Hype & Anti-Hype on Schools

Nicholas Lemann has a mystifying piece in the New Yorker about the“overblown crisis in American education.” The basic argument is that American schools are just fine, same as they always were. And while black and Hispanic kids may be stuck at the bottom of the charts, white kids are doing reasonably well. (And oh yes, any ambitious movement to reform schools is dangerous—akin to the invasion of Iraq. Yes, he did!)

No fewer than a dozen people have mentioned this piece to me at this point. All of them white, naturally. And since I am white, along with most American school children, I can see why this claim might be reassuring on some self-interested level, if it were true.

Let’s consider his arguments:

First, Lemann notes that, “by the fundamental test of attractiveness to students and their families,” the system is doing great. Evidence? Enrollment in public schools is up. Well, I suppose by the same fundamental law, our unemployment benefits are also phenomenally attractive. Enrollment is way up these days!

But given that most people do not have any choice other than public school (and that many of the parents who used to have a choice have recently pulled their kids out of private school due to the recession), I’m not sure this is such a solid indicator. Perhaps a better measure of “attractiveness” would be to ask people if they find the system attractive. That’s what Time Magazine did in an August 2010 poll, finding that only 37% of surveyed adults are satisfied with public schools. Among parents with children in public school, 50% are satisfied. Overall, 67% said our education system is “in a crisis.”

But OK, maybe the public is just being bamboozled by the media hype. What about the actual results of our system?

Lemann again:

“Measures of how much American students are learning—compared to the past, and compared to students in other countries—are holding steady, for the most part, even as more people are going to school.”

Holding steady? Really? Since 1969, the high-school graduation rate has dropped from 77% to 69% in America. Kids are now less likely to graduate from high school than their parents. Meanwhile, the rest of the world has decidedly not “held steady.” Germany, Japan, Korea and the U.K. now have high-school graduation rates of 90% or more. As for college graduation rates, the U.S. used to lead the world in the ratio of 25- to 34-year-olds with degrees. Today it ranks 12th among 36 developed nations.

Over the past 30 years, many developed countries have radically improved their systems—largely by professionalizing their teaching force and raising their academic standards in ways that we have not begun to do. Since we now compete with these countries for jobs, these comparisons matter. On a 2006 international exam, American 15-year-olds ranked 21st in science and 25th in math out of 30 industrialized nations. That means our kids score about two grade levels below top-ranked Finland in math and science—even though the Finns actually start school a year later than we do.

Well then, what about the white kids? Aren’t they cruising along just fine? White kids are doing better than African-American and Hispanic kids, that’s true. But they are not doing so great internationally. On that same 2006 international test of mathematics, white American teenagers did about average for rich countries, but still scored below all kids in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany (sorry, this list just goes on and on…), Iceland, Ireland, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and Switzerland. Even by our own standards, our supposedly good (and often white) schools may not be as good as we think. One recent study of 300 middle or upper-class schools in California, from Silicon Valley to Orange County, found that 50% of kids were scoring below grade level on California’s own assessment test.

Lemann is correct when he says that our kids’ scores have not gotten worse: since the early 1970s, high schoolers’ math and reading scores have barely budged. But the scores of other kids around the world havegotten much better over the same time frame.  All the while, we have doubled the amount we spend per pupil on K-12 system—outspending most countries in the world. In return for this investment, we have seen no major improvement. Call me hysterical, but I tend to think that when you double your money and get nothing back in return, something is seriously amiss.

Not so, says Lemann: “Over all, the American education system works quite well.” Compared to what, I wonder?

He goes on:

“It should raise questions when an enormous, complicated realm of life takes on the characteristics of a stock drama. In the current school-reform story, there is a reliable villain, in the form of the teachers’ unions, and a familiar set of heroes, including Geoffrey Canada, of Harlem Children’s Zone; Wendy Kopp, of Teach for America, the Knowledge Is Power Program; and Michele Rhee, the superintendent of schools in Washington, D.C. And there is a clear answer to the problem—charter schools.”

However, not one of these people has ever, to my knowledge, said that charter schools are the clear solution.

To wit:

* “The monopoly needs to be broken up. I could care less about the structure. I am just as happy to see great schools as traditional public schools and to shut down charter schools if they don’t work.”—Geoffrey Canada in my interview for Time this summer

* “Like anything else, you know, charter laws alone aren`t going to solve the problem, but they`re a huge enabler I think for many really committed visionary people who really want to change the way things are for kids.”—Wendy Kopp of Teach for America on the Charlie Rose show in 2008

* ‘‘Part of my job is to make sure that all kids get a great education, and it doesn’t matter whether that’s in charter, parochial or public schools.”—Michelle Rhee in the New York Times

Why don’t these reformers think charter schools are the clear solution? Because they know that only 17% of charter schools are significantly outperforming their public-school counterparts—and because, thanks in part to teacher-union opposition, there are only enough charter schools to enroll 5% of U.S. kids.

It’s time for this tedious debate about charter schools to evolve already. Charter schools are not The Answer; they are case studies in what’s possible. Just like the Mayo Clinic is not The Answer to health care reform.

As Atul Gawande masterfully explained (also in the New Yorker) last year, the Mayo Clinic offers evidence of what works. Excellent charter-schools show us how much better the rest of our schools could be—and offer lessons that we are foolish to ignore.

But Lemann (and others) warn that we should be careful before making any big decisions:

“One should treat any perception that something so large is so completely awry with suspicion, and consider that it might not be true—especially before acting on it.”

Except, of course, for health-care reform, come to mention it—another large system that Lemann seemed to think was quite awry last year before Democrats passed reform legislation.

But schools? Ah, they’re fine. They were fine for me, right? Fine for Lemann, right? God forbid we get carried away and start worrying about everyone else.

EducationAmanda Ripley