The Myth Of Our Failed Public School System

On a return to earth, Dante almost certainly would establish a new rung in hell for those attempting to obliterate public education. It is the most lied-about, misreported story in America. Newsweekly magazines, mindless editorial pages, television newscasts, talk radio and televangelists malign public education with a ferocity usually reserved for serial killers.

Why? What is it about this 200-year-old institution that makes it a lightning rod? Is it the tool of gluttonous unions as depicted by Rush Limbaugh? Is public schooling the "place of darkness" that Jerry Falwell has termed it? Is it the total academic failure painted by two ex-secretaries of education, Republicans Lamar Alexander and William Bennett?

Name one other institution that flings open itself to all comers -- a perfect microcosm of our nation. Every autumn the miracle of America takes place when the doors of those 87,000 schools are thrown open, welcoming the genius and slow learner, rich and poor, average and developmentally disabled. Among them are the loved and unloved, the washed and unwashed.

Those who savage the public schools tear at the heart of this country. Everything America is or ever hopes to be depends upon what happens to those 46.3 million students in public school classrooms.

Myths Versus Facts

I unashamedly speak for public education -- warts and all -- and have done so for 30 years, delivering more than 2,800 speeches. My remarks are not Pollyannish. Public education has serious problems in the inner cities, and I don't ignore that. I'm not in the self-esteem business.

I've spent 40 years as an award-winning journalist, including a Pulitzer Prize nomination, dealing with hard facts and how those facts are interpreted. But outside of the major cities and rural pockets of poverty, America has a superbly successful public school system -- certainly among the best in the world.

Myth: Teachers teach only nine months so why do they bellyache about low salaries?

Fact: Repeated studies show this isn't true. If you count hours worked, the average teacher does in nine months what it takes regular 40-hour workers to do in 11.5 months.

Myth: American students score less well than kids in almost every other country.

Fact: This is the biggest canard of them all. America's smart kids are as smart or smarter than those in any other country. Test scores have recovered after a huge dip due to integration of public education. Separate was never equal.

Myth: Twenty-five per cent of students drop out, evidence of how ineffective public schools are.

Fact: More horse hockey. The dropout rate last year was 11 percent. Add to that a record-high graduation rate and a whopping 450,000 GEDs issued last year and America is among the best educated nations in the world.

Myth: We have students graduating from public schools who can't even read their diplomas.

Fact: You bet! They are among the nearly six million children in special education -- most will never read well but they're getting their chance based on whatever gifts they bring to school. It's the best unreported story in America.

Myth: Unions are running the public schools.

Fact: Don't extrapolate to more than 14,400 school districts the mindless contracts (and overpaid janitors) in cities such as Cleveland, New York City or Chicago.

Myth: The PTA is a tool of teacher unions.

Fact: This had to be dreamed up by someone who never has been to a PTA meeting. I ought to know. I am not only a PTA veteran, but I hold the National PTA's Distinguished Service to Children Award.

Myth: Teachers are recruited from the dregs of college graduates. Fact: Nearly half of the three million teachers in public schools have master's degrees. The political climate is so hateful toward public schools, a third quit within 10 years. Who can blame them? The committed stick, and most perform magnificently.

Myth: Public educators are afraid of competition. That's why they oppose charter schools and vouchers.

Fact: Only a nitwit public educator would favor vouchers, which suck funds from public school systems. Voucher is another way of spelling "segregation" -- this time along class lines. Even the charter school movement is hardly the howling success predicted. Been to Arizona? Checked Michigan test scores?

Myth: Kids can't read today because schools don't exclusively use phonics.

Fact: America's 4th-grade readers just outperformed every country in the world except Finland, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Phonics isn't the only way to learn to read. As any good reading teacher knows, this skill often requires a blend of whole language instruction with phonics.

Myth: Look how few American kids make it through college.

Fact: America is second only to Japan in the college graduation rate (by two percentage points). America exceeds every country in the world in graduate-level completion.

Myth: Entering test scores prove public schools don't adequately prepare students for college.

Fact: Any senior can take the SAT or the ACT. As many as 17 percent of those taking the SAT never had earned above a C in their classes. The College Board, which owns the SAT, decries constant misuse of test data by critics with an anti-public education agenda. The SAT score on reasoning just hit a 25-year high. Three out of four test takers this year scored higher than the national average. The ACT is at a five-year high. (My dream is to someday give the ACT exam to members of Congress!)

Myth: Today's students need to take the rigorous courses provided in the good old days.

Fact: I wish somebody who could talk slow enough would explain it to the likes of Rush Limbaugh, William F. Buckley or G. Gordon Liddy that there is a report entitled "The Condition of Education 1995" with 60 indicators related to preschool, elementary, secondary and postsecondary education. It revealed stunning improvement in public education. Between 1985-1995, the percentage of high school graduates taking core courses increased 47 percent. Critics who think schools are soft ought to check today's math, science and social studies texts. They make yesterday's stuff look like kindergarten.

Myth: Public schools locked God out of the classroom.

Fact: The U.S. Supreme Court banned sectarian prayer. Schools that have ignored that opinion have lost every single court case. Student prayer is not illegal -- it happens every time there's a final exam.

Myth: Teachers are secular humanists.

Fact: Oh really? Public educators lead all other professions and occupations in teaching Sunday school, according to a survey published in Parade magazine.

Myth: Public schools don't teach values.

Fact: Define values. Nearly a third of students receive their only hot meal of the day in public schools. For thousands, the only hug they get is in public school. Teachers spend large sums of personal funds (average $400 last year) for things like workbooks and supplies. Thousands of teachers sponsor everything from drama to chess clubs on their own time, often without reimbursement.

Myth: The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers seek only higher salaries for less work.

Fact: The NEA and AFT spend huge sums of money on grants, scholarships and programs to support reform efforts and quality schooling initiatives. I have searched in vain for a list of positive programs financed by the critics.

Myth: School boards have outlived their usefulness. Parents ought to run the schools.

Fact: More than 77,000 school board members are parents and community leaders. Few are reimbursed for their time and selfless efforts.

Myth: There would be more money for schools were it not for overpaid administrators.

Fact: School administrators make a fraction of what they would earn running the same payroll and plant operation in the private sector.

Myth: We don't need school boards -- they just get in the way.

Fact: Examples of waste, graft, corruption and illegalities already are emanating from charter schools, which have no comparable boards. School boards are designed to provide accountability, and they do. Check the voucher disaster in Cleveland.

Myth: Catholic schools do a better job with less money.

Fact: The average Catholic per-pupil cost of $3,200 compares with the $5,884 in public schools, but that's where the comparison ends. Public schools are required to provide regular education, vocational education, special education, counseling, dropout prevention, alternative education, attendance control, bilingual education, compensatory education, after-school athletics, regular student transportation, student activities, health and psychological programs, food services, security and violence prevention and much better employee benefits -- such as a living wage and retirement programs.

Whom To Believe?

Who are you going to believe, the critics or the consumers? The annual Gallup education poll showed again that 65 percent of the parents who send 52 million children to public schools award those schools honors grades. But only 20 percent of those who have no connection with the schools grant them honors. They get their information from the popular media -- the sorriest possible source. (A new Public Agenda poll reveals a 71 percent approval rating of public schools by patrons.)

Chester Finn, a former assistant secretary of education in charge of anti-public school propaganda, has the gall to write that parents should not believe what they personally experience. In other words, they are too dumb to know what a good school is. His motive? Finn is heavily invested in commercial privatization of public schools, writing the curriculum for the Edison Project, a privatization initiative. (To its shame, Education Week publishes him regularly without letting readers know of his financial connections.)

Why are public schools in the crosshairs when 90 percent of them are as good as any in the world?

One reason is that major news media outlets are in the cities with the majority of failed schools. The blather from network news is almost always negative. Too many viewers with no firsthand knowledge extrapolate those conditions to all public schools. Add to this a heavy dose of racism, Religious Right fervor and nonstop right-wing slander on talk radio. Stir in 60 percent of adults with no connection with schools today in an environment of declining social and political cohesion, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Who Answers the Bell?

It's tough to be a teacher today. Every possible societal malfunction affects the classroom -- drugs, alcohol, divorce, gangs and poverty.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, 46 million students attend 87,125 schools in 14,471 districts. Of that total, nearly six million have disabilities. They are educated at an average cost of $9,900, nearly twice the average spent on other students. More than 6.2 million are limited in their English proficiency with two million speaking no English. Two million are latchkey children. They go home to an empty house.

Nearly two million are abused and neglected. An estimated million kids suffer from the effects of lead poisoning, a leading cause of slow learning. More than 500,000 come from foster and institutional care. Thirty-thousand are products of fetal alcohol syndrome. Nearly 400,000 entering students are crack babies and children of other hard-core drug users.

More than half a million are homeless, coming from no permanent address. One in five students lives with a mother who did not finish high school. One in five kids under 18 (14.4 million) comes from abject poverty -- with half showing up at public school hungry. More than half of poor children are white and live in rural and suburban areas.

Today's student body represents a challenge undreamed of by previous generations of educators.

Morale Busters

It's not unusual for an educator to wake up to a bashing on the "Today Show," to read another attack editorial in the morning newspaper, then hear motormouth Rush Limbaugh on the drive home trashing public schools. I have encountered thousands of angry and bewildered educators who want to fight back but don't know how.

The newsweeklies glory in spurious stories. Yet when good news is available, little is reported. When the International Math Olympiad was won by an all-public school cast, Time used a paragraph and didn't print the students' names.

Bob Dole described public education as an abject failure in a kickoff speech for his failed presidential campaign at a Milwaukee Catholic school. ("If education were a war, you'd be losing it. If it were a business, you would be driving it into bankruptcy. If it were a patient, it would be dying," he said.)

And who would consider Rush Limbaugh an education expert? He barely graduated from high school and was flunking out when he quit Southwestern Missouri State University. Yet Family Circle magazine invited him to produce a full page on how bad the public schools are! Grandma Troy was right -- the higher a monkey climbs, the more you see of his ass. Limbaugh's ambition is to die in his own arms.

Religious Right Assault

The assault from radio and television evangelists is the hardest for educators to swallow. Pat Robertson's "700 Club" is a nonstop critic, claiming that public schools are teaching a religion, or what he and others have dubbed "secular humanism." What Robertson is really after is taxpayer-supported vouchers for Christian and parochial schools and home-schooled students. After he bowed out of his race for president, Robertson said he had it wrong -- the way to take over the country was to start with school boards and legislative offices. On that score he's right.

Among this aggregation are TV's ubiquitous D. James Kennedy, the Old-Time Gospel Hour's Jerry Falwell, Focus on the Family's James Dobson, Jimmy Swaggart and several dozen radio and 'TV clones. They have favorite targets in the public schools: sex education ("Honey, they found you on a stump in the forest!"), school-to-work programs (send every kid to college, able or not) and multiculturalism (if you are not a white fundamentalist, your forefathers didn't exist).

They rage endlessly against condoms in the schools, yet fewer than two percent of schools even make condoms available. The Catholic hierarchy's chronic assaults are designed to pick up federal aid to religious schools via vouchers.

Critics include Phyllis Schlafly, who never spent a day of her life in a public school, yet she produces Eagle Forum reports stating that public education "is a form of child abuse." Forbes magazine relentlessly publishes ignorant stories designed for only one purpose -- elimination of union affiliation for public educators. There are good unions and bad unions just as there are good magazines and Forbes.

Don't be surprised to learn how few educators, especially among three million classroom teachers, possess the ammunition necessary to refute the critics. Teaching is essentially a lonely profession -- the classroom door closes and the entire day is spent with children, with only a short break for lunch. The evening is spent grading papers and working on lesson plans. Teachers know what's going on in their classroom and their school but few have the foggiest notion about the system of which they are a part.

Selling the Sizzle

The crisis, if there is one, does not reside in the typical U.S. classroom, and it doesn't infect a majority of students. Scientific acumen isn't needed to recognize that the bedrock of successful education is nurturing parents who play with their infants and read to their toddlers, who belong to the PTA and volunteer in the classroom; who send disciplined children to school. These are the same parents who support school bond issues, vote in school board elections and see education as an investment, not an expense.

If I could go one-on-one with every school administrator in America, my message would be simple: The failure isn't in the product but in the marketing. Or, as they say on Madison Avenue, "You don't sell the steak, you sell the sizzle." Public education's public relations are woefully inadequate. Here's how to merchandise the product:

No. 1: Never let a newsletter or any other correspondence out of any school that doesn't contain at least one or more positive strokes -- latest test scores, individual student and/or educator achievements, etc. (My facts have shown up in hundreds of school bulletins.)

No. 2: A speaker's bureau is a must for civic clubs, chambers of commerce, etc. Civic organizations are the heartbeat of any community and they love to see and hear kids.

No. 3: Create a committee on correspondence. Don't give the local news media, the critical letter writers or anyone else a free shot. Fight back with facts. Challenge the mistaken, the misinformed and the outright prevaricator while acknowledging honest criticism.

My grandmother was full of aphorisms. Here's my favorite:

Heretic, rebel, thing of doubt,
He drew a circle that shut me out.
But wit and I had the will to win
We drew a larger circle that took him in.

Ladies and gentlemen, start your drawings.

Frosty Troy is editor of The Oklahoma Observer, P.O. Box 53371, Oklahoma City, Okla. 73152. He also serves on the National Advisory Council of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Reprinted with permission from the September 1998 issue of The School Administrator magazine.