Sometimes when you tell the truth, it sounds like an excuse. People outside of education have a lot of advice on how to solve the problems with public education. They come from very well meaning places, but sometimes they might not even understand the problem they are trying to solve.
An easy sound bite is that every student should graduate or No Child Left Behind or every student succeeds. People then point at public schools as failing because it seems reasonable that every student should graduate from high school. After all, they say, if your goal isn't 100% graduation, then which kid are you OK with not graduating? That is a tough spin. It also puts educators in a bad position. Do you say it's not realistic, giving the appearance you don't believe all kids can succeed? Do you set a goal that you know is impossible to reach and just let it sit there with every educator knowing it is unrealistic? When the nation's schools inevitably fail at this goal, any reason for failure is looked at as an excuse.
Every student can learn. This sound bite is true. However, the pace for every student isn't the same. The style of learning isn't the same. Life factors matter. Some will achieve amazing things in music but not science, others might be great in welding, but not English class. Schools meet many different needs, but it isn't fair to say all kids will graduate or achieve at a high level in all subjects.
If we view truth as an excuse, our solutions are different. If we look at teachers as if they are the problem, then our solution might be to get rid of tenure or pensions. If we just got rid of tenure, the argument goes, we could fire the bottom percentage of teachers. If we got rid of these pensions, teachers wouldn't be so complacent and lazy. Maybe we can just bring in merit pay. That will motivate teachers to perform at a higher level.
There are many problems with these solutions. For one, the problem isn't the motivation of teachers. The solution of getting rid of tenure and loss of pensions just exacerbates the situation. People are already not lining up for certain teaching jobs. Secondly, merit pay never works. It is too subjective and if you make it objective, it means using test scores which is an inaccurate way to assess teaching. Assessments are designed to assess learning, not teaching. It also narrows focus to that which can be tested.
So what are some truths.
Truth: a child is taken from his home after his father attempts to commit suicide and mom gets sent to jail on the same night for drug use. When the police arrive, the children are sent to another community to be placed in foster care.
Another truth: a mom is shot and killed while daughter is in the house. Daughter arrives at new school after moving in with family members.
Another truth: a mother is released from prison. The school gets a call that the mother isn't to show up at school as she no longer has parental rights.
Another truth: a mom shows up to eat lunch with her kids. Later that day she leaves town running from the police. She is later caught and sent to prison. The school finds out the reason she came to lunch is because she knew it might be her last chance to see her kids.
So, back to 100% graduation.
People want to make it out that American public schools are failing. Only 78% graduate from high school in America. But look into those numbers. That is a 4 year graduation rate. "It is also accurate to say that 90% of those between the ages of 18-24 have a high school diploma." It is also accurate to say "On average, 3.4% of students who were enrolled in public or private high schools in October of 2008 left school before October of 2009 without completing a high school program" (Ravitch, 2013). How can all 3 of these be accurate? Numbers are can be presented for a specific purpose. If I want you to know how bad schools are, I will leave you with impression that a quarter of our kids don't graduate. If I want you to understand reality, I'll let you know that while some students didn't graduate in time, they still graduated.
Facts are important. Truth matters. Faulty rationale can be used to solve a problem that might not even exist, at least to the extent to which people might want you to believe.
Nearly all kids graduate. Kids achieve at the highest level in human history. That is in spite of the truths of some children's lives. Maybe you think the above stories are exaggerated to prove a point. I want to be very clear with this. Every story above is true, every story above is from this school year, and every story above is from one grade level. These are not from a scary urban school district. These are the stories that can be told in many public schools.
So maybe the problem isn't lazy, unmotivated teachers or a failing public school system. Maybe the problem is more societal than an educational problem. If that's the case, then the solution isn't getting rid of tenure, pensions, or privatizing education. Instead we should look to our public schools as a beacon of hope. Maybe we should look at teachers as the heroes that they are and realize that lazy doesn't describe this profession. Passion, dedication, and tireless commitment are much better descriptions of those in the teaching profession.
Truth matters. Public schools succeed. Teachers change lives.