OK. I'm going to say it. No one else will, so I'll have to. Here we go:
There's absolutely nothing fundamentally wrong with education in the USA.
I know. This is like telling a child that there is no Santa Claus. They've believed it for so long and with such conviction that the realization that, hey...maybe mom and dad did put those presents under the tree after all...seems shocking. But it's true.
This is not to say that the education world is perfect. There are many things that need to be fixed. But the fundamentals are all in place. The system works, and it always has worked. More importantly, it will continue to work unless we let the education deformers destroy it.
I've known this truth since I first began teaching. In my first year, I had a top class, three general ed classes, and one bottom class (this was back in the days of tracking). And what happened was predictable. Despite my many shortcomings, my top students did great, my middle kids stayed in the middle, and the bottom class stayed right where they began--at the bottom. And had I been a great teacher, which I most certainly was not, the results probably would have been roughly the same. Oh sure, a better teacher probably would have moved a few kids more quickly up the ladder, but the blasphemous truth is that we have always had a top tier of students, a middle tier, and a bottom tier.
The myth that a good teacher is the single greatest factor in a student's education is pure nonsense. Naturally, having a lousy teacher is a detriment, but most teachers are far from lousy. The lousy ones tend not to make it past the first few years--either that, or they improve.
The meme of the "great teacher" has its origins in the worlds of literature and entertainment. From Blackboard Jungle to Stand and Deliver, the media has inundated us with the idea that great teachers can change lives. Don't get me wrong--sometimes we do change lives. But not every day. And not with every student. For the most part, we do our jobs, educating children as best we can, and we hit the occasional home run. But sometimes we strike out. And sometimes we bloop one into center field that looks like a line drive in the boxscore. Even Babe Ruth struck out almost twice as often as he homered.
Despite all the rhetoric and all the changes to what is taught and how it is taught, there is one truth that Klein and all the other ed deformers can't explain away: The results of all their tinkering with the education system have amounted to a big fat zero. NAEP scores in New York--the one test that the state can't dumb down--have flatlined over the last decade. Klein and his crew--along with all the other saviors of education across the country--have not caused scores to budge an inch. Not one inch.
One can reasonably assert that Joel Klein and his ilk have made education worse. After eight years at the helm, with constant test prep, increased periods of ELA and math, and the dreaded 37.5 minutes added to the day, students are doing no better than when Klein began. If anything should have made scores go up, teaching to the test should have done it. But it didn't. It hasn't done it in eight years, and all the charter schools, quality reviews, and micromanagement in the world won't change that in the future, either.
Because of The Truth. We have kids at the top, in the middle, and at the bottom. We always have, and we always will have. If we devoted all our energies to teaching every child the piano, we'd have a few Mozarts, a bunch of kids who can play reasonably well, and some who mangle Chopsticks after ten years of study. Public education has produced both presidents and dropouts, lawyers and laggards. 'Twas ever thus.
As Americans, we see other nations flourishing, and their education systems competing with ours. We see this as our failing, but the reality is that other countries are simply catching up to where we have been for years...we are not falling behind. We've led the race for so long that we're unfamiliar with the feeling of the hot breath on our necks as other countries chase us down.
Some may call this a nihilistic view; I call it reality. If we dropped all the gimmicks and instead focused on teaching children what they need to know to the best of our (and their) ability, we might just see some real improvement. It will never be as it used to be, when America had a great education system and everyone else stank on ice. And it will never again be like those glorious days when we all believed in Santa Claus and Mr. Chips. But the American education system can be great once again, as soon as we stop looking for Mr. GoodTeacher and get down the business of giving our kids the same solid fundamental education that we all received. Then, we can let them soar.
If you feel the need to throw stones as me, please do it in the comments section.