Is there anyting more frustrating and heartbreaking that what seems to be happening to public schools?
Education — standardized testing, school reform, teacher training — these are all things I’ve followed with a passion beyond that of a book reviewer and concerned citizen, but the zeal of a parent with children in the “system.”
The cover story of Sunday’s “The New York Times Magazine,” Building a Better Teacher, focused on the broader angle of teacher training (not aimed at public schools but let’s face it, you don’t hear or read so many complaints about private schools).
Last week on National Public Radio, Diane Ravitch, education historian and author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, was interviewed on Morning Edition on March 2 because of her turnaround from conservative supporter of No Child Left Behind to supporter of public education, a position she’d ardently held some 40 years earlier. On the same day, NPR reported on the massive firings of teachers and staff at a public high school in Rhode Island. The story featured deeply hurt teachers who felt singled out for blame for the decline in student achievement and teary students sorry to see their teachers go. It was hard to listen to, but when failure has been so massive and so long in the making, somebody has to be held accountable.
Does the blame reside in poverty and hyper-segregation, lack of parental involvement, too much emphasis on standardized testing, inadequate funding, too many non-English speaking students, poorly trained and prepared teachers, the teachers unions, short-sighted politicians, or any combination and all of the above? I’ve read enough books to know that fingers are pointing in all directions. I suspect that the reasons are myriad and complicated, and the solutions are no doubt myriad, some complicated and some relatively simple — but the need is palpable and urgent.
I have my own list of recent favorites on the subject of public education (from the angle of what can be done about the problems) including Ravitch’s book, as well as How to Walk to School: Blueprint for a Neighborhood School Renaissance by Jacqueline Edelberg and Susan Kurland, for those desperate to take matters into their own hands, and The Black-White Achievement Gap: Why Closing It Is the Greatest Civil Rights Issue of Our Time byRod Paige and Elaine Witty, for those concerned about one of the most shameful and nagging problems in education.
But from years ago, I remember a book about the noble history of public schools, how they helped ease the way for thousands of children of immigrants and poor people migrating across the U.S. for better opportunities, how they became the way out of poverty and into the middle-class and the mainstream for disadvantaged and marginalized children. A computer virus a few years ago wiped out many of my pre-2006 files on book reviews, so I can’t locate the review on my computer and unfortunately, I don’t remember the name of the book. But what I do remember is its impact, the glorious history and hope of public schools, though not without prejudices and injustices. Whatever the solution or solutions, the nation could greatly benefit from a return to a working public school system.