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by Amy Gluckman

If you want a seriously through-the-looking-glass experience, try being a progressive and a teacher - in a charter school no less - looking at the hugely divergent perspectives on the state of public education in the United States voiced by the left and the right, by the press, politicians, and the public, by those inside and those outside of the schools. In one view, U.S. public schools are in a severe crisis, with many students barely learning to read, write, and compute. Young people's knowledge and skills have plummeted in the last two to three decades. Economic troubles, whether a family's poverty or the nation's trade deficit, can be attributed to the poor skills and training of today's generation.

From the other side of the glass, progressives argue that the public school system is educating students as well as it ever has. What has changed, they claim, is the share of the population Americans expect the schools to educate, and the level of knowledge schools are expected to impart to this larger group. Over the past twenty years, academic achievement has remained stable and, for certain groups, improved. Anecdotes about students who cannot find the United States on a map, or who are unable to write a reasonable paragraph, may reflect reality for a few, but they are being used to bolster a distorted view of public school achievement overall. Poverty and unequal distribution of wealth are responsible for the poor education America's underclass children receive - not the other way around.

The anecdotal attacks and statistical sword fights about school quality are abstract. More concretely, teachers from every part of the political spectrum who work in urban settings bemoan the low skills of many of today's students. The high-schoolers who cannot find the U.S. on a map or write a decent paragraph are real people, and they're more than a handful. Any good teacher believes that all students are capable of solid achievement and questions her own practices when some students fail to demonstrate it. Perhaps there never was a golden age when all children were taught plenty and well, but teachers are acutely aware how poorly some schools and some teachers are functioning today.

Two broad areas of disagreement dominate the current debate over the state of U.S. public schools: the alleged decline of academic achievement and the role of money. In each area, analysts and pundits - depending on their political biases - look at the same evidence and arrive at opposite conclusions. But it is possible to reach some clarity here. First, achievement, as measured by test scores, has not fallen during the past two decades. Second, money does matter to student success, and the U.S. continues to spend far less per student, relative to our national income, than do most other wealthy nations.

Have Test Scores Fallen?

At the core of the debate is whether academic achievement - as measured by test scores - has dropped dramatically due to the failure of the public schools. Of course, whether standardized tests even assess student achievement accurately is the subject of ongoing debate. As a teacher who has administered these kinds of tests, it is clear that students in suburban and urban public schools handle them very differently - the former well-trained to do their best, the latter sometimes not taking the tests seriously at all.

Test scores are the evidence at hand, however, so we'll examine them here. There is a vast tangle of data related to this claim, with falling SAT scores the most widely cited evidence for falling student achievement. One critic summarizes: [The SAT] "has been a constant source of irritation and embarrassment for educationists who are called upon to explain the drop in test scores."

But the data do not support the critics. It appears that aggregate SAT scores did fall from the early 1960's to the mid-1970's. But since then scores have been stable and, for certain groups, rising (see Figure 1). This was true even though the years since 1980 have seen a continued rise in the percent of high-school seniors who take the SAT - which many analysts think should cause scores to fall, as lower-achieving students join the college-bound ranks.

On the other side of the argument, in The Manufactured Crisis David Berliner and Bruce Biddle say "How on earth can America's teachers and schools be failing the nation when SAT scores for white students have recently been stable, the average SAT score for Native Americans has increased thirty-nine points, and average scores for blacks have gone up a whopping fifty-five points?"

The other oft-discussed test is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), given every year to national samples of nine-, thirteen-, and seventeen-year-olds (see Figure 2). The progressive summary: "Evidence from the NAEP also does not confirm the myth of a recent decline in American student achievement. Instead, it indicates a general pattern of stable achievement combined with modest growth in achievement among students from minority groups and from 'less advantaged' backgrounds."

The U.S. Dept. of Education's National Center for Education Statistics gives the opposite spin to the exact same evidence:

In general, reading performance did not improve between 1984 and 1988. The exception was for black 13- and 17-year-olds. ... In 1986, mathematics proficiency was about the same as it had been in 1973 for all three age groups. Science proficiency, for 13- and 17-year-olds, was lower in 1986 than it was in 1970. Overall, levels of mathematics and science proficiency remain low; most students, even at age 17, are unable to perform at the upper levels of the scale.

But do the upper levels of the scale signify the levels of achievement we hope an average 17-year-old has achieved, or one who is well above average? If a test is normed around the average score, then by definition most students will be unable to perform "above average," and it is unreasonable to complain that most students are not performing at the "upper levels."

The critics answer this argument by comparing U.S. scores to those from other industrialized countries. Test design may explain U.S. students' scores in themselves, they claim, but it cannot explain why U.S. students fare poorly in international comparisons. Here again, each side highlights specific age groups, years, and subject areas to make its case. But the argument is not only one about which data to emphasize. American schools, progressives argue, are designed to achieve different goals from schools in, say, Korea. In the U.S., schools are expected to teach students a broader range of both academic and non-academic subjects and skills. Some subjects are introduced at different times here and abroad.

To progressives, the fact that American schools are geared toward greater breadth of coverage or that they typically introduce algebra later than Asian schools are factors that invalidate simple attempts at international comparison. To critics, these facts themselves are indictments of U.S. schools, evidence of "dumbing down" and the triumph of trendy but wrongheaded educational programs. Through the looking glass again.

Does Money Matter?

As with academic achievement, the debate over the role of money in public education is convoluted. Critics of public schools connect the two issues: "During the same period (1960-1990) [that scores have fallen], spending on elementary and secondary education increased more than 200 percent, after inflation. ... Moreover, the decline in test scores came at a time when average teacher salaries... tripled."

They argue that smaller classes (which cost more money) are irrelevant, pointing to successful Asian schools which sometimes have huge classes. And, they claim, public school systems waste money on bloated central-office bureaucracies that would be stripped away if schools were managed privately.

While there may be some individual administrators whose salaries would be better spent on a teacher, progressives argue that administrative costs in school systems are actually low relative to other industries: "if the entire central-office professional staff of the nation were fired and their salaries put back into instruction, ... average class size could be reduced by one student."

Most of the increase in school funding over the past 20 years has gone to special education; spending on general education students has remained level. (See "Underfunded Schools: Why Money Matters," in this issue.) And schools in other countries that allegedly do such a better job educating students also have more money to spend (see Figure 3). For example, in 1985 U.S. "per-pupil expenditures for grades K through 12 [were] 14% less than Germany and 30% less than Japan." Spending in France and England, which was lower than in the United States, still represented a higher proportion of those countries' per-capita incomes than in the United States.

Money does matter, claim progressives. First, high and growing rates of childhood poverty in the United States explain why some students are unsuccessful in school and why schools serving low-income communities have had an ever-harder job to do. The percent of U.S. children in poverty in 1980 was more than double that in England, and seven times that in West Germany. And second, this broader problem is exacerbated by the severely unequal spending between schools, versus most other countries where public education is funded and administered on a national basis.

So what is a teacher to make of this tangle of evidence and interpretation? In both camps, there appear to be those whose aims are self-serving or purely ideological and those who are genuinely groping around for ways to do the right thing for children. As a teacher, I welcome the latter voices whether their perspective on the public schools is more critical or more friendly. The former voices must be firmly countered, however. Public schools in the United States need to be both defended and improved at the same time.

Amy Gluckman teaches at the Lowell (Mass.) Middlesex Academy and is a member of the Dollars and Sense Collective. D&S intern Jesse Hahnel helped develop the figures.

Issue #216, March-April 1998

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Dollars & Sense magazine, 29 Winter Street, Boston, MA 02108, USA, provides left perspectives on economic affairs. It is published six times a year and is edited by a collective of economists, journalists, and activists committed to social justice and economic democracy.

Copyright © 2002 Economic Affairs Bureau, Inc.