When those of us of a certain age lament the loss of public education's good old days, we forget—or perhaps never knew—that when we were in school, there were large numbers of youngsters who dropped out and went to work. We didn't think of them as dropouts. They had no trouble finding jobs: there was plenty of work for semiskilled, even unskilled, workers. Today, however, as those jobs have been exported to other countries and as the U.S. knowledge economy produces proportionally less employment for those who lack a sound education, students who leave school without skills have meager prospects. Unlike in the past, today we have to educate virtually everyone for higher education or for the modern workplace. And because the demands we place on our school system are greater than in the past, the challenge of improving public education is more acute than ever before, too.
But the schools are not meeting today's challenge, as numerous studies make clear—and this despite the fact that in the past generation we have significantly increased the resources available for education. In their recent book, Getting Ahead, Isabel V. Sawhill and Daniel P. McMurrer of the Urban Institute estimate that per-pupil expenditures increased by 83 percent between 1970 and 1994; that student-teacher ratios dropped by 22 percent; that the percentage of teachers with a master's degree almost doubled—but that these hefty increases in inputs produced very little gain in student performance. High school graduation rates were stagnant during these years, and the United States—which used to lead the world—now ranks last among developed nations on this measure. Student scores during the same period hardly budged. On the federally funded National Assessment of Educational Progress in mathematics, science, and reading, for example, scores have been mainly flat for the past 25 years, especially for 17-year-old students. And they are flat at an unacceptably low level. As the National Assessment data disclose, the percentage of students unable to meet the minimum standard of their grade ranges from 25 to 40 percent in every grade and every subject. No less worrisome, the gaps between racial groups are disturbingly large; despite some progress in narrowing these gaps, the average performance of 17-year-old black and Hispanic students is on a par with that of 13-year-old white students in every subject.
International assessments provide another unsettling gauge of student performance. Take the most recent—the Third International Mathematics and Science Study—which compared the performance of half a million students in 41 countries at three grade levels. In fourth grade, American students did very well; among eighth-graders, American students were below the international mean in mathematics and just above it in science. But by the end of high school, American 12th-graders performed very poorly, outscoring only those in Cyprus and South Africa.
When these math and science scores came out, many educators showed no interest in learning why American students seem to do worse as they get older. Instead, they attacked the test. Some claimed that the results were meaningless—at least for seniors—because our schools value creativity, as if low scores were a precondition for high creativity. Critics claimed that the results were invalid because the United States educates almost everyone while other countries educate only their elites. This excuse was untrue: most countries in the study had secondary enrollment rates similar to ours, and the students tested were a representative sample, not an academic elite.
Scholastic Aptitude Test scores, which measure the verbal and mathematical skills of college-bound students, reached a high point in the mid-1960s and then began to plummet. The good news is that the math scores have bounced back, almost to their mid-sixties level. The bad news is that the verbal scores fell to a low point in 1980 and have never recovered. Many people concluded that the scores had fallen because the college-going population was growing more diverse and less selective. Accordingly, in 1994, the College Board decided to "recenter" the SAT, converting the average scores at that time into the new norm. So today the College Board reports that the average verbal score is 505, but on the original scale it is still only 428—near its historical low point. What makes this recentering so maddening is that the facts refute the assumption that today's college-going population can't possibly match the performance of the test-takers of the fifties and sixties. After all, today's diverse students have posted SAT math scores that nearly reach the original high point of 1964, even though verbal scores remain in the cellar.
Urban schools, in particular, seem trapped in a spiral of poor educational performance. They have 24 percent of all U.S. public school students, 35 percent of all students who are poor, and 43 percent of minority students. A massive survey of urban education released last year by the respected publication, Education Week, concluded that "most fourth-graders who live in U.S. cities can't read and understand a simple children's book, and most eighth-graders can't use arithmetic to solve a practical problem." Slightly more than half of big-city students are unable to complete high school in the customary four years, and many of those who do eventually graduate are ill prepared for either higher education or the workplace.
In New York City, only 48 percent of the students who start high school graduate four years later. Only about one out of every five New York City high school graduates earns a Regents diploma—which is reason to worry about what will happen over the next few years as the state stiffens graduation requirements and requires all students to pass Regents exams. Unless radical change occurs in the way students are prepared, some neighborhoods will have very few high school graduates.
Public Agenda, a nonpartisan research organization, recently surveyed 450 employers in New York City for the New York City Partnership and Chamber of Commerce and found massive dissatisfaction with the poor preparation of students. Fully 86 percent of the bosses reported their belief that a city high school diploma is "no guarantee that the typical student has learned the basics." Only 7 percent believe that students coming from the city's public schools have the skills they need to succeed in the world of work. Employers especially fretted over students' lack of the most basic skills, citing their poor grammar, spelling, and math, their inability to write clearly or speak English well, and their poor work habits, including disorganization and lateness. Most employers think that the school system does a poor job of managing its resources, and nearly 90 percent agree that the system suffers from "too much bureaucracy." Some 95 percent believe that the system needs fundamental change, and one-third go so far as to say that it needs to be "completely rebuilt." Employers stand ready to help the schools; but in return they want higher standards, reduced bureaucracy, and accountability from them.
The glaring need for remedial education on college campuses is another sign that students are graduating from high school with weak skills. At some branches of the City University of New York, as is notorious, a majority of first-year students fail to pass all three placement tests in reading, writing, and mathematics. But this is not just a New York City problem or even just a big-city problem. Nationally, about 30 percent of all first-time freshmen have to take a remedial course in basic academic skills.
At California State University, which accepts students only from the top third of their high school graduating class, 47 percent of entering freshmen require remediation in English, and 54 percent need catch-up courses in math. At the University of California, which lets in only students from the top eighth of the entire state's high school graduates, 37 percent of entering freshmen fail the university's writing test and must take a course known as "bonehead English." In Texas, 54 percent of entering freshmen in the state university are required to take the more emolliently named—but just as remedial—"developmental education."
Clearly, some students—recent immigrants or adults who have been out of school for several years and have returned—will need extra help to participate in higher education. But it is also clear that many young people are completing high school without getting a high school education. For everyone involved, it would be far better to get it right the first time.
Given the ever more crucial need for a strong public school system, along with the mounting evidence of the education system's failure to respond, the clamor to change education to make it more effective for all students is intensifying. The changes needed—and some of them already are starting to happen—are of two kinds, and they complement and reinforce each other.
First, public education needs standards. Teachers should demonstrate that they know the material they are expected to teach. Every state should have good entry tests for teachers, based on the state's academic standards, not just on the ability to pass tests about pedagogy rather than subject matter. The failure of 59 percent of would-be teachers on a required test in Massachusetts sent a shock wave across the nation. Those states that lack such tests have no idea if their teachers measure up any better.
Public authorities should establish standards that are clear, measurable, and non-politicized for pupils as well as for teachers. Students should know in advance what they are expected to learn in each subject and grade. They should know that what they are taught will be tested and that if they study for the test, they will do better than if they do not. They should know that they will not be graded on a curve but according to whether they have mastered what was expected of them.
For the past few years, encouraged by federal funding, nearly every state has been trying to write academic standards, since—sadly—many states had no standards of their own at all. In the past, the state governments left the standard-setting to the local districts, and the local districts left it to the textbook publishers and the mass-market test publishers to decide what their standards would be. So we had de facto national standards and still do; but for most students, they are undemanding.
Yet the standards that many states have recently adopted are no less anemic, sometimes even downright empty. Often, the people charged with writing standards can't bring themselves to prescribe what children should learn, so accustomed are they to leaving these decisions to someone else. They shrink from saying that there are some skills and knowledge that all American students need: they really don't want to shoulder the responsibility. In the end, instead of writing standards, state officials offer vague generalities that give no guidance to teachers and students and that can't be tested. So teachers end up left to their own devices in deciding what to teach.
In contrast, nations like Japan have clear and comprehensible standards. Teachers know what is expected of them; so do students and their parents. Everyone understands the goals of each grade, and each year builds on the work of the previous year. Teachers can collaborate with one another, helping prepare good lessons, because they have common goals. They can figure out how to get the big ideas across to their students, because their job is to be good teachers, not curriculum writers.
Painful as it is for most state education departments to come to grips with standards, they are beginning to do so, however slowly or reluctantly. But a few—notably, California, Massachusetts, Texas, and Virginia—have developed real standards that can serve as a lever for those states to raise achievement and help children make progress each year.
One reason states are making this effort is the enormous support for standards among students, teachers, parents, and the general public, as a revealing series of polls by Public Agenda shows. About the only group genuinely dubious about standards is . . . education professors. Students say to the pollsters, "If you expect more of us, we will learn more." Parents of every racial and ethnic group say, "We want higher standards and higher achievement in our children's schools." More than eight out of 10 parents want schools to "push students to study hard and to excel academically."
As part of the push for standards, poll respondents say they reject social promotion. Four out of five parents—and three out of four teenagers—say that schools should "promote kids to the next grade only after they show they have learned what they were supposed to." After all, social promotion—promoting students who have not mastered the work of their grade—is no favor to kids, even though some educators defend it as compassionate, on the grounds that holding a kid back damages his self-esteem. These educators don't consider how much more damage it does to a student to be advanced to a grade where he can't understand what is going on or keep up with his classmates. Several high school principals have told me about students who enter ninth grade with fourth-grade reading skills: they can't read their assignments, they fall further and further behind, and they are prime candidates for dropping out. As one principal said to me, "It should be a felony to promote a student to high school who never learned to read, write, or do basic computation." The way to think about social promotion is by analogy to swimming lessons: if the student is sent to a deeper part of the pool as he gets older, so he can be with the older kids, regardless of whether he can swim, at a certain point, the water will be over his head and he will drown.
Today, for the first time in many years, school districts around the nation are putting a halt to social promotion, and New York chancellor Rudy Crew has promised to eliminate social promotion in New York City's schools in the year 2000. This means that schools will now have to find strategies to teach the kids who haven't learned. But this is far better than promoting them and concealing their failure.
Public education needs a second set of changes—changes that center on choice and deregulation. As with the push for standards, these changes also have the backing of a national movement of great consequence for the future of education.
The demand for choice comes from many directions. It comes from parents who don't understand why they can't choose their children's schools, and especially from poor and minority parents who don't see why their children should be compelled to attend schools with terrible performance records. The demand also comes from policy makers and businessmen who believe that competition is an integral part of quality: that without incentives to do a better job, poor performance—sheltered and rewarded by government bureaucracies comfortable with the status quo—will flourish. Already, the choice movement is having a large impact on American education, especially because it converges with efforts to break away from the stultifying, bureaucratic governance that typifies urban public education.
The charter school movement, with its bipartisan support, is one major expression of the push for choice and deregulation. On December 18, 1998, New York became the thirty-fifth state to enact a charter school law. Currently, nearly 1,200 charter schools serve over 250,000 students nationwide.
Charter schools are public schools. They agree to produce results—that is, meet the state's academic standards—in exchange for autonomy. They get a real budget and real decision-making power: they can hire and terminate their staff, for example, or decide how to allocate their resources in the school, or buy their supplies from any vendor they choose. They span the philosophical gamut, from progressive to traditional, but they have in common small class size, a strong sense of mission, and a keen sense of community. If they don't perform, they lose their charter, usually granted by a state agency, to which they are accountable. If they don't attract students, they don't survive. Charter schools may get some start-up financing from the state or the federal government, but their operating budgets depend on enrollment, as public funding follows the students.
The New York charter law will initially permit only 100 charter schools, half of which will receive charters from the State University of New York, and half from the Board of Regents. These schools will receive complete autonomy from their local school board but will be required to administer the same exams as other public schools and meet the same state academic standards. Interestingly, the law specifically permits single-sex charter schools and frees the schools from all rules and regulations except those governing health, safety, and civil rights. Teachers in charter schools with a first-year enrollment under 250 do not have to join the union but may elect to do so. Even if these schools' enrollments exceed 250 in subsequent years, they can remain free of the union.
The other main form of choice is a voucher system, targeted specifically for low-income children, those at greatest risk of failing and dropping out. A voucher is, in effect, a public scholarship, giving eligible children public funding to enable them to attend a non-public school. Two cities, Milwaukee and Cleveland, presently have publicly funded voucher programs for poor kids, and both cities allow children to use these vouchers in sectarian as well as nonsectarian schools. The strongest support for these programs, public opinion polls show, comes from low-income minority parents. While these experiments are too new to say conclusively whether the low-income kids who attend non-public schools in Cleveland and Milwaukee are learning more, studies from different camps agree that parents of children in choice schools are more satisfied than those who remained in regular public schools. Another clear result of the voucher program so far is that the regular public schools are working hard to retain students and compete with the non-public schools.
Similarly, most charter schools are too new to evaluate confidently. Even so, in a recent study of charter schools in Arizona—which with 271 charter schools has the most in operation of any state—Robert Meranto of the University of Virginia concluded that the presence of charter schools actually led to improvements in the regular district schools. The competition they offered stimulated the district schools to innovate, stirring them to increase their use of phonics, to set up magnet schools, to produce more information about performance, to expand their arts programs, extend their hours of operation, and make greater efforts to involve parents. Besides inspiring reforms by the regular schools, another positive effect of charter schools has been to help equalize funding across district lines, since state funding follows the student. This study suggests that charter schools are good not only for the kids and parents who choose them but also are good for teachers who decide where they want to teach and for the regular district schools.
Some education-policy analysts, like Paul Hill of the University of Washington, think that all public schools should operate with a contract or a charter. Fundamental to good schools, Hill says, is the principle of "subsidiarity"—a concept, borrowed from the Catholic Church, that every action ought to be taken at the level of organization most likely to understand its consequences. In most cases, this concept suggests, power and authority should be lodged at the school site, not with a dominant central organization. A few years ago, in the same spirit, the New York City Partnership proposed that the city should have not a school system but "a system of schools," in which decision making, resources, and accountability would be devolved to individual schools. Devolution, subsidiarity, accountability: these are missing ingredients in urban education. School principals must have the authority to make decisions that count, and they should in turn be held accountable for student performance.
Friedrich A. Hayek explained long ago that centralized "command-and-control" regulation seldom is efficient, because the people at headquarters always have a crucial deficit in information; they never know as much as the many thousands of people who are out in the field. Hayek's analysis applies perfectly to a major problem in education today, where inefficient centralized systems, created a century ago at a time of high enthusiasm for the rule of experts, make uniform rules for every imaginable situation and hire layer upon layer of supervisors, draining initiative and resources away from the principals and teachers who actually deal with the problems of individual children. To the central administration should go responsibility for setting standards and auditing performance; to the schools must go the freedom to be flexible, imaginative, responsive, and responsible.
Certainly the New York City school system is an antique, centralized, command-and-control bureaucracy; it must be considered a classic of its kind, having survived for a century with only minimal changes in its manner of functioning. Ignoring everything that has been learned about modern principles of management, the system tries to manage some 1,100 schools from central headquarters. To improve student performance and to unleash the energy and creativity of the city's educators, the system badly needs structural change. To this end, City Hall should push to break up the Board of Ed's iron control over every detail of school administration, in favor of a "system of schools" proposed some years ago. City officials should promote an array of reforms, from charter schools to allowing schools to be run by contract with organizations like the Edison Project to permitting schools to contract for such services as meals, supplies, and maintenance. The school system should encourage choice for students, competition to achieve higher student performance, and clear standards by which to judge whether students are progressing. As the city introduces these structural changes, it should establish a salary scale for the city's teachers and administrators that closes the gap with nearby suburban districts, with larger increments for improved student performance. The city can't expect to attract or retain talented educators when the pay is non-competitive. Alternatively, public funds should follow the child to the school of his choice, with more funding for those children whose needs are greatest; were this done, schools that recruit poor and disadvantaged youngsters would be awash in funds, with money enough to pay the best salaries and attract the best teachers.
Across the country, reformers are trying to transform public education, looking for ways to allow choice, set standards, reduce bureaucracy, flatten middle management, and shift decision making to the schools. Current trends suggest that we will have a public sector that includes standards, choice, deregulation, charter schools, and even—if the courts agree—scholarships for poor kids. Public education will not only survive; it will be far stronger.
Change is happening; it cannot be stopped, though, of course, it can be slowed, delayed, and compromised. But eventually, our society must face up to the challenge of educating all children. As Robert Hutchins said, "Perhaps the greatest idea that America has given the world is the idea of education for all. The world is entitled to know whether this idea means that everybody can be educated, or only that everybody must go to school." It is the job of our generation to answer that question in a way that meets our highest ideals as a nation.
Research for this article was supported by the Brunie Fund for New York Journalism.