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Negative narrative hounds education, despite evidence of good work, big challenges

Diane Ravitch speaks at 70th annual NSBA conference

Diane Ravitch one of many speakers at 70th annual NSBA conference

I came away from Chicago feeling much like I have after other NSBA annual conferences: inspired — and frustrated.

Inspired because, corny as it might sound, I really am impressed with the work that you — school board members and administrators – are doing. You know what makes a good school system and, if Chicago’s conference is any indication, are working diligently against difficult odds to improve the education of all students.

I could cite any number of examples, but will just mention one interactive workshop I covered at 8:30 a.m. on Sunday (well-attended, by the way), led by Rob Delane, deputy executive director of the Ohio School Boards Association, titled “What Makes A Great Workplace: The Board’s Role in Ensuring a Positive School Climate.”  If you had listened to the questions and comments, you would have heard board members who were intently focused on improving the climate in their schools and their communication with the public.

So why was I frustrated? It has to do with perception as well — the perception, among the general public, members of Congress, and much of the media, that most schools across America are in serious trouble and in dire need of reform. If you had attended the lecture or luncheon talk Monday by Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute (I went to the latter) you would have heard that the nationwide perception of the public schools – the “narrative,” as Rothstein calls it – is about as negative now, under the Obama Administration, as it was under the leadership of George W. Bush.

Rothstein was particularly critical of the process for selecting the winners of the Race to the Top competition, which he said relies on a 500-point grading scale that has no rational basis. (Figure skating judges do better, he said. They use a seven-point scale.)

More fundamentally wrong, Rothstein said, is the underlying notion that states and school districts should be competing for desperately needed funds as they struggle to balance budgets and retain teachers and programs.

“There needs to be a groundswell of opposition to this competitive approach,” he said.

It all reflects a destructive narrative of the public schools that has persisted for many years: one stating that schools in general – not just certain ones – are in deep trouble and need fixing.

The challenge for school board members, Rothstein said, is to introduce a new narrative to compete with this flawed one, one that might note for example, that the average math scores of African American elementary school students have risen so far in the past 17 years that they are higher than the comparable white scores 17 years ago – a tremendous, if virtually unknown and unheralded statistic, Rothstein said. The only reason the achievement gap hasn’t closed, he added, is that the scores for white students have risen as well.

What will most help close this gap, Rothstein and others have long argued, is for public officials to put more resources into social supports –housing, health care, jobs – that are prerequisites for learning. (For more on this view, see

Lawrence Hardy, Senior Editor

Naomi Dillon|April 14th, 2010|Categories: Governance, Educational Research, School Climate, Policy Formation, American School Board Journal|Tags: , , , |

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  1. Claus says:

    One could argue that the narrative about public schools has actually become harsher since the Bush years–though I don’t necessarily fault the present administration for that. Most notable now is the flood of documentaries coming out on public schools and their failures. And those schools are being painted with a broad brush.

    Still, I think it’s important for any narrative to acknowledge the very profound challenges a lot of schools face and the need to address those challenges head-on. One of the better aspects of the more recent public education narrative is that many more people seem concerned about the lot of poor kids.

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