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Atlantic Article Advises Against Aggregating Nation’s Schools

July 31, 2018

Earlier this month, Atlantic writer Jack Schneider wrote an article urging our nation to stop thinking of “America’s Schools” as a monolith, arguing that in doing so we are doing more harm than good. At the outset of his essay. Mr. Schneider identified A Nation at Risk as the the point when we established “…a new way of talking about public education in the United States, a master narrative that has endured — and even subtly changed American education policy for the worse — over the past several decades.” That “master narrative” is that public education is a monolith and that it is “failing”. But Mr. Schneider asserts that this is not the case at all:

The abstraction of “America’s schools” may be convenient for rousing the collective conscience, but it is not particularly useful for the purpose of understanding (or improving) American education. Consider the issue of funding. On average, federal money accounts for less than 10 percent of education budgets across the country, and the rest of the financial responsibility falls to states and local schools. If local schools are unable to raise what they need, the state is usually well positioned to make up the difference, but states differ dramatically in their approaches. On average, states spend roughly $13,000 per student on public education — but looking at the average alone is misleading. Only about half of states spend anything close to that figure: A dozen spend 25 percent more than the national average, and 10 states spend 25 percent less. The result is significant disparities, and some striking incongruities. New York’s schools, for instance, spend roughly three times as much per student as Utah’s schools — a huge difference, even after accounting for New York’s higher cost of living.

And once the “collective conscience” of the politicians was roused by A Nation at Risk, both political parties bought into the “failing schools” narrative and began imposing one-size-fits-all solutions to the monolith, ignoring the reality that funding was hugely disparate and the policies governing schools resided in state and local governments. But Mr. Schneider does see a value in looking at public education as a national issue.

This is not to say that taking the national perspective can’t be valuable. Troubling patterns do exist across the U.S., and discussions about them can play an important role in shaping both public understanding and education policy. Achievement gaps across race and class, for instance, are an important reminder of broader social and economic inequalities, and advocates have used evidence about those patterns to make the case for universal early-childhood education. Similarly, a national dialogue about the disproportionate punishment of black and brown children in schools has drawn attention to an issue that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. These kinds of broad conversations can generate both political will and policy responses.

But, alas, while these kinds of broad conversations CAN generate political will and policy responses, they have not done so thus far. Instead, they’ve generated policy responses like NCLB, Race to the Top, and ESSA, all of which use standardized testing to reinforce the notion that public education is a monolith and it is failing. Mr. Schneider concludes his essay with this question:

The authors of “A Nation at Risk” concluded their report with a simple claim: “Education should be at the top of the Nation’s agenda.” And in creating a new kind of school-reform rhetoric, they seem to have achieved their aim. The question is, has it done more harm than good?

The answer is clear: it has done far more harm than good.

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