Is There an Education Crisis?

Ella Lynch published her article in thein 1912, and she was soon joined by other "experts," all proclaiming a crisis. This was the start of a twenty-year push to reform education through "efficiency," and as always a crisis was required to set the stage.
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"Can you imagine a more grossly stupid, a more genuinely asinine system [of education] ... a system that not only is absolutely ineffective in its results, but also actually harmful.... The public school system is not something to be proud of, but a system that is today the shame of America."
Is the Public School a failure? by Ella Lynch

Ella Lynch published her article in the Ladies Home Journal in 1912, and she was soon joined by other "experts," all proclaiming a crisis. This was the start of a twenty-year push to reform education through "efficiency," and as always a crisis was required to set the stage.

In recent decades, the buzzword has been "accountability" rather than "efficiency." A crisis was needed to set the stage for the accountability drive, and it was declared in 1984 with the publication of A Nation at Risk, President Regan's famous report warning of a "rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people."

Today's crisis-mongers are only slightly less dramatic than Ella Lynch. Here is a sample from Joel Klein's article The Failure of American Schools, which appeared in the 2011 Atlantic.

  • "Nearly three decades after A Nation at Risk, the gains we have made in improving our schools are negligible."
  • "On America's latest exams [NAEP] one-third or fewer of eighth-grade students were proficient in math, science, or reading. "
  • "Our high-school graduation rate continues to hover just shy of 70 percent, ... and many of those students who do graduate aren't prepared for college."
  • "While America's students are stuck in a ditch, the rest of the world is moving ahead. ...On international math tests, the United States is near the bottom of industrialized countries ..."

Our test scores are declining. Our graduation rates are abysmal. We are falling behind the rest of the world. What's wrong with raising the alarm?

For one thing, it is dishonest. Did you know that NAEP scores in 4th and 8th grades in math and reading have trended upwards for most of the past 30 years--not by a little, but a lot? Did you know that high school graduation rates have risen steadily over these past decades to the highest level ever, and that over 90% of young adults now have a high school diploma or equivalent? And did you know that when international math scores are reported for individual states (rather than the entire nation), 36 states have scores higher than the international average and 10 were not significantly different? (In science, 47 states were higher.) Does this sound like a crisis?

Of course, I do not mean that everything in education is great. It's not. Many things need attention. Those results on NAEP and international tests are mixed, with both high spots and low. Schools that deal with poverty are too often poor schools themselves. The quality of textbooks is abysmally low and declining. While many teachers are superb, some don't know much about the subject they teach. And if we want a higher proportion of graduates to succeed in college, we need to find better ways to support them. These are complex problems. They are important. We should address them.

But crisis-mongering does not help us to find solutions! In fact--and this is the crucial point--creating a faux crisis makes solving education's problems much harder.

First, shouting crisis frightens people, and frightened people do foolish things. (Think Japanese internments or McCarthyism.) In this case, we have engaged in endless testing accompanied by bizarre metrics unknown in the rest of the world. We substitute bright, young people with five weeks of training for experienced teachers. We create Orwellian programs that claim to respect our best teachers by giving them many more students, along with paraprofessionals and a modest salary increment. Crises frequently make people stupid.

Second, when we obsess about a fake crisis, we fail to deal with real problems like those mentioned above. A century ago, our nation struggled to create a vocational education system patterned on that of Germany's, and by mid-twentieth century vocational education thrived in American schools. Now it is almost invisible. Our foreign language instruction is embarrassing. A large number of schools have no art or music classes for lack of funding. These are all real problems, but you don't hear about them in the breathless conversation about a crisis.

But the most serious consequence of this fake crisis is that we are destroying the most important part of education's infrastructure--our teachers. After thirty years of crisis-mongering, some of our best teachers are giving up and leaving. Many teachers are demoralized, burned-out, tired of having to defend themselves and their profession from attacks by the media, the pundits, and the politicians. Worse, they are telling their children and students to stay away from teaching as a career. Is it any wonder that fewer and fewer bright, young students show an interest in teaching as a career?

All these things are consequences of the steady, hysterical, and often inaccurate declaration of an education crisis, which is reported uncritically by a news media addicted to crisis. Crisis-mongering is damaging education, not improving it, and we need to be smarter. We don't improve education by exaggerating what's wrong but by discovering what is already working well. We improve it by building on strengths that can overcome weaknesses. We improve it by focusing on genuine excellence, not by manufacturing a fake crisis. Whatever you think about the goals and aspirations for American education--however you choose to shape those goals--you will not achieve them if you drive away the most able, the most inspirational teachers.

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