The Evolution of the Schools Suck Bloc

05/25/2011 12:05 pm ET
  • Gerald Bracey Fellow at the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University

I used the phrase "schools suck bloc" for the first time in "A Test that Everyone Will Fail" which appeared in the Washington Post May 3 and subsequently on this blog but it was hardly the first time I'd heard that schools suck. I once had occasion to tell my son-in-law about how well American kids had done on an international comparison. "That's amazing,"" he said. "Why," I asked, "is it amazing?" "Well, I just assumed our schools sucked." An interesting comment since he wasn't too long out of those schools and was heading towards an MBA at an elite private institution.

A packet of emails from Reid Lyon, Susan Neuman and the Reading First gang finds the group at one point complaining about a Washington Post article pointing out that NCLB "will result in the majority of the nation's schools being deemed failing." Lyon says, "The fact is that the schools are failing."

No they're not. Some are, no doubt. But in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, American kids in low poverty schools stomped the top-ranked Swedes. Even kids in schools with up to 50% of the students in poverty attained an average score that, had they constituted a nation, would have ranked 4th. Only American students attending schools with 75%+ poverty scored below the international average of the 35 participating countries.

You see a similar set of rankings if you look at outcomes by ethnicity. In OECD's Programme of International Student Assessment, which tests 15-year-olds, white American students ranked 2nd in reading, 7th in math, and 4th in science among the 32 nations.

Worries about the quality of the schools intensified in the late 1940's as we entered the Cold War. We needed manpower. Would the schools deliver it? When Sputnik soared into orbit in 1957, the answer appeared to be "no." Most people believed that the Russians had got into space first because the schools suck. Admiral Hyman Rickover put it succinctly in a book title: American Education: A National Failure. (Rickover's solution: A National Standards Committee and tests. Plus ca change...).

In fact, Wernher von Braun, our leading ex-Nazi rocketeer, pointed out that we had ignored ballistic missiles from 1945 to 1951, a period when the Russians were busily developing them. He diplomatically did not mention that the Army, Navy, and Air Force all had rocket programs and squabbled incessantly and dysfunctionally over who would get to go first (NASA did not exist until 1958).

Von Braun could have noted that while he in Germany was building the V-2 rocket that so terrified England during the war, he drew immensely from the work of Robert Goddard. Goddard, our native rocket genius, was being ignored and even mocked at home. The New York Times had scoffed at Goddard's 1920 rocket he said might be able to reach even the moon. A rocket, Times editors declared, would be useless in a vacuum (when Apollo 11 lifted off for the moon in 1969, a note referring to the 1920 editorial said, "The Times regrets the error").

The schools never recovered from Sputnik, but the next major blow didn't land until 20 years later in On Further Examination. This booklet reported the findings of a panel assembled by the College Board to figure out what had caused the then 14 year decline in SAT scores. The panel blamed mostly demographic changes in who was taking the tests along with the social upheavals of the 60's and early 70's. The public blamed the schools.

In 1983, the paper Sputnik, A Nation at Risk, ascended to its own orbit. This golden treasury of spun and selected statistics is still often referred to in some quarters as a "landmark"study. After that, the nation experienced a rising tide of education reform reports. Leaders and Laggards is only the most recent of many. It does, though, carry a special panache, being a joint venture of a conservative group, the Chamber of Commerce, and a putatively liberal group, the Center for American Progress.

In the last 20 years, many educational concepts have become identified with a political side. Phonics belongs to the Right, Whole Language to the Left and so forth. But statistics indicating school failure know no such divide. The bogus "lists" indicating the worst problems in the schools in the 40's (chewing gum, breaking in line, speaking out of turn, etc.) and in the 80's (drugs, violence, pregnancy, etc.) were adopted equally by Left and Right. The more recent but equally bogus "600,000 Chinese engineers" statistics gained immediate acceptance everywhere, cited by liberal and conservative alike as one more indicator of what we already know: the schools suck.