MAKING THE GRADE: Our public schools — whose schools are they?

By Daily News • Last Updated 11:18 am on Thursday, January 16, 2014

Making the Grade | Janet Ralph

I borrowed the question in the headline for today’s column from an article I read recently.

The beginning of a new calendar year seems like an appropriate time to raise this question. For the past year this column has been dedicated to informing parents and all citizens about issues impacting the public schools.  In this space today, I want to share some information that can be used as we communicate with policy makers in Lansing and Washington D.C.

We hear often that the public schools are failing. This opinion is frequently offered without any facts to support it. The truth is that myths like this have been around almost as long as the public schools themselves. Consider the following that I found in a book titled “The Way We Were?”

In 1900, only 6 percent of all young people graduated from high school. More than half of them did not get as far as eighth grade.

Harvard’s Board of Overseers, shocked at entering students’ preparation published samples of freshman writing to embarrass secondary schools in 1896.

It was reported that half the young men recruited by the army during the Second World War “were not able to write a simple letter or read a newspaper with ease.”

A school board member in Massachusetts explained why he had given up on the public schools in the late 1940s. He wrote  “If you find … your child cannot read or calculate half as well as you could at his age … you can do what other worried parents have done: mortgage your house (to put your child in a good private school.”

According to a 1960 Harris poll, only 10 percent of Americans considered themselves “avid book readers. A Gallup poll two years later reported that just 21 percent looked at books even casually.

If schools have had this many problems over the years, just when was that golden age of education? Richard Rothstein, a research associate for the Economic Policy Institute in
Washington D.C., and a former education columnist for the New York Times has written, “If policies were based on fact, we would be examining what it is we’ve been doing so right in American education for the last 20 years or so.”

The late Gerald Bracey wrote in 1997 that “The bulk of evidence shows that U.S. students today read better than ever, know more about mathematics and science, and know at least as much about literature and history as their parents and grandparents did, and probably more.”

It must be acknowledged that there are issues facing our schools, issues like poverty, lack of adult support and yes, finances, that prevent them from being as effective as they need to be. And all schools are not equal. Some are among the best in the world while others are severely disadvantaged. Please do not interpret these facts as excuses for poor performance.  We do need to address these problems. But neither should they be used as reasons to privatize schools. The public schools have served this country well. Our mission must be to correct problems and make changes to respond to a changing world, not to destroy them.

Despite evidence to the contrary, there are those who believe that public schools should be closed and turned over to the private sector, which may be naturally more driven by significant profit than achievement.  But the public schools belong to the citizens of this country, not to politicians. In the year 2014 citizens need to speak loudly and clearly to elected officials that the challenges must be confronted and all public schools must be supported and strengthened, not simply criticized and closed or turned over to the private sector.

Janet Ralph is president of the Greenville Public Schools Board of Education.

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