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Do Our Public Schools Threaten National Security?

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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.

Letters

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

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