How is Our Skools Doing?

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Four recent articles allow us to reflect again on the state of education in America, its costs, causes, and consequences.

The first, “Few Gains are Seen in High School Test,” appeared in The Wall Street Journal on April 29. Reporting on the latest results from the federal government’s own tests – the National Assessment of Educational Progress – it provided grim news. Over the nearly four decades during which the government has been testing our K-12 students, a period when school funding has exploded, scores have been essentially flat. More money has brought no progress.

Well, to be precise, scores for 9- and 13-year-olds improved modestly from 1971 to 2008. But these modest gains get washed out when students reach high school. Among 17-year-olds, on a score scale that ranges from zero to 500, the gain in reading skills over 37 years was exactly one point. In math, the gain was vastly more impressive: a massive two-point rise.

This moved Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to observe that the results were”especially troubling.” (But of course, we have to remember that this is the same cat’s-paw of the teachers’ unions who just played a key role in the termination of DC’s voucher program.) The WSJ drily notes that col- leges and employers are complaining that high school grads very often lack the skills needed to succeed in college and in real life – which as we know is altogether more challenging.

The second article, “Study Cites Dire Economic Impact of Poor Schools,” is from The New York Times (April 23). It reports on the results of a study done by the independent consulting firm McKinsey & Company, which shows major gaps between students of different races and ethnicities (black and Hispanic students lag behind whites), students of different economic classes (poor kids lag behind rich ones), students of different regions (kids from some states lag behind others), and students of different nationalities (American kids lag behind kids from most other countries).

Thus far, the report simply discloses the obvious. One might wonder how much taxpayer money it took to enable the excretion of so much banality. But interestingly, the report estimates the cost of these achievement gaps. McKinsey puts it at about $3 to $5 billion dollars a day in lost GDP.

The third article, “Teach for (Some) of America,” appeared in the WSJ on April 28. It’s concerned with the curious response of poor public school districts to the availability of Teach for America graduates. Teach for America is a privately funded organization that pays for first-rate college grads to work in poor public schools. This year it had 35,000 applicants from highly ranked colleges. An amazing 11% of Ivy League seniors applied. The program pays $20,000 to train each grad to enter the classroom.

But rather than seeking out these high-achieving, highly motivated graduates, the public school interest groups (mainly, unions and administrators) limit the number of positions available for them to 3,800 for the whole country.

The rationalization is that Teach for America grads haven’t taken the education courses that “normal” public school teachers take. As if ed courses offered expertise which couldn’t be learned elsewhere. The real reason is that the interest groups are afraid of being shown up by bright young people who come from outside the Union-Educational Complex.

Finally, there was a story in the WSJ on April 28 about the over-supply of college grads in China, which vastly expanded its college system over the last decade. It built huge new campuses and increased enrollments by 30% year after year. This year alone Chinese colleges will graduate 6.1 million people.

There are problems with this expansion. Recent Chinese college grads have a high unemployment rate, the current recession having had its effect. Many are saddled with large college loans. And many colleges are not particularly good. Of course, the same points could be made about our system. But so can another point: the expansion of college education enables the transition from a manufacturing economy to an epistemic one.

China’s story fits a narrative that all advocates of free choice in education need to keep telling. The story is uncommonly clear. It is that the world is transitioning itself from basic manufacturing to types of economic activity that are more knowledge-based, and that all the unionization, protectionism, and nativism in the world will not stop it. If America wants to keep its relative standing in prosperity, it must fix its broken educational system. Years of educational stagnation, with low test scores and high dropout rates, cannot be pro- longed. We got by with this cesspool of educational failure in the past only because our largest competitors were hobbled by totalitarian socialist economies. But a generation ago the Communist bloc collapsed, and now the countries that once composed it are becoming formidable competitors. And they take education seriously.

But we can’t fix the system by shoveling more money into it. We’ve more than doubled spending only to see test scores remain flat, with high school dropout rates hitting 50% to 75% in most of the major-city public school systems. We need school choice, honest testing of our students by a neutral third party, rigorous curricula, and faculty that face accountability for what they do. But the Union-Educational Complex will fight these reforms viciously, every step of the way.

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