The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Experience is a good school, but the fees are high."... ...Heinrich Heine

Commentary of the Day - March 23, 2001:   Failing Public Schools? Who Says? - Guest Commentary by Conrad Geller:

Why can't politicians get it right about education?

In the recent, particularly rancorous presidential race, the candidates seemed to agree on only one thing: Education needs a serious makeover. George W. Bush, victorious,  says he has a plan for fixing the failed public school system. It seems to be a mix of testing (“higher standards”), selected vouchers (“choice”), and a certain amount of bully pulpit exhortation (“education is important”).

The proposition that our public schools are in big trouble has reached the status of an axiom. But maybe even as an axiom it needs scrutiny. Let's ask, for example, in what part of the public schools' historic mission  has the supposed  failure  taken place?  How much of the current malaise about education is in reality based on just one more instance of the Things-Were-Better-In-My-Day syndrome that seems to afflict everyone as soon as they  barely get past thirty?

The fact is that education in America is a huge, magnificently diversified, even bewildering business. The more than eighty-seven thousand public schools in this country come under the supervision of about sixteen thousand local districts in states that differ widely in their requirements for things like mandated curriculum and teacher certification. High schools range from tiny operations with less than a hundred students to megaschools that graduate five hundred seniors or more every year. When politicians speak sagely about the "education system" in America they are talking nonsense. There is no system.

Nor should there be. France used to have a tight system, in which the same lesson was in theory being taught in every classroom, not only in France, but in all the colonies and former colonies that had adopted the French system. The bureaucrats in Paris made all the decisions about what should be taught in each subject, in what order, using what textbooks. The French eventually saw the folly of doing things that way and have opted for more flexibility. In our country we have always been too feisty, too suspicious of centralized government control, maybe too wise, to allow any national system to take hold.

Local control, only loosely regulated by state departments of education, has been our way of connecting people more closely with their community's schools and making them more responsive to local needs. It has encouraged innovation which, while sometimes leading to short-term educational mistakes, has given vigor to the whole enterprise. Central control is no protection against folly, after all; it was a national commission that brought us the fiasco of New Math.

How, then, are our diverse, heterogeneous schools really doing? As we might expect, heterogeneously. Some city schools have developed toxic internal cultures, in which learning is actively discouraged and teachers have given up. Not much learning can take place there. Some schools, especially some small rural ones, don't have the human or material resources to do the job.

But many of our schools continue to do a magnificent job, as they have for nearly four hundred years. In 1635 the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in one of its first actions, set up the Public Latin School to obviate the need for its brightest scholars to have to go to England to get the best secondary-school training. The Boston Latin School still exists, still in Boston's inner city. Now its curriculum, no longer tied to training for the ministry, includes computer science and a variety of modern languages in addition to Latin. Over the centuries its mission expanded to providing a springboard for immigrants' children and later to disadvantaged black students. Its accomplishments continue to be impressive. Similar elite public institutions in Springfield, Massachusetts, New York City, Philadelphia, and elsewhere, carry on the best academic traditions.

Excellence is well distributed throughout our public schools, and it is growing. To take one widely-used measure of excellence, the Advanced Placement Examinations, The College Board reports that the number of students taking those rigorous tests has more than tripled in the last decade, while the total number of examinations given has doubled, to more than a million. As many as 300,000 high-school seniors have actually achieved some sort of advanced placement in college by their efforts this year. These records are being made not only at the high-profile suburban schools and the city elite schools, but all over the country.
At the other end of the educational scale, efforts at remediation of less able students are going on as never before, and they are succeeding as never before. Standardized tests in reading and arithmetic at elementary levels are rising; after-school and summer school programs are burgeoning. American public education, even if -- or maybe because -- it isn't a system at all, seems by all accounts to be robust, combative, and ready for its awesome challenges ahead.

All these encouraging figures must come as a shock to anyone watching the media these days. George Will, that expert conservative sniffer, sniffs that schools are among the most significant of "government's failures." George W. Bush has made the supposed inadequacies of public education a staple of his administrative program. "The diminished hopes of our current system," he says earnestly, "are sad and serious." He speaks of "the collapse of education" and "a slow slide of expectations and standards." Meanwhile, of course, he takes credit for the general rise in student achievement during his governorship, attributing the phenomenon, at least in Texas, as an example of his own successful stewardship.

Bashing American education is an old game, played with enthusiasm by Europeans and willingly participated in by most Americans, who tend to despair if their server at the burger joint uses bad grammar or is puzzled by arithmetic. Partly it makes us feel superior to the young, who have all the advantage over us in everything else. Partly, since schools are local and we don't have to feel helpless about influencing their policies, we want to have our say. Mainly, however, it has turned out to be a cheap shot for politicians.

© 2001 Conrad Geller
CONRAD GELLER ( has been a teacher and writer for almost fifty years. He has taught in secondary schools and colleges in Massachusetts, New York, and London.  Mr. Geller is a graduate of Boston Latin School, Harvard College, and Massachusetts State College at Fitchburg.

Many of our readers likely will take issue with one or more of Mr. Geller's positions, as does the Irascible Professor.  However, we feel that he is correct in noting that too many politicians are more interested in using public education as a "whipping boy" than in helping to remedy the deficiencies.

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