In public education, as in politics, we know what to do with bad news. Unless we are directly involved, we often simply enjoy it: schadenfreude is what sells sensationalist journalism and reality TV. If the news hits closer to home, we may simply take it as material for self-forgiveness: “See, the students I teach come to my classroom two years below grade level – let’s get real about expectations!” At best, bad news provides a powerful motivation for action, for a commitment to try to make the bad a little better. But in general, bad news, paradoxically, is good news; we know what to do with it.
Actual good news about public education is a rarer – almost exotic – event. Yes, we might read stories of a heroic teacher, or a particular school beating the odds, but this is almost always followed by the caveat (often in the same piece or TV segment) that the success can’t be replicated, that the heroism required super-human efforts, that the “conditions don’t transfer.”
I am thinking of something else: large-scale good news of the kind that this Institute made public last week about the New York City school system. It’s worth a quick summary of both that news and how it was(n’t) received in the media.
In a nutshell, the news – about the performance of NYC public high schools since 2003 – was almost uniformly very good. Graduation rates, Regents test scores, drop-out rates, the progress of minority students, the performance of the weakest 9th grade students – you name it, and the results, as evaluated and tabulated by the respected university-based scholars at the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, were very strong, even remarkable. Certainly, as everyone involved rightly made clear, there is much more work to do. There are still too many NYC high school graduates who fall far short of college and career readiness – especially among African-American and Hispanic students, where the numbers, though improved, remain tragically low. The city’s recent NAEP and SAT scores worryingly show no improvement. And even if we accept the positive data at face value, it doesn’t really help us pinpoint the actions that were most responsible for the results (small high schools? use of data and accountability? better prepared teachers and/or principals?). But taking the report as a whole, you would have to be a deeply committed skeptic to argue that nothing good has happened to very large numbers of high school students in NYC over the last decade. (Before you ask, as I did: no, you can’t claim the better results were due to “credit recovery,” since fewer than 1.5% of NYC high school students now use any form of that pathway to graduation.)
These largely positive results were released both to an audience that included some education press and to the major NYC media. Over the next few days, not a single story appeared in the major press. We did get one mention in an education blog, and a tweet that used its 140 characters to call out a statistic that was less than rosy and called the rest of the report “fluff.” It seems that no one really wanted the good news, and still less did they want to do anything with it. By contrast, a study that raised some (highly nuanced and complex) criticism of the way NYCDOE grades its schools’ progress – that was news the next day.
Why would this be? Certainly one could point to local context. In the past, good results have at times been over-hyped, and the chattering classes may have built up a certain cynicism about any good news coming out of NYC pubic schools. Critics can wait for the city’s latest NAEP scores, which will come out in a few months; if they are disappointing, then there will be reason to suspect that the Regents exams (which will start to change next year) have somehow become easier or are unreliable as progress indicators.
But I suspect that something more fundamental is going on. I think that we find large-scale good news to be at best dull, and at worst disappointing. All we know to do with it is try hard to puncture it, explain it away, or point to how far we still have to go. Perhaps good news in education has to come from at least 3000 miles away before we can really bear to hear it. Next time we think there may be outcomes worth celebrating in NYC’s schools, we should ask scholars in Finland to prepare the report.
David Steiner is Founding Director of the CUNY Institute for Education Policy at Roosevelt House, Dean at the Hunter College School of Education, and former Commissioner of Education for the State of New York.