Reyes: The facts about American education

In his column last Wednesday on education, Harry Graver gave a policy prescription to a problem he saw: improper management and execution of the educational system of the United States. The answer was piecemeal privatization. However, the coherence of his argument quickly falls apart when we look at the various myths about American education that Graver brings up.

Let’s start with his claim that the United States has the highest level of educational spending in the world. While American education expenditures are not small, it seems quantitatively unfair to call them the highest in the world. As a percentage of GDP, the United States was ranked 22nd in the world, comparable to countries such as France, but behind educational heavyweights like Iceland, Sweden and Norway by appreciable amounts. Other figures have the United States within the top 15, but noticeably behind several Western European nations in per-pupil spending at the primary level.

Regarding educational standards, the old canard of the perverse inferiority of American education simply does not pan out at the national level. In the 2007 edition of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study examination, the United States placed ninth and 11th in eighth-grade mathematics and science literacy. This should not be taken as a definitive result; however, it is certainly a selection bias that the TIMSS is rarely discussed in public educational debates while PISA studies, where the United States does substantially worse, are taken as a norm. Certainly, while there is always room for improvement, much of the doom and gloom that usually accompanies discussions of American education is simply an exaggeration. The United States, while not among the top tier in educational results as compared to Taiwan, South Korea and Japan (which all have a strong public education system), is far from educationally deficient.

Finally, the most destructive myth that is propagated is that charter schools will become the bedrock for a new free-choice American system. While certainly there are fantastic charter school networks, such as Achievement First, founded in New Haven, and the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), there are myriad charter schools that are simply not performing well or even comparably to our public schools. In a study by the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO), 37 percent of charter schools nationally were found to be leading to educational outcomes that were significantly worse than traditional public schools, whereas only 17 percent of these schools were showing meaningful educational gains. In addition, charter schools operate in a sphere where many of the regulatory structures that are meant to prevent corruption in education are simply not available. Numerous reports suggest that many charter school networks attempt to maximize profits at the cost of children’s well-being.

Regardless of these exaggerations, it is important to realize that there are serious problems in our educational system. We have failed to close the achievement gap between white and minority students; there are regions in the United States where test results show severe stagnation or regression in student achievement; inner city school districts are struggling to educate children amid a sea of poverty and inequality; we are struggling to develop a way to quickly teach millions of immigrant children the English language; and we are struggling to develop tests that fairly and accurately measure student learning. These are all important challenges of our educational system in the 21st century. The privatization of our schools would do little to answer many of these challenges, as many private institutions are simply not built to teach to a wider array of student conditions.

Moreover, there are particular values that would immediately come under assault. Schools would no longer serve as markers of a popular democracy: An education would no longer be our society’s obligation to our children, but rather a parent’s search for an option that one can afford rather than one that meets a child’s needs. Students with special needs would simply be left by the wayside as parents would have to pay extraordinary fees in the hope that their child would be able to one day function as a vibrant and independent human being. Schools would become places of cost-cutting and efficiency, simply existing to provide the lowest amount of service for the greatest amount of profit. This private-sector mentality cannot be allowed to take over our educational system. Efficiency, not access, is the most important part of an economic equation. A market does not care if you have a good, only that it is sold at an economically efficient point. We must prioritize the education of our children, and free markets are simply not designed to promote the public good for all those in the system.

The privatization of our schools would be a boon for individuals with money, resources and recourse, similar to our health care system. For everyone else, the dismantling of public advocacy in education would be the final death knell for the American dream, which has been premised on the existence of a strong, vibrant and fair educational system with equal access to all.

Ferny Reyes is a 2010 graduate of Branford College and Yale’s Teacher Preparation program.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    Everything is backwards.

    The first ten years of life are the cookie-cutter for the rest of life. The money in public education needs to be redistributed massively in favor of those first ten years. Public eduaction should begin with public day-care, kindergarten and grades 1-6
    .
    The way it is now, we spend all our money tryng to compensate for the DEFICITS of the first ten years of life.

  • FailBoat

    > The privatization of our schools would be a boon for individuals with money, resources and recourse, similar to our health care system.

    You mean like the way the greedy capitalist university system works right now?

    Private schools hand out scholarships all the time. Individuals with money already escape the poor public school systems anyways. We only trap the poor.

  • ignatz

    Eager to bash captialism, and fearful that “the rich” might somehow benefit from change, Reyes blindly defends the status quo. Invoking aspirations of “a strong, vibrant and fair educational system with equal access to all,” Reyes ignores our pervasive failure to educate American children. We teach them that black is the same as white, that female is the same as male, that homosexual is the same as heterosexual, and that The Environment is sacred. Unfortunately, we don’t teach them much else. That’s why so many of our high school graduates can’t handle college at all. Even the ones who start at community colleges rarely end up completing a 4-year program or earning a bachelor’s degree.

  • pablum

    >We teach them that black is the same as white, that female is the same as male, that homosexual is the same as heterosexual

    Some people are under the strange pretense that such things constitute “civic education.” I know — bizarre that a multiethnic nation should attempt to prepare future adults for the challenges (the good and the bad) of the American melting pot.

  • RexMottram08

    Does the author realize that bad charter schools get de-funded and close?

    Bad public schools remain open, poisoning generations.

    > “I urge you to keep your child out of
    > kindergarten, because kindergarten
    > will only lead to first grade and then
    > the grim sequence of grade after grade
    > begins and takes its inexorable toll
    > on the mind born fertile but gradually
    > numbed by the pedants who impose on
    > the captive child the flotsam of their
    > own infecundity.”- George Rutler

  • FailBoat

    > Some people are under the strange pretense that such things constitute “civic education.”

    Back in my day (not really, but you get the point), education involved math, science, and literacy, not stroking egos and holding hands.

    > I know — bizarre that a multiethnic nation should attempt to prepare future adults for the challenges (the good and the bad) of the American melting pot.

    Wake up, pablum. The whole “melting pot” thing is very un-PC. The preferred food metaphor these days is a “salad”, or a “gumbo”.

  • pablum

    >Back in my day (not really, but you get the point), education involved math, science, and literacy, not stroking egos and holding hands.

    It’s true, civic education and the liberal arts are entirely mutually exclusive. Whenever somebody learns something about how to be a good citizen, they forget a principle of mathematics. Perhaps some day neuroscientists will have an explanation for this unfortunate dichotomy.

  • FailBoat

    > It’s true, civic education and the liberal arts are entirely mutually exclusive. Whenever somebody learns something about how to be a good citizen, they forget a principle of mathematics. Perhaps some day neuroscientists will have an explanation for this unfortunate dichotomy.

    Economists and physicists already have the answer.

    Economists: scarcity of resources (including time, money, and teachers). you teach kids one thing at the expense of teaching them another.

    Physicists: time moves at a constant pace.

    Back in my day (again, not really – I came up through a terrible public school), parents taught their own kids how to be good citizens.

  • pablum

    >Back in my day (again, not really – I came up through a terrible public school), parents taught their own kids how to be good citizens.

    So your terrible public school required classes on U.S. history and government?

  • FailBoat

    > So your terrible public school required classes on U.S. history and government?

    I was required a cumulative year in high school of US history and government. The rest of the time we spent cutting construction paper and talking about how we felt about ancient Rome and what it would have felt like to be a slave versus a spartan warrior. Anyone who has made it to Yale from the bottom 90% of public schools in this country has made it in spite of their high school education, not because of it.

    (But yes – you are right. I was really arguing that the public school system in the United States offered NO instruction in ANY factually based field AT ALL. Bravo, you really stumbled upon the thrust of my jab.)

  • YaleMom

    Sorry, Mr. Reyes, but this one’s a real snoozer!! Didn’t you hear about those DKE boys!?! Go out there and protect those girls! That will give you a real education!

  • Undergrad

    > You mean like the way the greedy capitalist university system works right now?
    Private schools hand out scholarships all the time. Individuals with money already escape the poor public school systems anyways. We only trap the poor.

    While really top-caliber private schools with generous scholarship programs, such as Yale, exist, there are only enough spots for relatively few students. If you want an example of what universal private education would really look like, look at the big for-profit university chains like DeVry and the University of Phoenix, not Yale. Yes, these schools expand access to private education to the masses, but legitimate academic standards are thrown out in the name of profit. Public universities, on the other hand, offer a decent and in some cases outstanding education (if a little impersonal and bureaucratic). The author isn’t calling for the abolition of all private schools, just the maintenance of the “public option” we have that provides a good minimum standard for everyone, and for the improvement of that system.

    I’m a Yale student, and I’m proud of my public high school education. I was in an International Baccalaureate magnet program, where I got an outstanding, comprehensive liberal arts education. I did have my doubts about the quality of the education the non-IB students were getting. But what we need is to bring the US public education system up to the standards of our competitors, not completely dismantle the public education system in the name of free-market purism.

  • RexMottram08

    @Undergrad,

    If you want to see better examples of truly private education: look at Hillsdale College and Grove City College.

    They decline ALL federal funding. Yet, they consistently receive high marks for affordability and teaching quality.

    I know, I know…they’re mean old conservative schools. But that is your bias, not mine.

  • Summer

    > I’m a Yale student, and I’m proud of my public high school education. I was in an International Baccalaureate magnet program, where I got an outstanding, comprehensive liberal arts education. I did have my doubts about the quality of the education the non-IB students were getting.

    Do tell.