There’s lots to agree with in John Tierney’s piece about the failure of standardized testing and related public education reforms. In fact, I think I agree with all, or nearly all, of the criticism he levels against the testing regime. But he loses me with this:

What, then, do the critics of the corporate reform agenda propose? Surely they can’t be defending the status quo, content with the current state of schools. No. Without being too unfair to the diversity of views on this, the key consensus is that the most important step we could take to deal with our education problems would be to address poverty in the United States. We don’t have an “education problem.” The notion that we are “a nation at risk” from underachieving public schools is, as David Berliner asserts, errant “nonsense” and a pack of lies.

Rather, we have a poverty problem. The fact is that kids in resource-rich public school systems perform near the top on international measures. However, as David Sirota has reported, “The reason America’s overall scores on such tests are far lower is because high poverty schools produce far worse results — and as the most economically unequal society in the industrialized world, we have far more poverty than our competitors, bringing down our overall scores accordingly.” Addressing poverty and inequality are the keys to serving America’s educational needs.

OK, we have a poverty problem. But do we really think this is a problem that can be ameliorated by moving more money around? What are the most important resources that “resource-rich” public school systems offer? My guess is that there are no more important resources than intact families raising their kids with discipline. Countries and societies much poorer than ours do better in schooling than America. What is it about their culture that helps them to succeed?

Now, does poverty break families up and encourage habits of mind and of action that increase or perpetuate poverty? Sure. But isn’t this a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing? Is it really the case that opening the floodgates of money into a school system that serves children of poverty is going to change everything? Do we really believe that if we educate children in safe, beautiful, orderly schools, with first-rate, highly paid teachers, yet send them home to badly dysfunctional homes where nobody cares about how they do in school, that they’ll score well on tests? Look:

You would think $30,000 a year would get you a decent education. For just a few thousand more, you could cover the cost of Harvard’s yearly undergraduate tuition or send your child to the prestigious Sidwell Friends School, which the Obama daughters attend.

But spending $30,000 to cover the cost of a child’s education in a district that has one of the lowest graduation rates in the nation and produces some of the country’s lowest achievement scores? Seems a bit steep. But this is the hefty per-pupil bill taxpayers are made to foot for D.C. public schools every year.

Despite this astounding price tag—$29,409 for the 2009–2010 school year, to be exact, compared to the national average of just under $12,500 (both figures are total expenditures calculated on a per-pupil basis, including capital outlays)—the graduation rate for D.C. students hovers around 60 percent, well below the nationwide average of 74 percent. Math and reading scores are also among the lowest in the country.

Yes, we have a poverty problem in this country, and it has a hell of a lot to do with why so many of our public schools are in such bad shape. And it’s why blaming teachers for poor test scores can be extremely unjust. But how do we fix this? It’s not credible to believe that all we need to do is reallocate resources in a Robin Hood fashion, and all will be well. Rich kids who come from dysfunctional homes will not do well in school; poor kids who come from orderly homes in which they are loved and encouraged to do well in school will tend to succeed. My sister Ruthie was, by everyone’s account, an amazing teacher, and she told me once that so many of her students struggled with such messed-up situations at home that it was a wonder they even got to school in the morning. Through no fault of their own — but very much the fault of the adults who were supposed to care for and nurture them — these kids were under so much pressure, and with so little real help from home, that it took all they had just to do minimally acceptable work.

But there is no policy fix for a screwed-up culture. So the Right and the Left tell themselves stories that fit the narrative they want to hear. There is truth in both sides account, but the thing that nobody knows how to fix gets left out.

In an interview I did with him years ago for his amazing book Acting White: The Ironic Legacy Of Desegregation, the lawyer and education reform analyst Stuart Buck talked about the hidden social and cultural history of integration, black educational achievement, and racial conflict. Excerpt:

It was remarkable to me, reading your book, to come across the testimonies of African-Americans who had gone to segregated schools, and who remembered with great love the institutional role their schools played in their communities — something that disappeared with integration. And some of the stories blacks quoted in your book tell about how emotionally searing it was to have those schools destroyed or otherwise taken away from them, were not only surprising, but also heartbreaking. Why have these stories been suppressed all these years — and what can we learn from hearing them today?

Let me give an example of what you’re talking about here. Second Ward school in Charlotte had been important to the black community there. A former student said, “I don’t advocate segregated schools today. But there are attributes of that time that need to be in place today. Our teachers, they’d look at you, almost as if they were wanting to will a good education into your head.”

That school was demolished during desegregation, as can be seen in this poignant picture:

Students were devastated by the closing of the school. Said one person: “An institution was being closed. And not necessarily for progress, but because of integration. . . . Well, it was heartbreaking. It really was. It really was.” Another person said, “We thought that it was the utmost in betrayal.” A former teacher said, “I still kept contact with those kids from Second Ward, and they would call and sometimes cry.”
I’m not sure these stories have literally been suppressed as much as they’ve been ignored. I found plenty of such stories, but they tend to appear in relatively unnoticed local newspaper articles, interview transcripts from university “oral history” programs, and the like.

Why don’t we pay more collective attention to these stories? Probably because it upsets the traditional narrative wherein everything that happened under segregation was unremittingly evil while desegregation via Brown v. Board of Education was a national triumph. When we as a society have settled on a narrative with clear good guys and bad guys, we don’t like to be bothered by nuance and complexities.

Stuart, I hasten to say, is absolutely not a supporter of segregation (and if he were, it would make life difficult at home, given that he and his wife are the adoptive parents of black children). His point here — and in the book — is that when it comes to black students’ performance in the classroom, culture and psychology plays an underappreciated role — a role that we don’t want to acknowledge because it introduces nuance and complexity into a story where we prefer there to be simplicity.

I bring this up to make a broad point, which is this:  I think Stuart’s point about willful blindness to nuance and complexity is true when we talk about public schooling among people of all races and backgrounds. But then, poverty isn’t simply a matter of money, but also a matter of culture and psychology. Putting more money into failing public schools would likely help around the margins, but to what extent can a given public school that’s failing be in trouble because the public it serves is failing to do its part to raise up the children, and to help the teachers carry out the mission of educating their children? I’m thinking now of the young, energetic, idealistic teacher friend of mine who finally resigned because she couldn’t get through to kids, most of them poor, whose culture told them there was no point to school, that their lives were determined by fate, and in which 14 year old girls talked enthusiastically about having babies.

Are we even capable of having an honest, full conversation about education? I doubt it. So we’ll exchange one set of fabulists whose theory has gotten threadbare for another set of fabulists who tell us, or at least a majority of us, what we want to hear.