Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in which he puts his support behind charter schools on the grounds that the public school system is broken and can’t be fixed:
American public education is broken. Since the pandemic began, students have experienced severe learning loss because schools remained closed in 2020—and even in 2021 when vaccinations were available to teachers and it was clear schools could reopen safely. Many schools also failed to administer remote learning adequately.
Before the pandemic, about two-thirds of U.S. students weren’t reading at grade level, and the trend has been getting worse. Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly known as the nation’s report card, show that in 2019, eighth-grade math scores had already fallen significantly.
Teachers understand the severity of the problem, and many are doing heroic work, yet some of their union representatives are denying reality. “There is no such thing as learning loss,” said Cecily Myart-Cruz, head of the Los Angeles teachers union, in an interview with Los Angeles Magazine this past summer. “Our kids didn’t lose anything. It’s OK that our babies may not have learned all their times tables. They learned resilience.”
What nonsense. How about reading, writing and arithmetic, the critical skills we are funding schools to teach?
Instead of giving students the skills they need to succeed in college or in a trade, the public education system is handing them diplomas that say more about their attendance record than their academic achievement. This harms students, especially those from low-income families. When and if they graduate, they will try to find work in an economy that values knowledge and skills above all else, and their old schools will say to them: “Good luck!”
Other nations are rising to this challenge and racing ahead, but we are moving backward, creating an economic and national-security crisis that will worsen over time. Unless we have the courage to rebuild public education from the bottom up, we will continue to doom our most vulnerable to a life of poverty and, in too many cases, incarceration.
Sadly, diplomas saying “more about their attendance record than their academic achievement” is a best case outcome, as NPR learned when examining a high school from which all of its students went on to college:
An investigation by WAMU and NPR has found that Ballou High School’s administration graduated dozens of students despite high rates of unexcused absences. We reviewed hundreds of pages of Ballou’s attendance records, class rosters and emails after a district employee shared the private documents. Half of the graduates missed more than three months of school last year, unexcused. One in five students was absent more than present — missing more than 90 days of school.
According to district policy, if a student misses a class 30 times, he should fail that course. Research shows that missing 10 percent of school, about two days per month, can negatively affect test scores, reduce academic growth and increase the chances a student will drop out.
Teachers say when many of these students did attend school, they struggled academically, often needing intense remediation.
“I’ve never seen kids in the 12th grade that couldn’t read and write,” says Butcher about his two decades teaching in low-performing schools from New York City to Florida. But he saw this at Ballou, and it wasn’t just one or two students.
An internal email obtained by WAMU and NPR from April shows two months before graduation, only 57 students were on track to graduate, with dozens of students missing graduation or community service requirements or failing classes needed to graduate. In June, 164 students received diplomas.
“It was smoke and mirrors. That is what it was,” says Butcher.
Let me offer an alternative explanation. The system is succeeding admirably at its purpose. Its purpose, however, is not educating children but employing adults at wages they could not realize in the private sector and providing them a comfortable pension after retirement beyond what anyone in the private sector might expect.