Executive Perspective

Confronting the Present With Honesty

by PAUL D. HOUSTON


When I lived in the desert, we sometimes had tremendous electrical storms. One night I was in bed during one of these storms and every time there was a crash of thunder, I pulled the covers over my head. Then I realized that while thunder makes the noise, lightning does the killing. I was responding to the wrong stimulus.

We in American education have become reactionaries. We respond to the noises around us and ignore the real dangers that are far too often silent. Our critics have made much over the deterioration of public education. In fact, it has become a cottage industry. We are not as good as we once were. School people are lazy and uncaring. Test scores are down or stagnant. Schools are not safe. The only solution is competition or high-stakes tests or doing away with social promotion or bringing in the generals to straighten out the mess. I have called this the case of "drive-by critics and silver bullet solutions."Better Than Ever
The fact is that schools are better than ever at carrying out their traditional mission. More kids today are completing high school and going on to college than ever before. Test scores actually are a positive story because they have been renormed upward several times in the last few decades, and children who take the tests are younger than previous generations.

Because we have a broader slice of our population aspiring to attend college, we have a wider cross-section taking the entrance exams. We also face an increasingly diverse student body, many more of whom do not use English as a first language. This tends to suppress reading scores. We must cope with more children coming from homes where poverty robs them of their futures. International comparisons, while interesting, are largely specious, as cultures, curriculums and samples are so varied that comparisons are meaningless.

Yes, we are, in fact, doing better at our traditional mission, but the whole discussion is meaningless. Our mission is outdated and our progress is insufficient to deal with a changing environment. We have made incremental progress in an exponential environment. We are gradually getting better, while the deteriorating condition of children and the escalating demands of the workplace exceed our capacity to respond. We could well spend the next few years using our time and energy to reform our schools and find that in a few years we are better than we are today and further behind.

We must forget about reforming or restructuring our schools and focus on fundamentally transforming them. We will need to do so, not because we have failed, but because the river of life has continued to flow and we must go with it.

Beyond the need for real transformation lies the quiet lightning that we do not discuss or acknowledge--the dual strands of our societal genetic undoing: race and poverty. These are the challenges that, if left unmet, eventually will be the undoing of our great experiment in democracy.

Power of Dreams
The real power of America always has been in its dreams. No matter where you come from, you always have a chance of going somewhere better. Imagine for a moment, a world where that is not true. You are caught, helpless in the social undertow of a society where your color or your accent or your parent's station determines your own future. How would you feel? What frustration or hopelessness or rage would that create for you?

We know already that the quality of our schools is largely determined by the concentration of poverty in those schools. We know that the most telling variable in test results is family income. We know that despite cries to the contrary, we as a country still tend to look at external differences far more than we should, and ignore internal similarities far more than we ought.

I believe that many of those calling for vouchers and charters quite simply want their children to be able to attend school with other children who look and think like they do. A recent study by the Public Agenda Foundation merely confirmed this thought. Race trumps idealism and social class trumps race. People do not mind their children going to school with children of another race, so long as they share the same values and expectations. Those tend to be shaped by the social class from which they come. Sadly in America, a large overlap still exists between race and social class.

Yet we do not talk much about it. Again, the Public Agenda Foundation found that white America does not like to discuss race, and when it does, it does so very carefully. However, if we do not face the dangers, we are apt to succumb to them. Perhaps we can move toward the future with more confidence if we are willing to face the present with more honesty. It is time to sort the thunder from the lightning.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director. E-mail: phouston@aasa.org