The Washington Post

Public education failing? Not in this school

(By Charles Rex Arbogast/ AP) (By Charles Rex Arbogast/ AP)

The “public schools are failing” narrative is pervasive, even though the facts aren’t there to support the systemic failure that many school reformers insist there are. Here a parent paints a different story. Lynn Michie is a chaplain at the Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women in Black Mountain, North Carolina. She and her husband, David McNair, have two children in the Buncombe County school system.

 By Lynn Michie

Mr. Love is the band teacher at Reynolds Middle School in Asheville,  where my 13-year-old daughter plays clarinet.  Mr. Love wears his name well every day, but twice a year on concert night he also wears his concert suit and a zany tie, cracking jokes to help his students relax as they tune their instruments.   At a recent band concert as I watched the kids’ nervous faces and felt the buzz of adolescent energy being channeled into joyful music, I kept thinking about the hysteria in our nation that “our public schools are failing.”  Really?  Not this school.  The proof of that falsehood was pulsing through my ears and mind and heart that night as I watched Mr. Love work his magic and heard the clear progression of learning from sixth to eighth grade. 

Mr. Love is a gifted teacher who inspires kids from all walks of life to love music and to begin seeing their own potential in the world.   He is a remarkable teacher, but he is not the exception.  There is also Mr. Carpenter and Ms. Fox and Mr. Munn and Ms. Donley, all of whom are the kind of people I would hand pick to teach my kids.  They are smart, creative, lively educators who challenge and motivate their students to excel even as they infuse large doses of humor into the classroom.  This seventh grade teaching team is outstanding, but it is not an anomaly.

All over North Carolina, where public education continues to be stripped of resources, where teacher pay is dismal and demoralizing, where legislators use vouchers to push for privatization of schools, all over this state excellent teachers continue to focus on educating our young people.  Even in middle schools, the mere thought of which causes many adults to contract with fear, kids are blossoming and becoming the young adults we hope for.  My daughter is a great kid but like the teachers at her school, she is not unusual.  Many of her peers are bright, curious, engaged kids– the opposite of the stereotypical surly, withdrawn teenager.  Kids like these are out there, all over the state and all over the country—young people who are learning to be writers, scientists, musicians, critical thinkers, citizens, and leaders—learning these skills in our public schools.

Why don’t we hear more stories like these? Because we have been fed the line that “our public schools are broken” so many times that most of us believe it, even if we don’t think it’s true about our child’s own school.   In Gallup polls on education over the past 15 years when people are asked about the quality of public education in the country only about 45 percent say they are somewhat or completely satisfied.  But when asked about their own child’s school, between 70 and 80 percent say they are somewhat or completely satisfied.  Do we trust the media hype about our “failing schools” more than we trust our own experience?  Parents all over the country are happy with their kids’ public schools.  Why don’t we hear more about this good news?

I am not naïve to the obvious fact that some schools are struggling, but I dispute the usual conclusion that we should blame the teachers and administrators in those schools.  Studies show that schools in poverty-stricken neighborhoods are more often the ones that perform poorly, at least in terms of standardized test scores.   But poverty is the real problem here, both in terms of kids facing daunting challenges outside the classroom and routinely receiving fewer in-school resources than their counterparts in wealthier areas.   More emphasis on high-stakes testing will not solve the problems of poverty.

I also recognize that our schools are not perfect and that some teachers are not as amazing as Mr. Love.  But the politicians who are actively working to dismantle our public schools want us to believe that is the whole story.  I believe we parents have a responsibility to speak out about what is really happening in our schools in order to fight the carefully crafted perception that public education is in big trouble.  If everyone believes that our schools are failing, it’s much easier for the politicians to continue de-funding them which, of course, leads to a self fulfilling prophecy.

Parents who are pleased with their children’s education must share their own experiences:  talk with your friends and neighbors; write to your legislators; send a letter to the editor; make some noise to counter the propaganda.  There are countless gifted educators like Mr. Love around our state and throughout the country—in small towns and big cities, wealthy schools and impoverished ones. Let’s hear about them, over and over, until we begin to see the truth.




Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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Valerie Strauss · February 2, 2014

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