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“Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated,” sputtered the leader, as it finally dawned on him that, no matter how many times he snapped his fingers, he couldn’t conjure up effective and affordable medical coverage for millions of Americans.

Pleased by the media’s response, “Nobody knew. . . ” became his signature line. “Nobody knew that foreign leaders could be so sensitive,” he liked to say after hanging up the phone. “Nobody knew that it could cost so much to build a wall from San Diego to Brownsville,” he explained to a skeptical Congress. “Nobody knew . . .” turned out to have a million uses. 

By 2020, so-called education reformers had adopted “Nobody knew . . . ” as part of their mantra to excuse their lack of success at improving America’s public schools.

“Nobody knew that teaching a child to read could be such hard and essential work.”

“Nobody knew that expelling children from school could mean an end to their education.”

“Nobody knew that cutting school budgets could have such an effect on student services.”

“Nobody knew that expanding charter schools could undermine traditional public schools.”

“Nobody knew that closing neighborhood schools could end up limiting the educational options for so many poor and minority students.”

“Nobody knew that busing black children away from their communities could lead to the disintegration of their neighborhoods.”

“Nobody knew that private school voucher programs could siphon away so much funding from public schools.”

“Nobody knew that test-based teacher evaluations could lead to such an emphasis on teaching to the test.”

“Nobody knew that holding back slow readers at the end of 3rd grade could dampen their enthusiasm for learning.”

“Nobody knew that telling teachers how to teach could undermine their sense of professionalism.”

“Nobody knew that paying teachers poorly could sap their morale.”

“Nobody knew that threatening to deport millions of undocumented immigrants could be so unsettling to schoolchildren.”

“Nobody knew that hiring private entities to run public schools could lead to such corruption and poor performance.”

“Nobody knew that letting charter schools operate without standards or oversight could give the green light to such terrible practices.”

“Nobody knew that bashing the teaching profession again and again and again could discourage people from entering the profession.”

“Nobody knew that sick and hungry children could find it so difficult to concentrate at school.”

“Nobody knew that allowing teachers to carry guns into schools could be so dangerous.”

“Nobody knew that a narrow focus on math and science could result in kids getting less instruction in art and music and theater and dance.”

“Nobody knew that a relentless drumbeat about the poor quality of public schools could eventually damage the reputation of the public schools.”

“Nobody knew that improving schools could be so complicated.”

Oh, yes, somebody knew. Maybe you should have been listening.

JOAN RICHARDSON (@KappanJoan) is editor-in-chief of Kappan magazine.

Originally published in April 2017 Phi Delta Kappan 98 (7), 4. © 2017 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.