AMERICANSGIVE A GRADE OF “B PLUS” to the schools attended by their own children, a “B minus” to the public schools in their community, and a “C” to the public schools nationally. Incumbent politicians extol the impact of the educational reforms they have sponsored while insurgents point to the problems that remain. Some analysts call for an “autopsy” on public education, others insist that such rhetoric represents a “manufactured crisis” comprised of “myths [and] fraud.” The American public education system is not in crisis. Some public schools are impressive and many are doing a good job, although most are not as good as they should be. In a few places, chiefly in poor urban districts (and in some poor rural districts as well), schools are failing miserably; they provide the evidence for people who see a crisis. Once again the most serious problems result from inequality. In part because of home and community influences, poor children often come to school less ready to learn than others, and they face more obstacles to educational success as they grow up. Parents and communities can and must contribute to alleviating this problem, just as social policies such as full employment, universal health insurance, and family allowances could help. As we have seen, however, it is the schools to which we have given the central responsibility to make the American dream work, to provide the structure and tools that all children need to pursue their dreams and maintain democracy. America has chosen to invest in schools rather than these other social policies to try to equalize opportunity; if our nation allows public education to fail the children who most need its help, then the dream is merely a sham. We cannot simultaneously substitute schools for other policies to alleviate poverty and permit schools to shirk the tasks needed to do the job. School reform can help poor children, and others, improve their performance. The movement for high standards has created a mechanism that can help all students to learn more. Preschool, summer school, and small classes can help them.
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