reality, the schools had a great community.

This acknowledgment is not to disparage either the school or the community. It is to point out that the frenzy over school reform is a precise reverse analog for my childhood experience. Politicians, reformers and pundits think we have a great nation with lousy schools. What we have are the same schools we always had, with a desperately deteriorated national community.

I can't fairly assess any person's motivation for engaging in school reform. The major donors driving most policy and practice are well known: Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton family, the Koch brothers and others. Perhaps their intentions are noble, although an argument can be made that they have been complicit in creating the very problems they claim to aim to fix. And the public faces who serve the philanthropists' agenda -- Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, Campbell Brown et al -- may also have good intentions, but we know with what the road to hell is paved.

I may not know the motivations of reformers, but I know this: The condition of education in America is the result of poverty, racism, re-segregation of communities, inequitable and insufficient funding of schools, loss of stable supports for families and rotting infrastructure. And these things are due, in part, to the political and economic philosophy and policies of those who now claim to aim to fix education.

Just as my high school and its teachers did not deserve credit for the conspicuous success of its students, today's schools and teachers do not deserve blame for the problems that plague education.

If the influential people who are driving so-called educational reform used their significant resources to build vital communities across the country through full employment, living wages, investment in infrastructure and progressive social policy, education would take care of itself. Raising the minimum wage to a living wage would do more to fix education than the aggregate effect of every single piece of education reform. But you won't find the Walton family supporting that kind of change.

Attacking teacher unions and tenure, high stakes testing, NCLB, Race to the Top, Common Core, charter schools... all these things are just fiddling around while civil society burns.