Poverty and racism and pedagogy and curriculum and standards and infrastructure and a plethora of threads tied up to the question "Why can't we make our schools better?" But if we dig past all of these, we get to a fairly simple answer.
As a country, we aren't serious about it.
Oh, there are individuals who are serious about education, but as a country, we are not seriously committed to creating a top quality public education system for all young citizens.
If we were serious, we would find a way to take a good, hard look at how we're doing. We would wade into a long complex discussion of the many widely varied outcomes we want to see in our system, and then we would wade into the long, complicated question of how to take the measure of those many aspects, making sure to include the concerns of all stakeholders.
We did not do that. We did not even sort of kind of do that.
We said, "Out of the vast and varied ocean of educational concerns, of all the universe of things that we ask a school to do, let's just look at math and reading. And let's try measuring that mall sliver with what we know to be the least effective measure of achievement there is-- the standardized bubble test."
It is not the answer of serious people.
It's like saying, "We'll check to see how solid someone's marriage is by checking in every Sunday afternoon to see if the house is clean and the laundry is put away."
Nor would a people serious about the issues of education give lead seats at the table to folks whose main interest is getting a chance to gather up some of the tax dollars being spent on education. "Good schools would be nice, but what's really important is that businesses and corporations be given a chance to profit from the education biz," is not the position of a country that is serious about making schools better.
If we were serious, we'd have a serious conversation about what we are and are not doing well.
If we were serious, we'd address the problems that are already staring us in the face (like school buildings for non-wealthy, non-white students that have no functioning heat, and school administrations that send students to those buildings anyway).
If we were serious, we would consult and support the trained professionals who work on the front lines. And our goal would not be to deprofessionalize them , or to search for ways to neuter them and their unions as a political force.
If we were serious, we wouldn't insist on doing the work on the cheap.
If we were serious, we wouldn't propose solutions that we know are not solutions, but are just policies that somebody powerful has an investment in. If we were serious about fixing public education, we wouldn't be trying to dismantle it.
If we were serious, our metric for spending would be (as it was in the space race and in times of war) "whatever it takes" and not "the least we can get away with." If we were serious on the local level, our focus would be on doing the best job, and not finding ever new ways to cut and scrimp and chop and whittle away at what the school does.
I do believe that there are people who have a serious interest in improving schools on many sides of the education debates. I believe that there are choice advocates and standards advocates and even market-based education advocates who are serious about wanting to make schools better (though I disagree with them strongly about how to achieve better schools).
But the education debates can become so fruitless and clogged and just plain tiring because they are clogged with people who just aren't serious about creating and maintaining a great system of public education. They want to make money or they want to crush teachers or they want to sell a product or they don't really believe in democracy or public education for everyone at all, and it becomes like trying to have a discussion about the family budget with a bunch of four-year-olds who keep hollering "Spend a zillion dollars on ice cream" or "I want to live in a boat" or just "Nyah nahh nahhhh blh blerg." And then giggling, and then insisting that they are too making a serious suggestion.
The ed debate space is clogged with bullshit arguments made in bad faith and wrapped in extra layers of more polished bullshit, rooted in unreality and devoid of honest attempt to either really understand or really grapple with the complicated issues that arise when a nation sets out to educate all of its children. And that goes for the national policy discussion level and the local school management level, with plenty left over for various state capitals.
This is the frustration that lies beneath all my other frustrations-- this stuff is so damned important. Why do we have to waste time with people who don't want to honestly engage with the importance of it?