The Failure of American Schools

Who better to lead an educational revolution than Joel Klein, the prosecutor who took on the software giant Microsoft? But in his eight years as chancellor of New York City’s school system, the nation’s largest, Klein learned a few painful lessons of his own—about feckless politicians, recalcitrant unions, mediocre teachers, and other enduring obstacles to school reform.
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Above: Joel Klein in Brooklyn on the first day of school, two months before he resigned as chancellor

Three years ago, in a New York Times article detailing her bid to become head of the American Federation of Teachers union, Randi Weingarten boasted that despite my calls for “radical reform” to New York City’s school system, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and I had achieved only “incremental” change. It seemed like a strange thing to crow about, but she did have something of a point. New York over the past nine years has experienced what Robert Schwartz, the academic dean of Harvard’s education school, has described as “the most dramatic and thoughtful set of large-scale reforms going on anywhere in the country,” resulting in gains such as a nearly 20-point jump in graduation rates. But the city’s school system is still not remotely where it needs to be.

That story holds more than true for the country at large. Nearly three decades after A Nation at Risk, the groundbreaking report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people,” the gains we have made in improving our schools are negligible—even though we have doubled our spending (in inflation-adjusted dollars) on K–12 public education. On America’s latest exams (the National Assessment of Educational Progress), one-third or fewer of eighth-grade students were proficient in math, science, or reading. Our high-school graduation rate continues to hover just shy of 70 percent, according to a 2010 report by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, and many of those students who do graduate aren’t prepared for college. ACT, the respected national organization that administers college-admissions tests, recently found that 76 percent of our high-school graduates “were not adequately prepared academically for first-year college courses.”






Video: Joel Klein explains the twisted politics of New York education in a conversation with Atlantic editor James Bennet


While America’s students are stuck in a ditch, the rest of the world is moving ahead. The World Economic Forum ranks us 48th in math and science education. On international math tests, the United States is near the bottom of industrialized countries (the 34 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), and we’re in the middle in science and reading. Similarly, although we used to have one of the top percentages of high-school and college graduates among the OECD countries, we’re now in the basement for high-school and the middle for college graduates. And these figures don’t take into account the leaps in educational attainment in China, Singapore, and many developing countries.

During the first three-quarters of the 20th century, America developed an enormously successful middle class, first by making high school universal, and then, after the Second World War, by making college much more available, through the GI Bill and other scholarship programs. As a result, our educational attainment kept pace with our strong technological advancement. But that’s changed markedly since 1980, and now our technological progress is advancing more rapidly than our educational attainment. From 1960 to 1980, our supply of college graduates increased at almost 4 percent a year; since then, the increase has been about half as fast. The net effect is that we’re rapidly moving toward two Americas—a wealthy elite, and an increasingly large underclass that lacks the skills to succeed.

This division tears at the very fabric of our society. Nevertheless, there’s little national urgency to fix its underlying causes. Unlike a bad economy, poor educational achievement creeps up on us. Right now, if you were running for office, would you be more concerned with unemployment or education? Also, unlike terrorism, an educational crisis has a different impact on the powerful than it does on most of society. Their children, who are in private schools or elite public schools, receive a decent education, so it’s hard to get them fully engaged in the broader national debate. Plus, unlike in health care, for example, where we perceive the quality of care to be good and worry instead about controlling costs and covering the uninsured, in education, despite massive increases in expenditure, we don’t see improved results. That leads too many people to suspect that poverty is destiny, that schools can make only a small difference, and that therefore we’re unable to fix this problem, regardless of its seriousness. So why try?

If the forces behind reform seem scattered and weak, those defending the status quo—the unions, the politicians, the bureaucrats, and the vendors—are well organized and well financed. Having spent eight years trying to ignite a revolution in New York City’s schools under Bloomberg’s leadership, I am convinced that without a major realignment of political forces, we won’t get the dramatic improvements our children need.

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Joel Klein, the former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, oversees the News Corp venture Amplify, which creates digital products and services for teachers, students, and parents.

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