The Near-Myth of Our Failing Schools

Ideologically inspired lamentations about the parlous state of American education mask the much more complex truth.

"Losing-to-the-Russians" fears

IN the spring of 1991, as warnings accumulated that America's second-rate schools were dooming the nation to permanent failure in the global economy, systems analysts at Sandia National Laboratories, a federal institution of generally impeccable reputation, compiled a lengthy report showing that the picture in American education was far more complex -- and in many respects a great deal less gloomy -- than the rhetoric of alarm allowed. But for two years the report -- a collection of tables and statistics on everything from dropout rates and SAT scores to college degrees awarded in engineering and other technical fields -- was buried by the Department of Energy, which had commissioned it. The document, said James Watkins, George Bush's Secretary of Energy, was "dead wrong," and would be regarded as "a call for complacency at a time when just the opposite is required." It had a small underground circulation, but even after the Clinton Administration finally released it, in 1993, neither the Sandia data nor similar findings from other sources got much attention. Mixed reports don't make for good headlines, and qualified good news undermines the sense of crisis essential both to liberal demands for more money and to conservative arguments that only vouchers and other radical solutions will do. Good news, even qualified good news, runs counter to the conventional wisdom and undermines almost everybody's agenda of reform.
It was always thus: in the late 1950s, after the launching of Sputnik; in the early 1980s, after publication of the federal report A Nation at Risk, which warned that the failures of the nation's schools were about to undermine America's ability to compete economically; in 1989, when President George Bush and the nation's governors initiated what came to be called Goals 2000, pledging to make this country the world leader in education by the year 2000; in 1993, when President Bill Clinton and a Democratic Congress followed that up with legislation to develop voluntary national standards in English, history, science, and other fields; and in 1995-1996, when that same effort collapsed in controversy and dispute over the standards that were produced.

Now, as President Clinton is calling yet again for higher school standards, and for a program of national testing in reading and math, the same assumptions of crisis and failure that have fueled every other recent reform debate are being invoked. The debate is driven once again by our favorite myths: that there was once a golden age, an era when schools maintained rigorous academic standards, when all children learned, when few dropped out and most graduated on time; that sometime in the past generation or so (most commonly pegged to the 1960s) the system began to fall apart under a siege of social promotion, grade inflation, and progressive mush that is leaving America helpless against superior foreign education; and that the large amounts of new money that have gone to the schools in the past generation have largely been wasted. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the University of California regent Ward Connerly, who spearheaded California's drive against race-based affirmative action, wrote in a recent op-ed piece,

The education bureaucracy won't concede that, despite spending trillions of dollars on education over the past 30 years, American children are further behind today. It doesn't want to admit that the S.A.T. scores of African-American children, which average 100 points less than the scores of white children, are the direct result of the current [Great Society] policies.

In some places, circumstances, and contexts, some of those criticisms are correct. Many schools are academically flabby, mindless, and laced with an anti-intellectualism sometimes bordering on outright sabotage; some are wastelands of crime, drugs, and despair; many are afflicted by multicultural fashion and politically correct clichés. Some are run by arrogant, rigid bureaucracies or crippled by unions that make it impossible to move any teacher with seniority, let alone fire the bad ones, and classrooms are often without a regular teacher for the first month of school while the seniority system slowly determines who may be assigned where. Many schools don't demand nearly as much as they should. But many others suffer from few of those things, and without a more realistic sense of what is going on -- a better understanding of the myths -- the country will never get beyond the horror stories and ideological set pieces that seem endlessly to dominate the education debate.

Misleading Statistics and Comparisons

AMONG the Sandia findings, many of them corroborated by other studies, are the following: High school completion rates -- now roughly 90 percent -- and college graduation rates are the highest in history. One in four adult Americans has at least a bachelor's degree -- the highest percentage in the world (and the percentage keeps getting higher). A larger percentage of twenty-two-year-olds receive degrees in math, science, or engineering in the United States than in any of the nation's major economic competitors. Although SAT verbal scores declined over the years 1975 to 1990, the decline occurred chiefly because a larger percentage of lower-ranking students (those from the bottom half of their school classes) began taking the test. If the same population that took the SATs in 1975 had taken them this year, the average score would be significantly higher than it was then -- and higher than it was in 1990.

Because of reforms instituted in the 1980s, more American high school students than ever before are taking four years of English and at least three years of math and science. Far more are taking and passing Advanced Placement examinations (98,000 in 1978 and 535,000 in 1996). More teachers, for all the flaws in our teacher training-and-reward system, are subject to tough standards for certification and promotion.

To be sure, as the Sandia report recognized, on tests like the Third International Mathematics and Science Study and other international comparisons of academic achievement American students continue to score lower than their peers in Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and elsewhere. Whereas parents of high-achieving students in Japan or China worry that their children are not doing well enough and ought to work still harder, among parents of American students who are scoring far less well on the same tests "satisfaction with ... students' achievement and education remains high and standards remain low," according to a team led by the University of Michigan psychologist Harold W. Stevenson. "Innate ability [not diligence or high expectations] continues to be emphasized by Americans as a basis for achievement." Stevenson's collaborator James Stigler, of the University of California at Los Angeles, has found an academic intensity in Japanese classes that is almost unthinkable in this country. Many American universities, including even as selective an institution as the University of California, continue to provide remedial courses to their freshmen: a quarter of the students entering UCLA are required to take what used to be called bonehead English, and nearly a third of those entering the University of California system as a whole are.

Something wrong

But as Iris Rotberg, a professor at George Washington University, points out, cross-cultural comparisons of academic achievement are tough to make. Many countries begin specialized education at age fourteen or even earlier, which means that some students have already left school and many others have begun cramming for (in the words of the Sandia report) the "life determining tests ... that specify their eventual position in the workforce." Many lower-achieving students in Great Britain and other countries have by age seventeen already been tracked into job-training programs or have simply left school and thus are not included in the test samples, making comparisons meaningless. (For example, England and Wales rank near the bottom in international math comparisons of eighth-grade students; in comparisons of twelfth-graders, only six percent of whom in England take math, they rank near the top.) Intense competition in places like Singapore and Japan for good university slots and other rewards that will have consequences for a lifetime must wonderfully concentrate the mind.

The late Albert Shanker, for many years the president of the American Federation of Teachers, argued persuasively that the fierce competition in other countries is hardly an excuse for a U.S. system in which academic success or failure has so few consequences -- for either teachers or students -- and in which so little fosters intense academic effort. Even the best American students, he argued, do not perform as well as their peers elsewhere. Questions that all college-bound nineteen-year-olds in France or Great Britain are expected to answer would be impossible for most graduating seniors here. But the debate ought to make the complexity and ambiguities of the larger issue obvious enough. Which is better for the student -- to have the discipline that intense competition for relatively few college openings brings, or to have ample opportunity?

Misleading Historical Comparisons

WHAT is true of cross-cultural comparisons is even more emphatically true of historical ones. Precisely when was the golden age of American education that the conventional wisdom assumes existed? Was it in the early years of this century, when, as the education historian Colin Greer pointed out years ago, "All minority groups, white as well as black, with the exceptions of the English, Scots, Germans, and Scandinavians, were negatively portrayed" in American textbooks; when "Jews, Italians, Chinese and blacks were mean, criminal, immoral, drunken, sly, lazy, and stupid in varying degrees"? Was it in the 1920s, when most students never went beyond the eighth grade, when large numbers of children, especially in the South, never went to school at all from April to November, and when no one had ever heard of any such concept as the dropout rate? Was it in the 1930s and 1940s, when even the more enlightened medical schools had strict quotas for Jews and blacks, and the others systematically excluded them, as did a great many other educational institutions as well? Was it in the 1950s, when the historian Arthur Bestor published (reissued, significantly, in a new edition in 1985), when Rudolf Flesch's was long a best seller, and when the schools were thought to be failing because, with the launching of Sputnik, the Russians had beaten us into space? Was it in 1963, when Admiral Hyman Rickover published American Education, a National Failure?

Consider our contemporary why-Johnny-can't-read arguments. In 1987 Chester Finn and Diane Ravitch, two of the country's most thoughtful conservative school critics, published a set of statistics and related data about what American students don't know about their own history and literature. The book title took the form of a question, and the answer was unequivocal. "If there were such a thing as a national report card," Finn and Ravitch wrote, "then we would have to say that this nationally representative sample of 11th-grade students earns failing marks in both subjects." But as at least some parents have noticed, and as Gerald Bracey, a prolific debunker of schools-are-failing stories, reported in the journal in March of 1995, students may in fact know more than their parents and grandparents do. In any case, Bracey showed, such complaints are hardly new. In 1943 The New York Times, citing findings by the historian Allan Nevins, reported its shock at discovering that

a large majority of [college] students showed that they had virtually no knowledge of elementary aspects of American history [and] could not identify such names as Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, or Theodore Roosevelt.... Some students believed that George Washington was president during the War of 1812.... St. Louis was placed on the Pacific Ocean, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, the Atlantic Ocean, Ohio River, and almost every place else.

Similarly, the college students described Walt Whitman as a missionary, a pioneer, a colonizer, an unpatriotic writer, a humorist, an English poet, and (not surprising in the days of Paul Whiteman) a band leader. Plus ça change ...

Importance of special needs provisions

Chester Finn and like-minded people point to scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), widely considered to be among the most reliable measures of academic achievement, to show how little progress has been made from the late 1970s to the present, despite the orgy of curricular reforms and the growing amounts of money that have been appropriated for K-12 schools in most states over the past decade. But rarely do these people point to the changing demographics of the American school -- the growing proportion of students whose native language is something other than English (now more than 25 percent in California, and nearly half in Los Angeles), and the growing proportion of students from poor or one-parent families. A Rand analysis of the same NAEP scores, issued in December of 1994, shows that although overall scores for students aged thirteen and seventeen didn't rise much from 1970 to 1990, scores for all ethnic subgroups were up (three percentage points for whites, eleven points for Hispanics, nineteen points for blacks). And although one reason for that change was that the parents were better educated (in 1970, 38 percent of mothers had not finished high school; in 1990 the figure was 17 percent), Rand's researchers concluded that the gains for blacks and Hispanics were larger than any change in family characteristics could explain. Whether the gains were a direct effect or a second-generation effect of the parents' better schooling, public investment, contrary to the conservative critics, had made a difference.

Contradictory Objectives

THAT the same charges now being directed at the schools were leveled a half century ago is hardly reason to ignore them, but it does say something about those myths. Editorials in , a newspaper long devoted to the cause of school vouchers, often complain that Americans spend more per pupil in their public schools than the French or the Germans and get less in return. But what goes unmentioned is that the French and the Germans spend more on health and child care, public transportation, and related social services (not counted in their school spending, though it often is part of ours), and that theirs are for the most part still monocultural societies with less social pathology. Nor is it generally recognized that most of the growth in American school spending in the past three decades has gone for special education for the ballooning numbers of students officially considered handicapped or disabled, a designation that hardly existed in the years immediately after the Second World War. The Sandia report estimates that from 1960 to 1988 constant-dollar spending for "regular" students increased by 39 percent per pupil while spending for all students increased by roughly 150 percent. The difference is almost entirely accounted for by special education, which, as the report points out, can have little impact on average performance on national standardized tests. (Among unfunded federal mandates special education, which diverts huge sums from the regular classroom, is certainly one of the most costly.)

None of this is meant to deny the system's enormous problems and failures -- crime, drugs, arteriosclerotic bureaucracies, self-serving unions, decaying facilities, vocational-education programs a half century out of date -- or to suggest that all our students are doing splendidly. Despite the glories of a higher-education system that, even after the sharp tuition increases and the cutbacks in public funding of the past few years, is still the world's most accessible and abundant, Albert Shanker was right: as long as so few real rewards are given for distinction and so few real penalties exacted for failure, the educational process will tend to remain lackadaisical and inefficient. The question is whether Americans will ever tolerate anything more demanding. Equally important, the schools are so riven with contradictory objectives -- merit versus inclusion, for example -- and so loaded down with extraneous social mandates for everything from drug education and AIDS counseling to diversity training and social awareness (often imposed by the same politicians who complain about school failure) that it's a wonder anyone learns anything. But flat generalizations about crisis and failure, the superiority of foreign schools, or the glorious past will do nothing to solve the problems.

Who Wants Rigor?

WHICH brings us to yet another myth: that Americans -- and parents in particular -- really do want schools with high academic standards, and would get them if the education establishment didn't stand in their way. In (1993) Thomas Sowell, of the Hoover Institution, listed the usual complaints, from the travesties of sex education and the overemphasis on school sports to the pressure for political correctness in curricula. But if he had ever been to a school-board meeting where someone proposed making it harder for students with bad grades to play football, he'd know that it's not only educationists who foist this stuff on the system. Ross Perot's first great public campaign -- for tougher school standards in Texas -- wasn't against teachers but against ordinary folks all across Texas. The censors and the enemies of high standards come as often from outside the system as from inside. They may be religious fundamentalists fighting the teaching of evolution or demanding equal time for creationism in science programs, or complaining about witches and secular humanism in reading textbooks and dirty words in novels. They may be gays complaining that Michelangelo and Tchaikovsky are not identified in the history books as homosexual, or black self-esteemers blocking the adoption of updated history texts because they're short on the civilizations of Africa (even though the older texts don't mention them at all). They may be civil-rights groups demanding that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn be taken out of the syllabus because it contains the word "nigger," or opposing tougher standards because they fear that more poor children will fail. Clinton's new proposal for national testing is already under assault from groups that include the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and FairTest on the left, and the Christian Coalition and Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum on the right. (The right, Chester Finn has said, doesn't like anything with the word "national" in it; the left doesn't like anything with the word "testing.") In addition, groups all across the spectrum have fought over the content and requirements of every form of educational testing, asserting that the SAT is biased against minorities and women, that the (now defunct) California CLAS test was too intrusive into the personal lives of students and their families and didn't focus enough on the basics, that yet another test simply demands too much. And then there are the age-old fights (in and outside the schools) about phonics versus whole language, math facts versus constructivism, progressivism versus drill-and-kill. Of course the school establishment is not an innocent in these things, but it is hardly the only culprit. Virtually every national poll shows that although only a fifth of Americans rate the nation's public schools very highly, some 70 percent of us think that the schools our own children attend are doing just fine -- a phenomenon that Finn calls "retail complacency." We could be wrong on either count, or on both, but things are obviously not quite as simple as the rhetoric of failure suggests. Anti-intellectualism is as American as apple pie.

The Weak Economic Argument

THERE was a time when American schools were known for their successes: the children of immigrants who made it to City College or Columbia or Harvard and went on to have professional careers. Dropouts and failures simply vanished into the large market for unskilled labor. Now the schools tend to be known for their failures: dropouts, kids who bring guns to school, students who score lower than their counterparts abroad. We forget that we are trying to take children from an unprecedented array of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, many of them speaking little or no English, and educate them all to a level of sophistication never imagined for so large a proportion of any population.

A few years ago our presumed failure to do that was blamed for what was regarded as the nation's slipping competitiveness against the Germans and the Japanese, but now that the business pages -- and the front pages, too -- are celebrating a triumphant economic recovery, no one credits the schools. The old litany simply continues. In 1995, at yet another "national summit" in Washington on "world-class education for all America's children," business people blithely reiterated that American students were being insufficiently educated for the global economy in which they will have to survive. All assumed that if young people were well enough educated, great jobs would await them; none seemed concerned that since 1979, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, real wages have declined for all men except those with more education than four years of college. The business people did not mention that increasing numbers of college graduates were doing jobs that required no college training at all -- that, as Phi Delta Kappan reported a couple of years ago, the number of college-educated door-to-door salesmen, for example, grew from 57,000 in 1983 to 75,000 in 1990, and the number of bus drivers with bachelor's degrees rose from 99,000 to 166,000. The job market for college graduates has surely improved with the economic recovery, but the boom will not last forever either.

In 1995, when the University of Illinois surveyed its 1994 graduates about whether their college training was being put to good use, nearly 40 percent said they regarded themselves as overqualified. In the early 1990s Sam Ginn, the chairman of Pacific Telesis, went around California talking about how his company had given seventh-grade reading tests to 6,400 applicants for operator positions and only 2,700 had passed. He didn't point out that the jobs paid less than $7.00 an hour, or that since the company had only 700 jobs to offer, there were almost four qualified applicants for every available slot. For such problems a lot of fixes are needed, many of them only remotely connected with the schools.

The Stanford University educationist Larry Cuban may well have been right when he said, "The myth of better schools as the engine for a leaner, stronger economy was a scam from the very beginning." Yet even if he wasn't, economic recovery has changed the basis for argument. It's hard to read without embarrassment a statement like the one from A Nation at Risk about how the country must reform its educational system "if only to keep and improve on the slim competitive edge that we still retain in world markets." But the obsolescence of the economic rationale hardly weakens the case for better schools and higher standards, particularly in the inner cities, from which a disproportionate number of the nation's school failures have always come. On the contrary, it returns our attention to the broader case for good public education -- the desirability of a liberally educated community, Thomas Jefferson's argument about the importance of an enlightened citizenry, the desperate need to end our cycles of poverty and to apply resources accordingly. But those objectives require a far more realistic appreciation of what we have done in our educational system in the past, what we are doing now, and what we think we want to do. Despite the problems encountered by Goals 2000 and Clinton's national-standards effort, the trend of the past few years -- surely a healthy one -- has been to find ways to set broad goals and standards, and to free local schools and teachers to accomplish them in their own ways. But those things can be done only if we can see the results without ideological blinders, if the tests and assessments we use really measure what we want to know, and if we have the confidence to support the schools that this society needs. A growing number of people, in the name of world-class standards, would abandon, through vouchers, privatization, and other means, the idea of the common school altogether. Before we do that, we'd better be sure that things are really as bad as we assume. The dumbest thing we could do is scrap what we're doing right.

Peter Schrag writes frequently on education and politics. He is the author of Paradise Lost: The California Experience and the American Future, to be published next spring.

Illustrations by Mark Ryden

The Atlantic Monthly; October 1997; The Near-Myth of Our Failing Schools; Volume 280, No. 4; pages 72-80.