Schools of Doom

After 30 years—some historians might say 100 years—of rhetoric about the “crisis” in American education, it’s getting hard to come up with new ways to frighten the public about the state of American schools. So maybe it’s understandable that the Council on Foreign Relations chose a foreboding title for its March report: “U.S. Education Reform and National Security.” The message is even blunter in one of the chapter titles, “The Education Crisis Is a National Security Crisis.” The council points to a slew of subpar standardized test scores as well as to the surprising fact that 75 percent of young people don’t qualify for military service. (Education is hardly the only reason for that; criminal records and lack of physical fitness can also be disqualifiers.) The solutions recommended by the council task force, co-chaired by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former New York City public-schools chief Joel Klein, are almost as well worn as the crisis talk: Parents need more vouchers, which let them use public dollars for private schools; teachers need to be easier to fire; and we all need more charter schools.

“I think we should raise the alarm level,” Klein told PBS NewsHour. “When a secretary of state calls this out as a national-security issue … I think we need to stop thinking this is somehow a narrow education problem and we will all be fine.” 

The message, boiled down, has a familiar ring: Schools have failed, and we desperately need alternatives—or we will not be fine. Based on the urgent tone, you might think that lawmakers had been ignoring the education-reform movement. But the reformers’ policy agenda has been widely embraced. Between 1999 and 2009, the number of American students in charter schools tripled. Vouchers also experienced a boom, with 19 states now offering programs. Several states have made it easier to fire teachers. 

No conclusive evidence shows that any of these reforms have worked. But that has not slowed the movement. In Louisiana, Republican Governor Bobby Jindal recently pushed through one of the most radical education-reform bills in the country. Louisiana’s long-struggling schools have shown significant improvement in recent years. Not fast enough, though. Jindal and the legislature adopted every major plank of the education-reform platform: decreasing teachers’ job protections and allowing superintendents to tie their salaries to test results; dramatically expanding the charter-school program; and offering private-school vouchers to 380,000 low- and middle-income students. In Georgia, voters will decide in November if the state should implement a charter system parallel to the traditional school system; never mind a recent report to the state’s Board of Education showing that charters trail traditional schools in test performance. Across the country, in blue and red states alike, the thinking seems to be: With schools so hopeless, what’s there to lose? 

In fact, there’s plenty to lose. For all their troubles, traditional public schools are performing well by many measures, and studies show that charters are performing no better. While achievement gaps between racial and ethnic groups persist, for instance, they have narrowed substantially. Between 1975 and 2010, the high-school completion rate for black students rose from 71 percent to 90 percent; for Hispanics, the rate increased from 53 percent to 69 percent. (Dropout rates for whites are lower as well.) The National Assessment of Educational Progress, a longitudinal study of student performance, also shows significant gains in math, particularly in elementary schools. 

No one questions that public education can and should improve. But the crisis hyperbole drowns out nuanced conversations about what’s actually happening in the schools. Why, for instance, are American students improving in math but not reading? Why have elementary schools been able to do better while high schools haven’t? And why do countries less obsessed with testing produce higher-achieving students?

If lawmakers and activists left behind the doomsday rhetoric, we could have a different conversation. Instead of blaming teachers entirely for gaps in achievement, we could talk about social-welfare policies, like a living wage, that could give parents more time to help with homework. Rather than focusing almost exclusively on test results in reading and math, we could focus on a broader curriculum that emphasizes critical thinking; we could take another look at lab sciences, music, art, and other areas that get short shrift because of the primacy of standardized tests. Most important, we could stop seeking a magical panacea and instead work toward solving the genuine problems of public schools. If we don’t, we’ll eventually end up with a real crisis on our hands.

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