03/30/2016 10:25 am ET Updated Mar 31, 2017

Make Education Great Again

"Make America Great Again" is a slogan enthusiastically endorsed by those who believe that everything in our nation once was great and now is broken. The country is in crisis, they claim. To make things better, we ought to wipe the slate clean, clear out all politicians, and start over. The slogan isn't meant to convey hope and renewal; it's an expression of anger and exasperation.

The opposing view is not that everything in America is fine, but rather that some things are. We make progress by building on those -- where government is essential and effective, where institutions efficiently fulfill society's needs, and where politicians strive to solve problems instead of merely blaming others. But angry people with many grievances do not easily accept this view. They see good news merely as the establishment's way of advocating the status quo.

I was reminded of the similarity between politics and education when I recently published a short piece about our current obsession with education crisis. I pointed out that some things in education are working. Some teachers are outstanding and inspiring. Some test scores are rising. Some states compare favorably in international tests. Some graduation rates are rising -- indeed, most are. Not everything is fine, I emphasized, and I listed some big problems. But focusing only on bad news harms education. It frightens people into trying out one idea after another, distracts them from solving real problems, and demoralizes teachers and administrators, whom we rely on to implement solutions.

The reaction was swift from a group of education reformers who might be represented by the slogan "Make Education Great Again." They were incensed. They believe everything in education is broken. Education is in crisis. We need to clean the slate, to start over. Pointing out good news meant I didn't care about students who fail. It meant I represented the establishment. I was defending the status quo. As in our current political climate, their response took the form of a nonsensical taunt: "Math guy who can't count!" (Given the mathematical context, I'm thankful that no one mentioned digits.) The response felt familiar -- rage rather than reflection, contempt rather than contemplation.

Where does all that rage come from? For a few people (perhaps some politicians, pundits and reporters), a crisis and the concomitant rage is a matter of convenience -- a crisis attracts voters and readers in a way that rational discourse does not, especially for a complex subject like education. But for most, rage is a natural consequence of slogans like "Make Education Great Again" -- a mistaken belief that American education once was great and now has fallen on hard times. They believe this is a national tragedy, and they are outraged.

The problem with both slogans is that they are ahistorical. We think of the Great Depression in heroic terms, but the lives of millions were ravaged by the Depression. America spent three decades in mid-twentieth century engaged in three major wars (not counting the Cold War), with more than a half million American deaths. Was that so great? African-Americans and women might not want the country to roll back the clock to 1950, when opportunities for both groups were greatly diminished. Education is similar. In 1940, 25 percent of adults had a high school diploma or equivalent; today, that figure is 88 percent. (For African-Americans those figures went from 8 to 87 percent.) In 1940, fewer than 5 percent of American adults had a bachelor's degree; today, nearly 32 percent have one. [NCES digest] Scores on most standardized tests (for example, the National Assessment of Educational Progress) have trended upwards or stayed flat for decades, and the gap between demographic groups has narrowed, in some cases substantially. [NAEP] Do we really want to make American education the way it used to be?

We all want American education to be great. Of course we can do better. Of course we must try. Of course we have a long way to go. But in education as in politics, the opposite of "everything is broken" is not "everything is fine." It is rather that some things are fine. We will make education (and our country) better by building on them.