Were public schools better way back when? Giving today’s schools an honest grade.

November 5, 2019

Surely you’ve heard it before: Public schools today are a mess, far worse than they used to be. Kids used to learn a lot more than they do now. When exactly that was remains unclear, but people like to say it anyway.

To be sure, there are many troubled public schools today that don’t do their job of educating students. But does that make the sentiment expressed above true? Were schools really better in the past?

 

This piece, written by James Harvey and Jack McKay, asks and answers these questions with the facts, along with an infographic you can find at the end of the post.

Harvey is the executive director of the National Superintendents Roundtable, a nonprofit organization whose members are superintendents from throughout the country. McKay is executive director of the Horace Mann League, a nonprofit organization created to advocate for the ideas of Horace Mann, the founder of the American public school system.

By James Harvey and Jack McKay

Roland Chevalier, a former superintendent in St. Martin Parish, Louisiana, liked to describe what he called the “piñata theory” of school reform: Keep beating the schools until good things fall out of them.

It’s discouraging. A steady stream of censure, carping, derogation and disparagement has been aimed at public schools ever since Nation at Risk intoned in 1983 that school failure meant, “Our nation is at risk.”

The denunciations rest on a three-legged stool of poorly documented claims. Our schools used to be much better. Our students used to learn more. And school failure has undermined American competitiveness as, in the words of A Nation at Risk, “one great American industry after another [has fallen] to world competition.” The Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s teaching in American elementary and secondary schools have a lot to answer for.

Most of that indictment is nonsense. No one denies there are problems in our schools. We’ll get to them. But to lay the effects of globalization at the schoolhouse door is a stretch.

Despite that, demoralized school leaders have often deferred to the judgments of powerful people, no matter how thin and poorly documented the critics’ arguments.

Let’s look at the record.

Schools used to be much better

Really? How can anyone with a straight face claim that the legally segregated schools in the Old South were an improvement over today’s schools? Or that it was acceptable for public schools to refuse to enroll children with disabilities? Are we prepared to abandon nearly 3.5 million young women playing high school sports and return to the day when only about 300,000 did so? Each of these inequities lasted well into the 1970s and 1980s.

As late as the 1940s, most students dropped out of school after eighth grade. The infographic accompanying this article, recently published by the National Superintendents Roundtable and the Horace Mann League, shows a rock-hard truth: American public schools have vastly improved the educational levels of all Americans. In 1950, just 34 percent of young adults held a high school diploma; by 2016 that figure had soared to 89 percent.

Students are not learning as much as they once did

Well, maybe we are graduating more students, we can hear someone saying, but we’ve done so by dumbing down the curriculum.

The only real evidence we have on that is from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which between the early 1970s and 2012 regularly assessed the reading and mathematics performance of students at ages 9, 13, and 17. As the infographic makes clear, across the board, whatever their racial or ethnic background, students on average, were scoring higher on NAEP reading and mathematics assessments in 2012 than they had been in the early 1970s. For students of color, NAEP demonstrates 25-, 30- and 36-point increases in reading performance over that period, which some analysts believe represent gains of up to two or three years of additional schooling.

Since the end of October, we’ve had a lot of weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth about declines over the last two years in NAEP reading and math scores in Grades 4 and 8 (on what is known as the “Main NAEP” assessment). It’s true. Modest declines are detectable between 2017 and 2019. But going back to when “Main NAEP” was first introduced in 1990, both reading and mathematics results are higher today than they were then, with particularly impressive improvements in mathematics (27 points in Grade 4 mathematics).

The meme that American students used to learn more turns out to be false.

The threat to competitiveness

Ah, but isn’t “one great American industry after another falling to foreign competition” due to the shortcomings of Mr. and Mrs. Smith? That’s an opinion masquerading as a fact.

A lot of what ails domestic manufacturing can be explained by offshoring in search of cheap labor, tax incentives and less environmental oversight. When A Nation at Risk made the foreign competition claim in 1983, the nation’s gross domestic product stood at $7 trillion in inflation-adjusted dollars. By June of this year, the comparable figure was $19.02 trillion.

Or look at formal competitiveness rankings. The World Economic Forum annually issues a global competitiveness report on 141 economies. Since 2015, the United States has never ranked below third place. In most years, the American economy is found trading first and second place with either Switzerland or Singapore.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith must have been doing something right.

The challenge of inequality

There is a threat to American well-being. It is the challenge of growing inequality, as the lion’s share of the remarkable American economic growth of the 21st century has been consumed by the top one percent. It’s a recipe for social unrest. The infographic tries to capture some of this dynamic by cross-indexing rates of childhood poverty in the developed world with support for families with children. The United States is off the charts on both dimensions, with the highest rates of childhood relative poverty and the lowest rates of support for families.

More than 50 percent of students in American public schools are low-income. Segregation and social isolation by race and income have increased in this century. Children are arriving at school each day too traumatized to learn because a variety of social ailments ranging from gun violence and poverty to hunger and homelessness.

All of this is ignored in the public discourse about schools. Educators are somehow expected to pick up the pieces of these larger societal catastrophes. Yet for more than 50 years researchers have documented the powerful relationship between poverty and achievement: Out-of-school factors account for 70 percent or more of variation in tested achievement.

Signs of change

Fortunately, the tide of criticism seems to be turning. The astonishing “opt-out” movement of recent years in New York and elsewhere revealed that parents had had enough of a bloated testing regime. Teacher strikes around the country have helped transform public attitudes about the profession. Organizations such as the Roundtable and the Horace Mann League have raised serious questions about international school performance rankings and the faulty benchmarks developed by NAEP.

It is gratifying too that some former critics now acknowledge that reform efforts were misguided. Jay P. Greene of the University of Arkansas and Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute — both prominent critics — have been more open to new ideas of late. Between them, they acknowledge the futility of forcing change from the top and the “wild exaggerations” about what their policy prescriptions would produce. Others, like Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute, are even trying to understand how out-of-school issues like poverty relate to school outcomes. Better late than never.

Giving schools an honest grade

These signs of change represent real progress. They hold out the promise that critics and advocates of public education can come together around a fact-based assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the system.

School leaders can’t blow an uncertain trumpet. They need to stand up for the enterprise they lead. And they need to insist that schools deserve an honest grade.

But they can’t blow false notes, either. Defending public schools does not require sugarcoating real problems. Achievement gaps are real. Our schools remain segregated. Savage opportunity gaps exist. Funding is unequal. The infographic faces up to these challenges by noting the disparities in on-time graduation rates for students of color, the poor and those dealing with disabilities.

We need to address these complicated issues. It is challenging work and more urgently needed today, in our divided nation, than at any time in the recent past.

Public schools: A very special public asset

Public schools represent a very special public asset. Not only do they serve the public, they create the public. Even if our schools do not always live up to their promise, they represent some of the most decent impulses of the American spirit. Ideally, they serve as an instrument for realizing all the possibilities America’s “shining city on a hill” promised to the world. Just because the instrument falls short doesn’t mean the ideal is not real.

For all of their difficulties, American public schools can demonstrate a record of expansion, of accomplishment and of providing more and more opportunity for more and more people. Public schools made much of the progress of 20th-century America possible.

The task for educators and citizens, for critics and advocates, is to renew this magnificent instrument so that it can help carry American democracy successfully through the 21st.

 (Infographic by the National Superintendents Roundtable and the Horace Mann League)(Infographic by the National Superintendents Roundtable and the Horace Mann League)
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