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Education Isn't Broken, Our Country Is

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Here we go again. The recent reports on Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores, have unleashed a fresh torrent of educational angst. According to PISA, American kids are mired in mediocrity and the rest of the world is catapulting ahead of us. Singapore, Shanghai and South Korea are regularly cited as places that are having us for lunch.

But I don't write to quarrel with the scores, their importance or their reliability, although I hold little stock in any standardized assessments. The more significant problem is that we Americans have it exactly backwards.

Story after story, blog post after blog post, one op-ed after another cite the importance of an educated workforce in order to maintain or regain our rightful place atop the global economy. Politicians suggest that poverty would be eradicated if only our schools were more like those in Finland. If we don't fix education -- politicians and pundits proclaim -- we are in for big trouble. News flash: We're already in big trouble.

We don't have an education problem in America. We have a social disease. It is as though we are starving our children to death and trying to fix it by investing in more scales so we can weigh them constantly.

Charter schools, Common Core, voucher programs, online education, Teach for America... None of these initiatives, whether financially-motivated opportunism or sincere effort at reform, will make a dent in our educational malaise, because the assumptions are wrong.

As is often the case in our "blame the victim" culture, it is generally believed that improving education will cure poverty. This invites the inference that poor education created poverty. But it is simply not true. Poverty created poor education. The victim blamers cite lazy children and bad parenting as contributors to poverty. But poverty dulls motivation and cripples parents.

And perhaps worst of all, the poor performance of our students is attributed to poor teaching and unions. I propose that today's teachers (even the underprepared Teach For America kind) are as good or better than teachers were a generation ago. Neither they nor their weakened unions are the cause of our education problems.

It is also asserted that our place in the global economy is threatened by the poor quality of American education. But this is also backwards. Our place in the global economy threatens education, not the other way around. In the service of economic global dominance, we have sacrificed families and schools.

But we persist in our misguided efforts to "fix" education nonetheless. Education reform has been underway for many years, most energetically since No Child Left Behind was enacted in 2001. I challenge any reader to provide comprehensive evidence that education has improved since then. There are, of course, some anecdotes of successful charter schools, or genuinely heartwarming stories of dedicated teachers changing a few lives, but the only broad indicators of success in educational reform are the balance sheets of educational publishing companies.

Many folks seem to romanticize the halcyon days of American education, often the 1950s or early '60s (before the hippies ruined things), when father knew best, children respected their elders and mothers joined the PTA and made yummy lunches. I'm an eyewitness (although my mother made lousy lunches). My elementary and secondary education started in the '50s and ended in the '60s. But, contrary to the romance, I cannot remember a single educational experience of real power during those years. But I did just fine.

I did just fine because I'm white, my father was employed, my community was thriving, my family enjoyed affordable health care and my childhood was relatively stress free. School was pretty boring, but my friends and I got by and were prepared enough to make what we might out of life. When looking at the experiences of millions of today's American children, the only thing that hasn't changed is school. It's still pretty boring, but it's not any better or worse than decades ago.

But everything else has changed. According to a recent New York Times article, 54 percent of Americans have experienced or will experience at least one year in poverty or near-poverty. Many communities, other than gentrified urban neighborhoods and privileged suburban enclaves, are suffering from neglect -- deteriorating infrastructure, high unemployment, eroded tax base and underfunded schools. Despite the Affordable Care Act, tens of millions of Americans have no health insurance and inadequate health care. And children in and out of schools are highly stressed, in part because of the persistent pressure of high stakes accountability. We are weighing our children instead of feeding them. It is quite literally crazy.

So I'm afraid I can't take politicians' concerns about education seriously until they start taking concerns about our troubled country seriously.

Raise the minimum wage to a real living wage. Provide affordable health care for every family. End the regressive tax system that has eviscerated local communities. Provide disincentives to the multi-national corporations that have abandoned American communities while chasing the cheapest labor overseas. Put Americans to work with bold infrastructure investment. Extend the meager unemployment benefits that keep many families out of abject poverty. Stop pretending that racism is dead. Instead of telling people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, remove the boot heels of oppression.

Let's do these things for a decade, and then we'll talk about PISA scores.