Blaming the schools for all sorts of societal failures has become such a part of our tradition that the history of American schooling is constituted now as an unending succession of criticisms, reactions, and reforms, none of which is allowed time to work before being replaced by the next one that is intended to solve another collective illness that can be blamed on a bad educational system rather than the real culprits—most often bad planning and decision-making at the national level, or the unchanging realities of poverty and discrimination that sustain achievement gaps. It is customary, too, for media elites to use the economic scare arguments to push one or the other favored educational reforms as a way to mask the inability or lack of will to address the underlying problems for which the schools continue to be blamed.
The current debate is no different, and Brent Staples’ fad du jour in today’s Times is a fine example. Instead of addressing the problem of poverty and racism that undercut the democratic aspirations to which we continue, so far, to give lip service, commentators like Staples and politicians like Bush rarely waver in blaming the schools for putting our economic security in jeopardy by failing to achieve what poverty and racism make impossible. The sad, but irrefutable, fact remains that the achievement gap that we hear so much about is a product of the income and opportunity gap, which is a product of a tradition of racism that goes back over 300 years in this country. It is a problem that will not be resolved by pretending it is the fault of the schools.
What makes this morning’s New York Times school demonization editorial any different from the average garden variety one, is that this time, in its haste to lambaste the schools by making test score comparisons with other nations, Staples does not bother to note that the other better nation, this time Japan, has been in economic recession for over 15 years, despite its seemingly advanced education strategies grounded in homogeneity and groupthink. I ask you, Mr. Staples, is this the kind of model that we should emulate to keep America from becoming “a second-rate economic power?”
With this current round of frenzied attacks on American public schools coming on the heels of the greatest economic boom of all times in this country during the 1990s, one must wonder what form the attack would take if the American economy had been in recession, like Japan’s, since 1989? We would have already boarded up the windows of the public schools and given all the children their little vouchers to the nearest Baptist academies, or else enrolled the poor ones in the corporate welfare MacSchools based on instructional robotization—and America would have become no closer to economic recovery than the Japanese are today, still funding almost half their annual budget through borrowing.
But at least, by then, the real school agenda would have been achieved, and we could find another public instituional enemy to blame for keeping us from a well-deserved happiness that awaits us in our future, once that future can be cleared of civic purpose and the constraints of conscience.