Public education deserves a new narrative

As an undergraduate clumsily furnishing my first apartment, I thought it important to have a fun coffee table book. I chose New York Yankee great Yogi Berra’s “When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It!” because it featured a host of similar oddball Yogi-isms and a delightful series of short anecdotes. One that continues to stick out in my mind is his famous retort when asked if he wished to have dinner at one of New York’s most popular restaurants, that “nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

Such a contradiction is hilarious for certain. After all, the last restaurant that you should go to is the empty one (inner monologue: ‘What does everyone else already know about this place that I don’t?’). Far less humorous is a contradiction that has infected our body politic for far too long. We have an asinine pessimistic tendency to believe that things are worse overall in the country than our own experience would suggest.

Poll after poll shows a disconnect between our own experiences, which we rate as generally positive, and the largely negative or contemptuous appraisal we have for our overall systems. This has been demonstrated repeatedly in our assessments of the quality of medical care, Congress, and neighborhood crime. Our own is largely good, but overall it’s largely bad.

Nowhere does this disconnect infuriate or disappoint me more than in K-12 public education. A recent Gallup survey demonstrated that over 70% of American parents are satisfied with their child’s K-12 education, but only 48% of those same parents said the same about K-12 education in the country. That means that more than one out of five of those parents refuses to believe the obvious evidence in front of their faces.

The reasonable question might be to ask what accounts for this disconnect. Certainly, the headline ‘People are really happy with X’ isn’t going to get clicks or TV ratings, while reportage about an educational catastrophe (real or imagined) is more likely to attract eyeballs. Hard working Americans read stories about the infamous rubber rooms, yet the minuscule number of people that actually occupy these rooms is conflated with the overwhelming rest of the professional teaching population, and righteous indignation is let loose.

And while media are certainly complicit in shaping the perception of public education, it is also the advocates of public education in America that bear substantial responsibility. For example, teacher unions are prone to popularize an archetype of a teacher that is overworked, undercompensated, under attack from nefarious politicians, and operating in an underfunded environment.

While this is certainly the authentic reality for many educators, this archetype has been so effectively marketed in the quest for better compensation and funding that it is no wonder that parents would view this as the norm for others, despite the fact that it is not the norm for their children’s educators.

Make no mistake, this pessimism is toxic to our public discourse. If things are always perceived as worse in the world at large, there must be an undeniable guilt that accompanies any sense of contentment with one’s own experience. It robs us of any potential to be grateful for what we have and replaces it with a foreboding ersatz gratitude that says not that we are fortunate, but rather that we are lucky not to be unfortunate.

Yes, we are beset by fiscal challenges. Yes, we have an incredibly small number of colleagues who should not be in the classroom any longer or have done things egregious enough that they no longer deserve our support or respect. Yes, students often come to us unprepared or unable to learn because of the challenges they face in their lives. But that isn’t the story of American public education.

It is incumbent upon those of us in public education who are every day doing great work to ensure the proliferation of a new narrative. Schools and districts must do a better job of defining their narrative in the public sphere, and marketing their message of the amazing things happening every day. For each of us can say with great pride that the customers we serve, our students and their parents/guardians, are satisfied with the work we are doing.

End this dumb disconnect.