Schools: Let’s reinforce what works - The Explorer: Editorials

Schools: Let’s reinforce what works

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Posted: Wednesday, July 20, 2011 3:00 am

Let’s take a look at the state of education in the country of Massachusetts.

Yes, I know, Massachusetts isn’t a country, but humor me for a moment. After all, with more than 6 million people, it’s in the same population ballpark as European nations like Norway and Sweden, so it’s big enough to be considered a country in its own right.

I am happy to report the “country” of Massachusetts ranks with the top European nations in educational achievement. So, by the way, does the country of Minnesota.

That’s right. Based on students’ scores on international and U.S. testing, we can conclude that public schools in Massachusetts and Minnesota are producing a world-class crop of students on a par with their counterparts in countries like Norway – and better than Sweden!

I know that’s hard to believe, what with all the terrible things we hear about our “failing schools” – how our children are being left in the dust by better educated children in the rest of the world. But the fact is, when we take our country with its 300 million people and separate it into smaller geographical units, we find in some areas, like the Northeast, students in our public schools perform very well by world standards.

Unfortunately, that’s not true in other parts of the U.S., especially in the South. Take the “country” of Mississippi/Alabama (I joined the two states together to create a total population a little larger than Massachusetts). You can pretty much forget western Europe for educational comparisons here. Student achievement in Mississippi/Alabama is closer to Lebanon and Turkey.

Arizona doesn’t rank quite that low, but it sits in the bottom 25 percent of U.S. “countries,” on a par, say, with Lithuania or the Czech Republic.

The moral of the story is, it’s wrong to make a blanket statement saying our K-12 schools are failing. Some states have world-class public education systems. Our best schools all over the country, including some in the Tucson area, are producing first-rate graduates. Nationally, our top students perform admirably on international tests.

True, as a country we rank something like 16th on international tests, which is about the same as France, Denmark and the U.K., so even our overall ranking is not as low as most people think. But the reason we don’t rank higher is, our lowest performing students do worse than their counterparts in other countries, and that drags down our average.

Wholesale education bashing is a national sport in this country, but it has more to do with politics than reality. The right loves to play “Ain’t it awful?” because they want to go after school districts and teachers’ unions while they push charter schools and private school vouchers. To a lesser extent, the left exaggerates problems with schools to push for increased funding – or these days, fewer budget cuts.

If we’re serious about improving the quality of our children’s educations, we have to start with the truth, not start from scratch. Our best schools are already doing a good job, so we need to look for ways to make them better still. The real problem is, we’re doing our poorest students a disservice, and we need to focus like a laser on helping them reach their full potential.

I would love to offer a solution to raising the achievement of our poorest students, but I don’t have “the answer,” and I don’t know anyone who does. Does the blame belong with the schools? Does the problem originate in social and economic factors beyond the schools’ control? I believe it’s a complex combination of the two. I also believe achievement will improve when we help parents, communities and schools join together for the good of their children.

That will take lots of thought, work and, yes, money, but it will yield far more productive results than dismissing our schools as failures and throwing away what works along with what doesn't.

Dave Safier is a regular contributor to Blog for Arizona.

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