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Opinion | Michigan public schools aren’t failing or at war with parents

In 1983, “A Nation at Risk”, a flawed political report given widespread media coverage, harshly criticized America’s schools. If the quality of our schools had been imposed upon us by a foreign nation, the report stated, it would be “an act of war,” pointing to a decline in SAT scores over time as an example of declining school effectiveness.

Al Churchill
Al Churchill is a retired UAW-Ford journeyman tool and die maker engineer surveyor. He received a bachelor’s degree in education from Eastern Michigan University.

SAT scores overall had, indeed, declined, not because students were failing, but because a broader range of students, rather than just top students, were taking the test. Largely unreported was the indisputable fact that every demographic subgroup taking the SAT had remained stable or improved during the timeframe established by “Risk”. Yet, the bogus narrative attached to public schools goes on. 

Currently, we are being told that our schools are conducting a war against parents. Never mind that the Michigan Department of Education encourages parents to be involved in their child’s education because that is the most reliable predictor of student success in school. Never mind that many federal educational grants to school districts mandate local citizen involvement and guidance. Never mind that the PTA, a national parent organization with a national membership approaching three and a half million, joins with educators in neighborhood schools on a daily basis in order to provide the best educational experience possible for students. 

Our public schools are not at war with parents. Nor are they failing. Shortly after “Risk” was made public, the Department of Energy, likely hoping to support the allegations inherent in that document, commissioned Sandia Corporation, a respected research company, to report on the condition of America’s schools. Sandia pretty much repudiated the entirety of “Risk” data, causing it to be sent into the bowels of the Energy Department for an alleged “peer review.” The public was largely unaware of the Sandia report until 1993 when it appeared in a narrowly-read educational research journal. 

Then, there is research done by James Coleman of Johns Hopkins University involving 600,000 students. Coleman concluded that factors outside of the in-school experience were responsible for two-thirds of student performance. In 2019 research by Sean Reardon, of Stanford University found that the strongest correlation between gaps in student achievement were factors embodied in differences of parental income. 

Even a cursory examination of standardized test results confirms that school districts blessed with high income levels do extremely well on those tests while low-income districts struggle. Different among individuals and school districts both, what is crystal clear is that parental educational level, parental involvement in a student’s education, stability at home, nutrition, health care, neighborhood environment and other factors play a central role in determining the motivation, persistence and just plain hard work necessary for success in school. 

Using the raw scores of standardized tests alone, without factoring in out-of-school influences in measuring school and student performance, is irrational to the point of absurdity. Ditto prioritizing correctives for in-school factors absent attention to out-of-school factors. 

Nor should these tests be presented as part of a horse race, with winners and losers. They are, above all, analytical tools used to enhance the educational experience through improved pedagogy and curriculum. 

Does it matter? 

Well, primary school teaching in Finland, a perennial top performer in international school comparisons, is now the most popular profession among Finnish young people, attracting the top quartile of high school graduates into its highly competitive teacher training programs. Not long ago over 6600 applicants competed for 660 available slots in primary preparation programs in the eight Finnish universities that educate teachers. Sadly, in this country, 50 percent of those who enter the teaching profession today are gone within five years. You bet it matters. 

The fundamental mission of our schools is the nurturing of productive, responsible citizenship within a democratic society. That is the true narrative of American schools and their heroic educators who deserve much better than they are getting. They are not failures. Properly understood, America’s public schools and its educators are among the best in the world. 

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