And Are They Really Failing?

According to current conventional wisdom, our educational system is a disaster. The truth, of course, is more complex. It’s the poor who are failing. The rich are thriving — and learning.

The issue was recently raised by Diane Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error, in which she not only attacked the obsessive reliance on test scores as an inadequate way to measure real learning but also debunked the myth of failing schools. It’s not about the schools: “On nearly every measure of academic performance, poor kids fare poorly.”

According to Politico: “To Ravitch and her supporters, the solution is obvious — schools in poor communities need more money and more resources to support families struggling with hunger, unemployment and unmet medical needs.” (See, “Do American Public Schools Really Stink? Maybe Not.”)

So why is the myth of failing schools spreading?

One reason she offers is that investors see education as a vast untapped market and source of potential profit. They like technologies such as on-line learning, standardized tests, computerized curriculums – all of which displace teachers and provided new opportunities for profit. They also like the opportunity to build new schools outside community control and without unions. By trashing the existing public school system they encourage expensive investments in approaches that promise financial returns for investors if not better learning for students.

But there are deeper motives. Despite the fact that the U.S. saw early on that a robust public school system was essential to democracy, school was never popular. It was always seen as an instrument of acculturation, separating children from their culturally backward, immigrant parents, and also a means to inculcate discipline and conformity. In our hearts we may see the importance of schooling, but we still fear and resent it. Huck Finn fled the “school marms” and the Aunt Sally’s who wanted “to sivilize him,” and he set a powerful example.

Finally, we have a deeply held anti-intellectual strain in our culture. It’s OK for schools to teach the basics or, even, vocational skills that lead directly to jobs. But studying history, literature or philosophy has always been suspect. Why would anyone want to study such subjects, goes this unconscious logic, if not just to feel superior. They are not practical, not good for anything other than providing a sense of entitlement and elevation above the mob – except when the actually do train students to take places in the finance industry or advanced technology or any other area that promises immense financial gain.

Schools are the inevitable targets for our cultural anxiety. It’s how we sort ourselves out in the newly emergent class system, where the very bright get to go to good schools, get good jobs and go on to good lives. On the other hand, there are those who are contemned to fill jobs with little future or, worse, jobs destined to be replaced by robots or computers – that is, if they are lucky enough to get jobs at all.

It is not so much that schools are failing to educate us as that they are the means by which we are increasingly embedded in our unequal social system and driven further and further apart.