Do Our Public Schools Threaten National Security?

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.


The task force’s claim that charter schools will be beacons of innovation rests on hope, not on any evidence presented in the report. The most “innovative” of the charters are the for-profit academies that teach online—a fast-growing sector that recruits students to take their courses by computer at home. These virtual academies have been the subject of negative stories in The New York Times and The Washington Post, criticized both for their focus on profits and for their poor academic results. The Task Force’s enthusiasm for charter schools is not surprising. As chancellor of New York City’s public school system, Klein enthusiastically supported charter schools and opened one hundred of them, regardless of community opposition. Another member of the task force was Richard Barth, the chief executive officer of the KIPP charter school chain.

The task force asserts that charters will lead the way to innovative methods of education. But the charters with the highest test scores are typically known not for innovation, but for “no excuses” discipline policies, where students may be fined or suspended or expelled if they fail to follow the rules of the school with unquestioning obedience, such as not making eye contact with the teacher or slouching or bringing candy to school or being too noisy in gym or the lunchroom.

Some of the high-performing charter schools have high attrition rates, and some have achieved high scores by excluding or limiting students who are apt to get low test scores, such as students who are English-language learners. There is no evidence that charters are more likely to teach foreign languages and advanced courses in science than public schools. The schools with the most extensive range of courses in foreign languages, advanced science, and advanced mathematics are large comprehensive high schools, which have been in disfavor for the past decade, after the Gates Foundation decided that large high schools were a bad idea and invested $2 billion in breaking them up into small schools. This program was abandoned in 2008.

The task force’s proposal for “a national security readiness audit” is bizarre. It is not clear what it means, who would conduct it, or who would pay for it. Will schools be held accountable if they do not produce enough fit candidates for the military, the intelligence agencies, the defense industry, and the foreign service? Some high school graduates do join the military, but no high school prepares its students for the diplomatic corps or the defense industry or the Central Intelligence Agency. Who will be held accountable if colleges and universities don’t produce an adequate supply of teachers of Turkish, Russian, Chinese, Korean, and Dari to the high schools? Should every high school offer these languages? Should universities be held accountable if there are not enough physics teachers? What will happen to schools that fail their national security readiness audit? Will they be closed?

Three big issues are unaddressed by the Klein-Rice report. One is the damage that No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, which rely on standardized testing to measure the worth of teachers and schools, have caused to public education. The second is its misleading economic analysis. And the third is its failure to offer any recommendation to improve the teaching profession.

Instead of criticizing the ruinous effects of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind policy (NCLB), the task force praises it. This is not surprising, since Margaret Spellings, the architect of NCLB and former secretary of education, was a member of the task force. The task force chides public schools for losing sight of civics, world cultures, and other studies, but never pauses to recognize that NCLB has compelled schools everywhere to focus solely on reading and mathematics, the only subjects that count in deciding whether a school is labeled a success or a failure. NCLB has turned schooling into a joyless experience for most American children, especially in grades three through eight, who must spend weeks of each year preparing to take standardized tests.

In pursuing its policy of Race to the Top, the Obama administration has promoted the teach-to-the-test demands of NCLB. Most of America’s teachers will now be evaluated by their students’ scores on those annual multiple-choice tests. Students will, in effect, be empowered to fire their teachers by withholding effort or will bear responsibility if their lack of effort, their home circumstances, or their ill health on testing day should cause their teacher to lose her job. NCLB and Race to the Top have imposed on American education a dreary and punitive testing regime that would gladden the hearts of a Gradgrind but demoralizes the great majority of teachers, who would prefer the autonomy to challenge their students to think critically and creatively. This dull testing regime crushes the ingenuity, wit, playfulness, and imagination that our students and our society most urgently need to spur new inventions and new thinking in the future.

In its economic analysis, the task force is surely right that we need more and better education, though it does not propose—in this era of widespread cuts in budgets for education—that we must be willing to pay more to get it. Instead it offers a chart showing that the median annual earnings of high school dropouts and high school graduates have fallen since 1980. The same chart shows that the earnings of college graduates are higher than those with less education but have been stagnant since 1985. It is not clear why this is so. The task force report occasionally refers to income inequality and poverty, which surely depress academic outcomes, but never considers their causes or proposes ways to reduce them.

Surely the economy will need more highly educated workers and everyone should have the chance to go to college, but the task force does not adequately acknowledge the costs of higher education or suggest how they will be paid. Nor does it discuss projections by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics that the majority of new jobs for the next several years will require on-the-job training, not a bachelor’s degree. According to the BLS, the economy will need 175,000 computer engineers, 582,000 nurses, 461,000 home health aides, 400,000 customer service agents, 394,000 fast food workers, 375,000 retail sales clerks, 255,000 construction workers, and so on.

While the report laments the inadequacy of current efforts to recruit and prepare teachers, it offers no recommendation about how to attract better-qualified men and women into teaching and how to prepare them for the rigors of the classroom. The only program that it finds worthy of endorsement is Teach for America, whose recruits receive only five weeks of training and agree to teach for only two years. This is not surprising, because Wendy Kopp, the founder and chief executive officer of Teach for America, was a member of the task force.

Without the added comments at the end of the report, signed by seven of its thirty members, the task force report might be perceived as an essentially urgent appeal for more testing of students, more top-down control, and more privatization of the public schools, that is, more of what the federal government and many state governments have been doing for at least the past decade. But two of the dissents demolish its basic premises.

In her dissent, Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University takes apart the claim that competition and privatization will produce great improvement. She points out that the highest-performing nations in the world (Finland, Singapore, and South Korea)

have invested in strong public education systems that serve virtually all students, while nations that have aggressively pursued privatization, such as Chile, have a huge and growing divide between rich and poor that has led to dangerous levels of social unrest.

Charter schools, she notes, are more likely to underperform in comparison to district-run public schools when they enroll similar students, and they are more likely to enroll a smaller proportion of students with disabilities and English-language learners. Darling-Hammond, who advised President Obama during his 2008 campaign, takes issue with the report’s praise of New Orleans, where nearly 80 percent of students are enrolled in charter schools. Charters in New Orleans, she observes, have not only been criticized for excluding students with disabilities, but New Orleans “remains the lowest-ranked district in the low-performing state of Louisiana.”

Whatever credibility remains to the report is finally shredded by task force member Stephen M. Walt of Harvard University. Walt faintly praises the task force for its “effort to draw attention to the issue of public education,” but then delivers a withering critique of its claims and findings. He does not see any convincing evidence that the public education system is “a very grave national security threat” to the United States. Walt writes that “the United States spends more on national security than the next twenty nations combined, has an array of powerful allies around the world, and remains the world leader in science and technology.” Walt is unimpressed by the task force’s indictment of public education. Not only do American schools rank among the top 10 percent of the world’s 193 nations, he writes, but

none of the states whose children outperform US students is a potential rival. Barring major foreign policy blunders unrelated to K–12 education, no country is likely to match US military power or overall technological supremacy for decades. There are good reasons to improve K-12 education, but an imminent threat to our national security is not among them.

Walt’s critique leaves the task force report looking naked, if not ridiculous. If the international tests are indicators of our national security weakness, should we worry that we might be invaded by Finland or South Korea or Japan or Singapore or Canada or New Zealand or Australia? Obviously not. The nations with higher test scores than ours are not a threat to our national security. They are our friends and allies. If education were truly the key to our national security, perhaps we should allocate sufficient funding to equalize resources in poor neighborhoods and make higher education far more affordable to more Americans than it is today.

If there is no national security crisis, as the task force has vainly tried to establish, what can we learn from its deliberations?

Commissions that gather notable figures tend not to be venturesome or innovative, and this one is no different. When a carefully culled list of corporate leaders, former government officials, academics, and prominent figures who have a vested interest in the topic join to reach a consensus, they tend to reflect the status quo. If future historians want to see a definition of the status quo in American education in 2012, they may revisit this report by a task force of the Council on Foreign Relations. It offers no new directions, no new ideas, just a stale endorsement of the federal, state, and corporate policies of the past decade that have proven so counterproductive to the genuine improvement of American education.


Education and ‘National Security’: An Exchange July 12, 2012

  1. *

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