Public Schools Can’t Solve America’s Crisis of Purpose, But We Can Do A Lot More

June 2019

By //
Andrew J. Rotherham

Andrew J. Rotherham is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education; he can be found on Twitter @arotherham or at Eduwonk.com.

America’s education system is not the train wreck some claim, yet I’m always baffled when people argue that we’re doing pretty good or even ok.

The grim statistics are well known or should be. About one in 10 students from the bottom quartile of household income earns a B.A. by age 24 compared with about six in 10 from the top quartile. Enormous gaps by race and income persist in the outcomes on various tests, all kinds of postsecondary attainment and participation in gifted programs. Some advocates respond, “well, we’re doing ok except for ‘those’ kids.” But that sentiment is hard to square with our American creed, or the oft-repeated idea that public schools uniquely exist to serve the entire public. It’s at odds with the idea of the American dream and any semblance of equality of opportunity. So, are we fulfilling the promise of education in America? Of course, we are not.

Yet the complicated challenge of improving our education system is not straightforward from a technical perspective or from a more fundamental values standpoint. That’s why conversations, like the one in this issue and the Civil Discourse Dinners sponsored by The Line, are so vital.

Any honest analysis shows that we know more about what doesn’t work than what does, and even our exemplars are insufficient to the challenge. Meanwhile, all the various ideas discussed here, including college, career-focused education, charter schools — and ideas debated more generally in our education conversation — carry costs, benefits and trade-offs of different kinds for different kinds of students. That’s why these are vital discussions to drive progress. Trial and error, evidence and vigorous debate are pretty good tools. We’re blessed to live somewhere that allows for them.

Coalitions are likewise pretty effective. It’s hard to miss that education reformers — described loosely as all those who think American schools need something besides just “more,” be it more money, more teachers or more resources — are turning on each other or looking inward. So, these are tools that are being set aside lately in favor of increasingly strident and polarized debate. This problem predated President Trump, but the climate he stokes has done nothing but splash gasoline onto the education sector’s abundant tinder. This has been a boon for those who think, for whatever reason, that dramatic change isn’t needed. Reform may not be as on-the-rocks as you read in the media, but urgency around dramatic educational change is waning.

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The timing is ironic considering that the country is paying attention to questions of inequality and social mobility, issues where education plays a key role. At the same time, the hollowing out that is taking place around the country is starting to penetrate our national conversation.

Suicide rates and overdose deaths are contributing to the first decrease in American life expectancy we’ve experienced since the time of the Spanish flu. In some states, more than a dozen people are dying each day from opioids. On the other hand, college attainment, venture capital activity and other measures of social health are increasingly concentrated in certain geographies and far from equitably distributed across different demographic groups.

We tend to frame our education conversation in economic terms. In countless presentations, I’ve cited the data showing the increasing economic returns that accompany more educational attainment. Money matters, and the only people who consistently say it doesn’t tend to be those who already have it. Sure, it doesn’t buy happiness, but it can solve some problems — just watch affluent Americans if you have any doubt about that.

But, fundamentally, most people working in the education sector, myself very much included, are not doing it to make people rich. The core mission is something harder to define in charts or a PowerPoint presentation: It’s about giving people purpose and genuine choices in their lives. Scanning the landscape of America, it’s obvious we are not accomplishing this, or anything close. There is plenty of reason for concern that we’re going the wrong way in too many places.

These are enormous challenges that cannot be laid solely, or even mostly, at the feet of our schools. But it seems a fair critique that our schools, and our education community more generally, are hardly doing their part to help the country meet them. Perhaps if we were, education would not be such a political afterthought.

In any event, in the tribal and faddish world of education politics, there are few places to have these kinds of discussions and debates. We’re fortunate The Line is one.

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