By Robert Maranto
The best book about public schools is not about schools at all.
Jeffrey Race's War Comes to Long An tells the tale of a province viewed in completely different ways by the North and South in the long Vietnamese civil war. The communists and government forces had different names for the same towns, had safe havens and danger zones that were mirror images of each other, and had completely distinct views of what the war was all about.
Alas, the Vietnam war makes an all too apt analogy for America's school wars.
In some 15 years of fieldwork in more than 150 schools, I've found again and again that two parents will describe the same school in completely different ways. For some, the local elementary or high school is a place of joy; for others, a house of pain. (Almost no one seems to like middle schools.)
These micro perceptions mirror macro education politics. Supporters of charter schools and other school-choice options argue that traditional public schools fail to meet student needs. Backers of traditional public schools argue that educators work hard, do a good job teaching and guiding most students, and provide communities with the kind of schools they want. If traditional public schools are mediocre, it's because the community wants them that way.
What if both sides are right? Most K-12 educators are people who themselves liked school, and have trouble understanding parents and kids who don't. What if traditional schools do a fairly good job serving average students and parents, but have trouble with those who don't conform to the norm?
Traditional public schools give most students and parents about what they want: some light academics accounting for about 21/2 hours a day, a lot of social activities, and basic custodial care so parents can pursue their jobs or dreams. But for highly motivated and academically talented students, traditional public schools offer too little intellectual challenge. Many of these so-called gifted students are bored out of their minds, and some get into trouble for that very reason. I was one of those.
Even more commonly, traditional schools fail to provide the structure, clear academic goals, feedback, and social support that at-risk students need. Yet those same students often thrive in charter schools like Philadelphia's Boys Latin, or in the 125 Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) schools in Philly and across the nation.
In other words, American public schools work fairly well for about 60 percent of students, but fail to give the other 40 percent what they need. The traditional schools, which claim to serve everyone, have a dropout/flunk-out rate of about 25 percent, and a certain percentage of those who do graduate are bored, bullied, or behind during their years in school.
Too many education reformers want to completely reset American public schools to serve those they are not serving now, without realizing that this would harm the students (and teachers) who do fairly well in schools as they are, not as we reformers would like them to be.
The only way out of the school wars is more school choice. Honor the success of traditional public schools in serving most students, while developing new charter schools and other options, like vouchers, to serve the students and parents who are left behind by traditional public schools.
Education policy does not have to be a war in which 60 percent win, while 40 percent lose. Public education is too important for that. Let's stop the school wars. With choice, we can all win.