Guest Column

Waiting Patiently for a Thank You

by GARY A. BURTON
I'm still waiting, though I don't know what good it will do. Maybe if I am patient, somebody will step forward and finally say, "Thank you."

What am I waiting for? I'm waiting for some prominent American to acknowledge the role our public schools have played in producing one of the longest periods of uninterrupted economic growth in our country's history. Granted, our schools don't deserve all the credit for our country's recent prosperity, but, in my view, they are entitled to a share of gratitude.

Little more than a decade ago, quite a few prominent individuals, including many of our political leaders, were quick to attribute our country's economic woes to the failure of America's public schools. In the late ’80s, our economy was floundering and, for many citizens, times were not particularly good. We were worried about corporate downsizing, high unemployment and foreign competition.

Back then, politicians, business leaders and a slew of college professors were quick to indict the poor performance of public schools as the underlying cause of our nation's declining economic power. The critics blamed the institutions we run for failing our children in this new age of global competition.

I can still hear the rhetoric that touted the successes of schools in other countries. German and Japanese schools, we were told, were far superior to ours, producing well-adjusted, bright and highly motivated students who consistently outperformed their U.S. counterparts. While American students were learning about self-esteem, their foreign counterparts were learning how to read, write and do arithmetic proficiently.

Prosperous Times
Lawmakers, reacting to fears of scholastic inadequacy, began to legislate the restructuring of our schools. In a frantic effort to ensure our ability to compete internationally, politicians have spent the past decade issuing new edicts for accountability, curriculum standards, longer school days, standardized testing and academic rigor as the means to save our nation. Elected officials and other prominent leaders began to abandon the public schools by embracing policies to promote school choice, home schooling, voucher plans and charter schools.

In truth, some of the criticism was warranted. Far too many schools were dysfunctional. It also should be acknowledged that in many states additional funding was earmarked for a variety of improvement initiatives. As a result of this attention, public schools began to improve.

Today one hears little talk about the superiority of foreign schools. Japanese classes with 35 to 40 students and a single teacher and German schools that track students academically no longer impress those who understand the broad purposes of public education. International test scores are far less impressive when properly explained to the general public.

Admittedly, much school improvement remains to be addressed. The legacy of our educational reform laws remains unknown, or at least their full impact is yet unrealized. Most Americans, though, acknowledge that our schools are making measurable progress toward our nation's education goals.

Most adults also will admit that our nation's current period of prosperity has been unusually gratifying. Business analysts describe it as "exceptional" when examining economic indicators such as the rise of the stock market, an unemployment rate that is almost too low, affordable bank interest rates, record new-home starts and the continuing success of small startup businesses. By almost every economic measure, times are good for most Americans. From a global perspective, it’s also noteworthy that the economies in many of the countries to which we were unfavorably compared in 1989 are nowhere near as healthy.

Shared Credit
This brings me back to a basic question of fairness.

Because the public schools were so roundly criticized for contributing to the poor economy 10 years ago, wouldn't it only be fitting if a few prominent leaders came forward now and publicly thanked school personnel everywhere for all they have contributed to this welcome period of national prosperity? After all, if our schools are expected to shoulder the blame during bad economic times, shouldn't they share in the credit when the economy is good?

I’m still waiting for those two words of gratitude.

Gary Burton is superintendent of the Wayland Public Schools, P.O. Box 408, Wayland, MA 01778. E-mail: gary_burton@wayland.k12.ma.us