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Jack Schneider: The American Education System Is Not Broken

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Jack Schneider, historian of education at the College of the Holy Cross, writes in The Atlantic that reformers have constructed a false narrative of educational failure. They say again and again that the “system is broken,” that it needs to be torn apart and built from scratch.

Schneider counters their claims one by one and shows that the system is working better today than it ever did, though it certainly needs to be better still.

Everything must be disrupted, say the reformers. Few of them have ever been teachers or even public school students or parents. But they seem certain that destruction is the right course for American public education.

Schneider marshals a good deal of evidence to show why they are wrong, but he never adequately explains how the reformers came to have these settled and wrongheaded beliefs. He suggests that they live in an echo chamber and only listen to one another.

Why the hysterical claims, he asks.

Perhaps some policy elites really believe the fake history—about a dramatic rise and tragic fall. The claim that the high school “was designed for early 20th-century workforce needs,” for instance, has been repeated so frequently that it has a kind of truth status. Never the fact that the American high school was created in 1635 to provide classical training to the sons of ministers and merchants; and never mind the fact that today’s high schools operate quite differently than those of the past. Facts, it seems, aren’t as durable as myth.

Yet there is also another possible explanation worth considering: that policy elites are working to generate political will for their pet projects. Money and influence may go a long way in setting policy agendas. But in a decentralized and relatively democratic system, it still takes significant momentum to initiate any significant change—particularly the kinds of change that certain reformers are after when they suggest starting “from scratch.” To generate that kind of energy—the energy to rip something down and rebuild it—the public needs to be convinced that it has a looming catastrophe on its hands.

This is not to suggest that educational reform is crafted by conspirators working to manufacture crisis. Policy elites are not knowingly falsifying evidence or collectively coming to secret agreement about how to terrify the public. Instead, as research has shown, self-identified school reformers inhabit a small and relatively closed network. As the policy analyst Rick Hess recently put it, “orthodoxy reigns” in reform circles, with shared values and concerns emerging “through partnerships, projects, consulting arrangements, and foundation initiatives.” The ostensible brokenness of public education, it seems, is not merely a talking point; it is also an article of faith.

I have great respect for Jack Schneider’s careful research and thoughtfulness, but here we part company. The reformers are indeed generating a “manufactured crisis” in order to create public hysteria about the quality of American education. There is a conspiracy, but it is not hidden. It is an echo chamber that includes StudentsFirst, Democrats for Education Reform, Stand for Children, the Gates Foundation, the Emerson Collective, the Broad Foundation, ALEC, the NewSchools Venture Fund, Teach for America, and a dozen or two more organizations and outspoken individuals. They know exactly what they are doing. They promote charter schools under private management, the transfer of public schools to private hands, and vouchers.

When pundits and policymakers repeatedly state that 2/3 of American students are below grade level, even after learning that this is not true, they are “knowingly falsifying evidence.” And one only has to peer into deliberations at any of the above named organizations and see the mutual backscratching to recognize that there is a network that agrees that American public education must be destroyed and remade as an all-choice system, largely privatized.

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