Are public schools failing or are they the victims of bad press? Two education commentators debated the issue at the third general session at NSBA’s FRN meeting on Sunday in front of an audience of school board members in Washington to learn about federal issues and meet with their members of Congress.
Richard Rothstein, author and research associate of the Economic Policy Institute, outlined what he called the “conventional story of public education” – our schools are failing and after 20 years, the achievement gap has not budged. Public schools must make radical changes by removing underperforming teachers, create more competition, and increase testing at every level.
“As you know, the system can be cured of its problems if the diagnosis is faulty,” said Rothstein. “We have a flawed diagnosis so our reforms have little to do with the real problems.”
In fact, Rothstein said, NAEP scores show that black children are scoring higher today than white children did 20 years ago. But the achievement gap has not moved much because white children are doing better, too. “A full standard deviation improvement in a generation,” said Rothstein. “There is no other area of social policy where any set of reforms have achieved that kind of improvement.”
So why does the idea that public schools are failing persist?
“You have been doing poorly telling your story,” Rothstein told the audience. “Your reaction is to say you’ll do better instead of refuting it on the grounds that the charges are false. The conversation won’t be turned around unless you speak up more loudly about your accomplishments.”
Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, was on hand to offer a counterpoint to the argument that public schools were indeed not doing the best job that they could do in educating all children. He said that while he agreed with Rothstein that there has been improvement over the past two decades, he said it’s been in part because of the reform movement, not in spite of it.
“Charter schools for some of us are fresh start,” said Petrilli. “A chance to push away red tape and regulations, get central office and union contracts out of the way and give these schools space to be good schools. It has created some really good schools.”
Fordham’s mission is to promote school choice, including a network of charter schools in Ohio, and its leaders have frequently called to abolish school boards.
Rothstein countered Petrilli’s arguments about charter schools. “We know from data that disadvantaged students in charters don’t do better than public schools on average. If you leave out the great schools, the averages show that as many or more great public schools exist. We already have good public schools. What have we gained from the big push to charter schools?”