Is Public Education Working? How Would We Know?

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.

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 students.

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.

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