Imagine you're five feet eight inches tall. When you
change the unit of measurement to yards, you're 1.9
yards tall. Are you shorter because the number is
smaller? No. Or go to centimeters. Now you're 173 centimeters tall. Does the larger number make you taller? Of course not. Yet this is the effect we experience trying to judge the quality of public education in the U.S. There are so many different standards, all competing for mindshare with the public, it's almost impossible to know what's right any more.
There are state standards. And in some states, such
as California, there are multiple state standards.
There are the new federal No Child Left Behind
standards. There are the National Assessment of
Educational Progress standards. The Scholastic
Aptitude Tests. The frequently heralded
International Math and Science Test standards.
Advanced Placement exams for more advanced students.
And so on.
Some of these standards, like those of the No Child
Left Behind Act, are new. We don't really know yet
whether they're actually telling us what they say they
are. These things take years, maybe decades, to shake
out. Some tests, such as the International Math and
Science tests compare apples to oranges, testing small
groups of elite students in other countries against
the broad average of students in American public
schools. Predictably, elites do better than averages.
If you test athletes against the general public,
guess who is more physically fit?
So what is a parent or a citizen to do? It is a
ritual incantation of American civic discourse that
public education is critical to the future of our
country. How, then, can we be so confused? How can
we know if public education is working or not?
Part of the problem is that over the last two decades
an intense lobby has emerged that wants to turn public education over to private industry, make McStudents of the nation's youth. It has operated a not-so-stealth campaign to disparage public education and to try to convince Americans that it isn't working. This campaign has mounted a relentless, mantra-like vilification of public schools: schools are failing; teachers are lazy; education bureaucracies are unresponsive; students are being cheated; America is at risk. Sound familiar?
Some of this lobby's motivation is ideological: they
dislike anything that smacks of government control,
the more so if the service is effective, for such
examples repudiate the theological superiority of all
things private. Some of its motivation is directed
toward right-wing social engineering: they want to
control the curriculum that future generations of
American students must absorb. And much of it is
simply economic: these "prophets of profit" want to
get their hands on the $500+ billion that is spent
every year in the U.S. on public K-12 education.
This isn't, per se, bad. We do, after all, live in at
least a quasi-capitalist society where the pursuit of
profit isn't a social evil. But it's the bashers'
hypocrisy that rankles. They don't declare any of
these motives openly. Rather, they talk of such
vaguely incongruous motives as "empowering minorities"
and "streamlining" education. These, of course, are
the same corporate zealots who brought the "magic of
the market" to a formerly vibrant public health
system. They are the pious do-gooders (remember
Enron?) who bestowed energy privatization on
California, the better to reap the "efficiencies" of competition. They are the same bleeding-heart altruists who profess wanting to "save" social security by turning it over to the tender mercies of the financial services industry.
So again, how would we know if public education is
working or not? Probably the most reliable,
broad-based, long-term tool for measuring the quality
of public education is the Scholastic Aptitude Test.
The SAT has five strengths that make it the most
useful measure of American educational progress.
First, it has been in place for over four decades so
it reveals trends that span multiple generations of
students, teachers, and schools. Second, it is given
to high school juniors and seniors so it reflects the cumulative success (or failure) of the entire K-12 educational system, not just performance in a single year. Third, the same SAT is administered across the entire country so it compensates for the variation in how different states test and account for educational progress. Fourth, the SAT cuts through the "grade inflation"
that has become a standard fixture of all educational
systems over recent decades. Finally, the SAT
measures not just a single, narrow skill but a broad
range of intellectual development, from cultural
knowledge and logic, to specific academic content,
computation, and communication.
Because of its long history, its nationwide reach, and
its comprehensive nature, SAT results transcend the
negative one-off anecdotes commonly bandied about to
disparage public education. No other instrument even
comes close to equaling these strengths as a singular
measure of national educational progress.
So what do the SAT's tell us about the performance of
public education in America?
Last year's SAT scores were the highest in 30 years.
English scores were the highest in 28 years. Math
scores were the highest in 36 years. The scores were
at record levels for all ethic groups: whites;
Asian-Americans; African-Americans; Native Americans;
and Latinos. And they were achieved by the broadest
test-taking pool in testing history. Forty-eight per
cent of the nation's 2.9 million high school seniors
took the test--a record. Thirty-six percent of the
test takers were minorities, another record.
Thirty years ago, only the most elite 15 percent of
students took the test. And remember, elites usually
test better than averages. So the fact that scores
have gone up while the test-taking pool has gotten
both larger and more diverse may be the most powerful performance indicator of all. These scores are a huge victory for those who have believed in and fought so hard for public education.
Even more impressive, public schools have accomplished
these new highs while confronting some of the greatest obstacles they have ever faced. Consider just a few of these almost Herculean challenges:
- Most mothers left home in the past 30 years to join
the workforce. No more Mrs. Cleaver at the door with
warm cookies, milk, and help with the homework when
Beaver comes home.
- Over the past decade, American schools have absorbed
the largest wave of immigrants in history. Most of
these immigrants spoke no English when they came to
this country. Many had little if any comparable
educational preparation in the countries they left.
- Schools have been saddled with vastly expanded
responsibilities in recent years, much of it wholly
unrelated to general academic performance. This
includes broadened mandates for everything from sex
and drug education to increased demands for help with
learning and physical disabilities.
- As a nation, we have almost completely surrendered
students' socialization to television. By the time
they are 18 years old, children have watched 450,000
commercials! Meanwhile they spend only 9 percent of
their time in the classroom.
- Millions of the best teachers have left teaching for
other fields. This is especially true with women who
used to have few career options (nursing, teaching,
etc.) but who can now go into law, medicine,
engineering, business, etc.
Despite all of these challenges, and throughout one of
the most vitriolic, unremitting campaigns of character assassination in American history, public education has delivered the highest performing group of
graduates in over a generation.
Against this record, those who would "privatize"
public education have virtually nothing to show for
their decades of hucksterish claims. In trial after
trial, experiments with educational vouchers (the most
popular form of school privatization) have proven a
bust. Voucher programs in Milwaukee, New York,
Washington D.C., and in Dayton and Cleveland, Ohio
have shown no long-term gains in student achievement.
And this, despite in some cases skimming the cream
off the top of local student populations-recruiting
only the best students while keeping problem or
special-needs children out.
For example, the longest-running evaluation of a
publicly funded voucher program ever conducted, by
Indiana University of the Cleveland, Ohio program,
found that "student academic achievement presents no
clear or consistent pattern that can be attributed to
program participation." In other words, the results
are no different than those for public schools. This
is especially surprising because the program
participants were more white, more wealthy, and more
stable than students in the local population. If
privatized education can't make it with this kind of
free pass, it's not going to make it.
Besides educational failure, the economic failure of
the privatization model is reflected in the dismal
fate of the country's largest company providing such
services. Edison Public Schools lost over $350
million dollars trying to perfect the McStudent
formula. Yet, after repeatedly failing to deliver on
its promises and continually losing contracts, it was
finally forced to be de-listed by NASDAQ. It has
converted itself back to a private company and no
longer publishes its financial information.
Nor do "charter schools" fare any better than voucher
schools. Charter schools are self-governing public
schools frequently run by private corporations. They
were conceived as a way to "liberate" public schools
from conventional constraints in hiring, curriculum,
and administration. But in August, after the most
extensive examination in the history of the country,
the Department of Education published data showing
charter school students lag public schools students in
almost every category of performance. In math, fourth
graders were a full half year behind public school
Given this record, it comes as no surprise that
voucher and charter advocates have started changing
their story. No longer do they claim superior results
(not that they ever actually delivered them).
Instead, they begrudgingly claim that improved public
school performance is due to the threat of competition
from privatization. This, of course, is conveniently unprovable but sounds a lot like the rooster taking credit for the sunrise. Meanwhile, support for public funding of private schooling has plummeted. In the past year, the number of Americans favoring such programs dropped from 46 percent to 38 percent according to a recent Gallup Organization poll. Why the change of attitude?
It seems the prospect of millions of American families
turning their children over to someone whose main
motive is to make a profit off of them has lost its
appeal. Or perhaps they saw what privatization did
for energy costs in California or to the healthcare
system nationwide and don't want to take a similar
chance on their most precious assets. Whatever the
reason, the once bright luster of privatizing the
nation's schools is fading. Not that the hucksters
will give up. There is too much at stake in their
ideological, social engineering, and economic agendas.
But neither should they be given a free pass any more
to disparage public education the way that they have.
To be sure, public education still faces tough
challenges. Schools remain underfunded. Teacher pay continues to fall behind that of other professions.
American spending on education as a percent of GDP
lags that of many third world countries. Inner-city
schools still score lower than schools in more
affluent suburbs. And the Orwellian-named No Child
Left Behind Act is a thinly disguised formula to make
schools fail artificial and unattainable standards-the
more readily to justify their privatization.
But the question of whether public schools can deliver
should no longer be open for debate. The only
question is whether we have the courage to now
properly fund public education so that it can take our
children and our society to even higher levels of
achievement. I believe we can because I know that we
must. Public education is not only the most important democratizing institution in America today. It is the foundation of our economic future as well. It never really went away. But still, it's good to have it back.
Robert Freeman writes about economics, history and
education. His email address is