from the pages of October 1995

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The War Against Public Schools

By Mano Singham

Let us take a look at some education statistics: High-school graduation rates have risen steadily and are at all-time highs -- 87 percent in 1989 compared with 10 percent in 1910 and only 73 percent as recently as 1969. School drop-out rates have been declining or are stable for every single ethnic group. Of those who do drop out, about two-thirds are white; two-thirds are from two-parent homes; over 40 percent are from suburban schools; nearly three-quarters never repeated a grade; and 86 percent are from homes where English is the native language.

On the commercial standardized test front, aggregate Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) mathematics and verbal scores when compared with 1976 (which is the first year for which such data are available) have increased for every ethnic group (except one) with the largest percentage increase being in the African American community. The sole decline has been that of verbal scores for the ethnic group categorized as white.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, also known as the Nation's Report Card), the most comprehensive and detailed surveys that we have of reading, writing, mathematics and science levels of the nations' students also lead to similar conclusions. Compared to the mid-1970s, the current levels of performance in all these subjects at all age levels have remained steady or have improved. In addition, the performance of 12th grade students in science showed no difference between public schools, private Catholic schools, and private non-Catholic schools.

As for cost, when we exclude the cost of providing special services (which the public schools are required by law to provide for all students with special needs and whom the private schools can choose not to admit), the cost of public school education has stayed almost steady in real terms since 1970 at about $2,500 per student. It is this lower figure (and not the overall average of $5,500 per student) which should be used when comparing the cost of public and private schools.

These statistics may come as a surprise to those who have been listening to a steady stream of rhetoric that has portrayed the public school system as in total disarray and that the main problems lie with big-city school systems having large minority populations. This barrage of criticism has led to the widespread belief that the general quality of education has deteriorated badly from some previous golden age when students and schools performed much better. Another popular notion is that private and parochial schools get better educational results than public schools for less money per pupil. A third article of faith is that misconceived new-fangled educational theories have destroyed the educational system and we should go back to basics. All these beliefs are used to argue that extremely radical measures are required for improving public schools. It is interesting that all the proposals are aimed at directing resources away from the public schools - privatization charter schools, and vouchers being the options currently in vogue.

What is disturbing is that in this debate, assertions are made and accepted as self-evident with hardly any supporting evidence, those usually offered being highly personal anecdotes. "Everybody knows" seems to be sufficient justification for most pronouncements. It is even more disturbing that these seeming truisms are driving public policy on education. It is time to pause and critically examine many of these assumptions.

All this is not meant to imply that everything is fine in our public schools. That would be absurd because they do have some serious problems. Anyone using the above statistics to paint a rosy picture of the present state of public school education is as guilty of distortion as those who ignore them in order to claim that the schools are terrible. The point is to show that the problems are not simple. To portray them as such and to propose simplistic solutions risks doing serious damage to a very important institution. The problems are complex and subtle but not hard to understand for anyone who sets aside his or her own preconceptions, looks at the available data, and engages in thoughtful dialogue. Unfortunately, that is not taking place in the popular media.

There are few public issues that arouse as much passion as education. This is not surprising given the widespread consensus that the future of our own children and that of the nation as a whole is inextricably linked with the quality of the educational system. So why is it that so many people feel no need to look for reliable evidence on the state of our schools and think it sufficient to just trust their own feelings? Perhaps it is because we believe we know the system so well. After all, we were all students for many years at the most impressionable time of our lives, and many of us are now parents. Our childhood memories of school may be so vivid that it is easy to forget that they may also be selective and unreliable. When we recall a golden age in education, it may have been golden only for the relatively few of us who were successful in school and who moved with others who were equally successful. We tend to forget the many who fell by the wayside.

Education in the U.S. is a $250 billion enterprise with about 15,000 school districts and 45 million students. It dwarfs almost any corporation in its size, complexity, and the demands made on it by the public. Yet people who would not dream of blaming General Motors' declining market share on its failure to continue making the identical cars it did in its heyday in the 1950s, think nothing of giving that kind of advice to the school system. The notion that the educational system should go back to what it was doing when we were children and then things will become as good as they were then ignores the reality that the educational results back then were not that great and that almost everything else about society has changed dramatically since that time. This does not mean that all the changes made in education since then have been for the better (there have been educational equivalents of the Edsel) but it does mean that we need to take a more nuanced view of how to improve things. Making blanket condemnations of the public school system risks doing serious harm to an institution that has served the country well despite enormous challenges. It is time to set aside polemics and start looking more carefully at where we really are, where we want to go, and how we should get there.

Mano Singham is as physicist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and is also scientist-educator for Project Discovery.