If we’re too enlightened to beat up on the minority group of the hour, at least we have our school system to beat up on. I hear the phrase “failing schools” at least once a week, and last night Oprah went on a Godzilla-hits-Tokyo style hike through educational controversies. I watched skeptically, and barked at the TV a lot. (Tenure systems vary! What makes a teacher “good”?) There are a couple of premises that often appear in these debates that trouble me on a deeper level. While often spouted as obvious realities, I have a lot more questions than answers about education.

Were schools better at some point in the past? When were they better, and what was better about them? Can we learn from that, or are our current circumstances too different? Was everyone better served then, or only some students? Is it possible (or desirable) to create a school where EVERY student is accommodated? How much do students need to practice fitting in and adapting to others’ needs while at school, and when should the school/teacher accommodate individual needs?

How should schools change? Do we want schools to move quickly, like technology companies, or do we want them to move conservatively, more carefully? How much are we willing to risk on educational trends and theories and new technologies? If schools today need to prepare students for post-secondary education, why do Americans have to take out heavy personal debts to pay for college? How much technology should students study in school, when it’s likely their knowledge will quickly become outdated?

What societal problems do we want to fix? Will hard work in school make students successful? If they don’t think so, who has taught them that lesson? Who have they seen not succeed? Why do so many jobs not pay enough to sustain a family? If there is work cleaning hotel rooms and slaughtering chickens and running cash registers and waitressing, why don’t those people have medical care, a place to live, and basic transportation? Will students who live in crime-ridden areas choose those jobs over crime if offered an excellent education? If they have schools just as good as the wealthier students, can they do just as well? Or do their schools need to be better, because they have further to go? Do schools offer equal opportunity to learn, or equal opportunity in life? Should schools wait until the kid left behind catches up to the middle, or push the advanced students as far as possible?

No matter what you think about the state of education, it’s hard on teachers and kids to hear people throwing the word “failure” at us day after day. The word “failure” makes people defensive and angry and shoves responsibility on some, while exempting others. Our public school system has been growing with us for more than 100 years. It has been constantly reforming and changing with our culture. Continuing to reform it requires our respect, patience, and thoughtfulness—not insults and dismissals.

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