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.

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