“They’re not good,” the head of a Fortune 500 company lamented about U.S. schools not long ago. “Students learn little, education gaps are widening, and not much can be done about it.” Pressed on the matter, he relaxed. “It’s not a serious matter. Our universities are excellent, and we can import the talent we need—though we do need to worry about social peace.” Sadly, his public comments (which I’m paraphrasing here) neatly summarize private conversations heard when business and civic leaders gather. A few years back, a prominent U.S. senator whispered much the same to me as we entered a dining room together.
Larry Cuban, a former public-schools superintendent turned urban historian, confesses to hold much the same view. Students are not learning much at school, and achievement gaps are widening, but schools should not be blamed, as they cannot be changed. Not that it counts for much, except for persistent racial and socioeconomic inequalities. The emeritus Stanford professor acknowledges that he has “pulled back from his Progressive roots as a reform-driven educator.” Like the businessman, he has “tempered the unvarnished optimism I had initially about the power of schools.” Cuban differs from the chief executive only when assigning blame for contemporary conditions.