Why this is not the standard line about education in the US
The truth is that it is inequality and poverty that drive educational issues, not the other way around. You can't fix society by fixing education, and the only way to fix education is by fixing society. Unfortunately, too many people have too much at stake in the way things are done now for anything to change. In particular, no one wants to admit that we should directly tackle poverty, because that would probably entail, for the powerful, higher taxes and less power. This may seem obvious, but when it plays out in real life the denial and dissonance it produces can be frustrating and confusing.
Forthright denial (a personal anecdote)
A couple of years ago, before I had thought much about this stuff, I went to a talk by Harvard's Tony Wagner at the MIT alumni club. Wagner screened a film he had made about Finland; his argument seemed basically to be that American schools were terrible because we didn't focus on creativity and critical thinking, while Finnish schools led the world because they did focus on those things. In the Q&A after the screening, I asked him about the role of poverty, and I specifically asked whether rich schools in the US scored as well as Finland. To my very clear and specific question he answered a forthright and definite "No."
When I followed up by email, citing the same 2009 PISA scores that the new EPI report analyzes, Wagner backtracked, claiming that he had misunderstood my question--but then he asserted that tests didn't tell the whole story, and that Finnish schools, like certain progressive schools in the US (he loves the Parker school, for instance) are "worlds apart from even our best suburban high schools." (Oh snap! Take that, Leafstrewn!) Still, I couldn't help but wonder why he had denied what was after all a pretty basic fact (in correspondence he said he was familiar with the data I'd cited).
Maybe frozen circumstances won't dance to any melody?
Wagner and I had an interesting correspondence for a while, and he was always polite and generous with his time, but I came to think that the way he answered, wrongly, my specific and clear question at the screening of his movie was a symptom of a deeper problem. Basically, I found that while he was eventually able to acknowledge, in private correspondence, what was after all indisputable (poverty and social class are overwhelmingly important in academic performance), and while he was subtle enough to quote Karl Marx to support his rhetorical strategies, he simply could not have the kind of successful career he has enjoyed (appointment at Harvard, best-selling author, educational "leadership" guru, etc.) without downplaying the role of social factors like poverty and highlighting, instead, things like "creativity", "leadership," and "innovation."
Wagner himself more or less acknowledged this dynamic in the line he quoted from Marx. I had told him I liked a lot of what his book said about how to make schools better, but that insofar as the book imitated Thomas Friedman, I didn't like it (after a nod to Friedman's influence in the Acknowledgments page, Wagner started off the book, believe it or not, with an anecdote about a conversation with a CEO he happened to sit next to on a plane, and went on to couch its argument in Friedmanesque blither-blather about changing America's education system in order to compete in the 21st century global economy, etc.). In response, Wagner wrote the following:
My favorite quote from Marx is: “To make the frozen circumstances dance, you have to sing to them in their own melody.”
... Unless and until we have an alliance of business and education leaders advocating for the kinds of profound changes that are necessary, I don’t think we have a prayer of a chance.
This is depressing, and not just because the Marx line is quoted out of context (the whole passage is about publicly shaming the powers that be, not letting them have even "a minute for self-deception and resignation," and making them "terrified"--all of which is very far from the aims of people like Tony Wagner and Thomas Friedman (1)). Wagner was basically saying that he can't acknowledge the truth about education, because that won't move the people who are really in power--"business and education leaders." So in effect his position at Harvard, and his speaking at places like MIT, means that he cannot speak the truth--probably can't even remember the truth until some persistent naif like me sticks it indecorously in his face like a piece of soiled paper. The event I attended was held, appropriately enough, at the Broad Institute--funded by the same Eli Broad who has spent some of his billions on educational "leaders" (like Joel Klein) who are trying to institute a corporate, test-driven take-over that couldn't be further from the Parker school.
Where are our schools of educational public health?
All this is why we need graduate schools of educational public health--and why we probably won't get them. But I'm happy to see the Economic Policy Institute, like many others (the BBA, David Berliner, Stephen Krashen, Diane Ravitch, and thousands of lesser known teachers and parents) stepping in to fill the void.
(1) Here's the Marx passage that Wagner quoted: "Criticism dealing with this content is criticism in a hand-to-hand fight, and in such a fight the point is not whether the opponent is a noble, equal, interesting opponent, the point is to strike him. The point is not to let the Germans have a minute for self-deception and resignation. The actual pressure must be made more pressing by adding to it consciousness of pressure, the shame must be made more shameful by publicizing it. Every sphere of German society must be shown as the partie honteuse of German society: these petrified relations must be forced to dance by singing their own tune to them! The people must be taught to be terrified at itself ..."
(from "Towards a Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law")