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Do Our Public Schools Threaten National Security?

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Simpson Kalisher
Syracuse, New York, 1971; detail of a photograph by Simpson Kalisher from his recent book The Alienated Photographer. It is published by Two Penny Press, with an introduction by Luc Sante.

In his Pulitzer Prize–winning book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter characterized writing on education in the United States as

a literature of acid criticism and bitter complaint…. The educational jeremiad is as much a feature of our literature as the jeremiad in the Puritan sermons.

Anyone longing for the “good old days,” he noted, would have difficulty finding a time when critics were not lamenting the quality of the public schools. From the 1820s to our own time, reformers have complained about low standards, ignorant teachers, and incompetent school boards.

Most recently, in 1983, an august presidential commission somberly warned that we were (in the title of its statement) “A Nation at Risk” because of the low standards of our public schools. The Reagan-era report said:

Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.

Our national slippage was caused, said the commission, by “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” This mediocre educational performance was nothing less than “an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”

Imagine the peril, the threat of national disaster: “our very future as a Nation and a people” hung in the balance unless we moved swiftly to improve our public schools. What were we to do? The commission proposed a list of changes, starting with raising graduation requirements for all students and making sure they studied a full curriculum of English, math, science, history, computer science, as well as foreign languages (for the college-bound), the arts, and vocational education.

It also proposed more student time in school, higher standards for entry into teaching, higher salaries for teachers, and an evaluation system for teachers that included peer review. Nothing was said about the current fad of evaluating teachers by their students’ test scores. The federal government distributed half a million copies of the report, and many states created task forces and commissions to determine how to implement the recommendations. Many states did raise graduation requirements, but critics were unappeased, and complaints about our educational failures continued unabated.

Somehow, despite the widely broadcast perception that educational achievement was declining, the United States continued to grow and thrive as an economic, military, and technological power. As President Barack Obama put it in his 2011 State of the Union address:

Remember—for all the hits we’ve taken these last few years, for all the naysayers predicting our decline, America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world. No workers are more productive than ours. No country has more successful companies, or grants more patents to inventors and entrepreneurs. We are home to the world’s best colleges and universities, where more students come to study than any other place on Earth.

How is it possible that this nation became so successful if its public schools, which enroll 90 percent of its children, have been consistently failing for the past generation or more?*

Now comes the latest jeremiad, this one from a task force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations and led by Joel I. Klein, former chancellor of the New York City public schools (now employed by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation to sell technology to schools and to advise Murdoch on his corporation’s hacking scandals), and Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state during the administration of President George W. Bush. This report has the cumbersome title US Education Reform and National Security and a familiar message: our nation’s public schools are so dreadful that they are a threat to our national security. Once again, statistics are marshaled to prove that our schools are failing, our economy is at risk, our national security is compromised, and everything we prize is about to disappear because of our low-performing public schools. Make no mistake, the task force warns: “Educational failure puts the United States’ future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety at risk.”

Despite its alarmist rhetoric, the report is not a worthy successor to the long line of jeremiads that it joins. Unlike A Nation at Risk, which was widely quoted as a call to action, this report is a plodding exercise in groupthink among mostly like-minded task force members. Its leaden prose contains not a single sparkling phrase for the editorial writers. The only flashes of original thinking appear in the dissents to the report.

What marks this report as different from its predecessors, however, is its profound indifference to the role of public education in a democratic society, and its certainty that private organizations will succeed where the public schools have failed. Previous hand-wringing reports sought to improve public schooling; this one suggests that public schools themselves are the problem, and the sooner they are handed over to private operators, the sooner we will see widespread innovation and improved academic achievement.

The report is a mishmash of misleading statistics and incoherent arguments, intended to exaggerate the failure of public education. Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, introduces the report with this claim: “It will come as no surprise to most readers that America’s primary and secondary schools are widely seen as failing.” Many scholars of education would disagree with this conclusion; they would probably respond that the United States has many excellent public schools and that the lowest-performing schools are overwhelmingly concentrated in districts with high levels of poverty and racial isolation. Haass then writes, “High school graduation rates, while improving, are still far too low, and there are steep gaps in achievement between middle class and poor students.” He does not seem aware that, according to the latest federal data, high school graduation rates are at their highest point in history for students of all races and income levels. Certainly they should be higher, but the actual data do not suggest a crisis.

Of course, there are achievement gaps between middle-class and poor students, but this is true in every nation where there are large income gaps. While the task force points out the problems of concentrated poverty in segregated schools, exacerbated by unequal school funding, it offers no recommendations to reduce poverty, racial segregation, income gaps, or funding inequities. It dwells on the mediocre standing of American schools on international tests, but does not acknowledge that American schools with a low level of poverty rank first in the world on international tests of literacy.

The task force has many complaints: American students don’t study foreign languages; American employers can’t find enough skilled workers. Too many young people do not qualify for military service because of criminal records, lack of physical fitness, or inadequate educational skills. Not enough scientists and engineers are trained “to staff the military, intelligence agencies, and other government-run national security offices, as well as the aerospace and defense industries.” Thus, the public schools are failing to prepare the soldiers, intelligence agents, diplomats, and engineers for the defense industry that the report assumes are needed. This failure is the primary rationale for viewing the schools as a national security risk.

To right these conditions, the task force has three recommendations.

First, the states should speedily implement the Common Core State Standards in English and mathematics and add to them national standards in science, technology, foreign languages, and possibly civics.

Second, states and districts “should stop locking disadvantaged students into failing schools without any options.” The task force proposes an expansion of competition and choice, for example with vouchers—meaning that states and districts should allow students to attend private and religious schools with public funding. The task force also favors charter schools—privately managed schools that directly receive public funding. If all these private schools get an equal share of public dollars, the task force opines, this will “fuel the innovation necessary to transform results.”

Third, the United States should have “a national security readiness audit” to determine whether students are learning the necessary skills “to safeguard America’s future security and prosperity,” and “to hold schools and policymakers accountable for results.”

None of these recommendations has any clear and decisive evidence to support it.

The Common Core State Standards in reading and mathematics were developed over the past few years by groups representing the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve, and funded largely by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Obama administration encouraged adoption of these standards through its Race to the Top program. To be eligible for a share of the billions of dollars in competitive federal grants, states were expected to express willingness to adopt the standards, and forty-five states have done so.

They may be excellent standards, or they may not be. They may help improve achievement, or they may not. But no one knows, because the Common Core standards have never been implemented or tried out anywhere. If they are sufficiently rigorous, they might increase the achievement gap between high-performing students and low-performing students and might leave students who struggle with English even further behind than they are now.

Tom Loveless, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, recently predicted that the standards will have no impact on student achievement, but perhaps he is wrong. Until they are implemented somewhere, their value cannot simply be assumed. It must be demonstrated. Thus, the task force goes out on a limb by claiming that these untried standards are the very linchpin of defending our nation’s borders and securing our future prosperity.

Certainly the task force is right to insist upon the importance of foreign-language study, but it is wrong to blame the nation’s public schools for a shortage of specialists in Chinese, Dari, Korean, Russian, and Turkish. Although some American high schools teach Chinese, these languages are usually taught by universities or specialized language programs. It is peculiar to criticize public elementary and secondary schools for the lack of trained linguists in Afghanistan and other international hotspots.

Students who sign up to study a language this year have no way of knowing in which region or nation we will need linguists five or ten years from now. How are students or schools to know where the next military action or political crisis will emerge? Furthermore, the effort to expand foreign language instruction in K-12 schools requires not just standards, but a very large new supply of teachers of foreign languages to staff the nation’s 100,000 or so public schools. This won’t happen without substantial new funding for scholarships to train tens of thousands of new teachers.

Similarly, there is mixed evidence, to be generous, to support the task force’s recommendation to increase competition and choice. Although it cites a few studies that show higher test scores for some charter schools, most studies of charters show no difference in test scores between charter students and students in public schools. Vouchers have generally produced results no different from regular public schools. Milwaukee has had vouchers for twenty-one years, intended to allow disadvantaged students to escape from failing public schools, but on average the students in voucher schools achieve the same test scores as those in regular public schools. And Milwaukee, which has a very competitive environment of charters and vouchers, is, according to federal assessments, one of the nation’s lowest-performing urban school districts.

  1. *

    The United States actually ranks behind Norway, Belgium, and the Netherlands in productivity. 

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