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Gerald Bracey Headshot

Nationally, Schools Suck, Local Schools Are Fine

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Each year the educational periodical, Phi Delta Kappan, conducts with the Gallup folks a poll of Americans' attitudes towards their public schools. Each year, one result is guaranteed: Respondents say their local schools are OK, but the nation's schools are average to awful.

This is not a parallel with the Congress-sucks-but-my-rep-is-OK comment, another common finding among pollsters. There is a different reason for the disconnect: Respondents have different sources of information for the evaluations of the nation's schools and their own kids'.

The media never have anything good to say about public schools and haven't since the years before Sputnik which went up in 1957. In those years, Rudolph Flesch wrote Why Johnny Can't Read, Albert Lynd wrote "Quackery in the Public Schools," and Arthur Bestor penned his influential Educational Wastelands: The Retreat from Learning in Public Schools, a title that implies that there was an earlier golden era (there wasn't). Bestor's book got him an interview with U. S. News & World Report titled, "We are less educated than 50 years ago."

The interview was remarkable mostly for the number of historical errors one would not expect a historian to make (Bestor taught history at the University of Illinois), including not recognizing that 50 years back from the time of the interview would have been 1906 when the high school graduation rate was 7 percent; by 1956 it was above 60 percent. Paul Elicker, head of the National Association of Secondary School Principals wrote an extensive rebuttal, but it appeared only in the NASSP Bulletin. U. S. News was not interested.

The schools never recovered from Sputnik. After its orbits, Life devoted a five-part series, "Crisis in Education," telling us how bad the schools really were. U. S. News brought Bestor back to explain how we had gone wrong. There were many other reports over the years, but the golden treasury of selected, spun and distorted statistics that lit the current fire in the oh-ain't-it-awful position of the media was 1983's, "A Nation At Risk."

Since then it's been non-stop bad mouthing. Eli Broad and Bill Gates spent $50 million to try and make education an issue in the 2008 presidential campaign and spewed TV ads, websites, and YouTube segments that all swift-boated the schools. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan constantly refers to our "education crisis" and President Obama's speeches have been filled with negative--and often erroneous--statistics (see my Obama-Duncan posts here on July 27, June 15, May 11, March 10, and February 25).

In the face of the continuous dissing barrage, it's amazing that anyone thinks anything good about public schools.

But parents gather their information about schools mostly not from the national media (thank God!), but from local sources. They can talk to teachers, principals and other administrators. They have friends and neighbors with children in school. They talk about schools with acquaintances they see in the supermarket. They read school newsletters, attend PTA meetings and some even go to school board meetings (which can be pretty boring, let me tell you). Of course, they have the kids themselves as well. So it's no surprise that only 19% of Americans give the public schools an A or a B, while 74% affix one or the other of those grades to the school that their oldest child attends.

But get ready. Another Round of NAEP is on the way and it will be followed shortly by another round of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Program for International Student Assessment later in the fall.

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