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A Celebration of Public Education
Jeff Gonzalez, October 2001 --
[Copyright 2001, Pennsylvania Alliance for Democracy -- Printing, copying and distribution is encouraged with full attribution.]

(modified 12/21/01)

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Our expectations of what public education can achieve today and tomorrow for our children depends on our perspective about what public education has achieved in the 20th Century, as well as a clear understanding of why it is so frequently criticized. This paper outlines the enormous achievements public education has made. This paper also debunks the myth that America's primary and secondary public education system has failed. My purpose is to move our discussion about public education forward based on fact, not fiction, and based on the overall picture, not isolated failures.

  This is not to turn a blind eye on those public schools that are in trouble. Some schools are more successful than others, and some face greater challenges than others. The challenges we face are not greater than those that have been overcome in the past. However, if we are going to improve any schools, we need to be working from a basis of fact, not myth.
   The myths that are commonly repeated about the public education system rely on anecdotal stories that do not represent the overall picture of public education, on the misinterpretation of SAT scores, and on a misunderstanding about how costs are measured. Critics of public education often use apples-and-oranges comparisons between American public education and the educational systems in Europe and Japan to misrepresent the value of the public education system in the United States. In addition, certain right-wing groups pursue their vested interests by trying to undermine the public's confidence in our public education system.
   In contrast to what many critics of public education claim, America has the best, most democratic, and fairest education system in the world. The data show that the quality of the public education system has not eroded over the past few decades. It fact, it has consistently improved.
   Despite a thoroughly documented record of success, our system of public education is routinely dismissed as failing or as a failure by pundits on Fox News Sunday, Face the Nation, Meet the Press, CBS Sunday Morning TV, and other programs. Too many of these media pundits spread misinformation about failing schools the way the infamous Typhoid Mary, the cook in the 1920's who was a carrier of typhoid, contaminated her stews, and caused repeated outbreaks of typhus fever among the citizens of New York City, who, in turn, contaminated others. The misinformation from these media pundits is further spread by their copycats in the syndicated and local press.

Myth 1: Public Education Is Failing
America produces more graduates with college and graduate school degrees in total numbers and as a percent of total population than any other nation on earth. In Pennsylvania about 88%1 of our graduates come from public high schools. Nationally, the number is 90%.2 These graduates compete with the best of the best from every nation in colleges and universities, and in industry. While it may seem that it is easier to get into college today, by the time college students graduate, they are outperforming students of previous decades. This is shown by the increase in the scores of those taking graduate school entrance exams. The median scores on tests given to American college graduates applying to graduate school have increased over the last twenty to thirty years despite a 400-500% increase in the number of college graduates taking the tests.3 The quality and quantity of those graduating and attending our best graduate schools have increased, not decreased.
   This raises an interesting question. How can it be that our colleges and graduate schools are producing some of the world's most educated people if our primary and secondary schools are such failures as those on the right would claim? Let's look at this issue another way.
   If we describe the current level of American manufacturing productivity as 100%, then Japan and Germany are distant runners-up at 80%, followed by France and the United Kingdom at 76% and 61% respectively. These percentages are computed as gross value added to a product per hour of labor at manufacturing plants.4 Most of our manufacturing plants and service industries are managed by our college graduates and are staffed with our high school and college graduates. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that our system of education is pretty successful.
   The effectiveness of the American system of public education has been tested in the real world where productivity, job creation, and building wealth count. Our system wins, hands down.
   These successes stand on the shoulders of public school teachers who have worked for well over a century to bring education to all of our children. Let's look at what they accomplished. As the population of the United States increased from 52 million5 in 1917 to 281 million in 2000, the percentage of students graduating from high school increased from 15%6 to 82%.7 In about 85 years, public education built a nationwide system of public schools and a corps of teachers who achieved nearly universal education during a period when we suffered through the great depression, three wars, and a rapidly expanding population.
   But what about black students? In 1950, less than 13% of black males graduated from high school. By 1980, the number quadrupled to 55%.8 In 1976, 39% of black high school seniors had parents who had graduated from high school. By 1997, 77% had parents who had graduated from high school.9
   In short, more and more Americans are getting educated. This trend toward improvement continues.
   The overall dropout rate from schools nationally declined from 11.4% in 1982, to 6.2% in 1992.10 This decline held true for male and female students, for students from almost every racial group, for those who are poor and not poor, and for students who lived in families with two parents, one parent, or no parents. The dropout rate in my Towanda School District in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, was 4.6% in 1998-99.11
   This incredible success has been accomplished almost entirely by regular public education, not with vouchers and not by charter schools. The federal legislation that facilitated this success has been widely acknowledged in the top ranks of academia. In a survey of 450 history and political science professors conducted by the Brookings Institution, the professors were asked to rank the success of 500 major laws adopted between 1944 and 1999 in achieving their goals. Laws intended to improve access to public education itself were ranked near the top, 23rd out of the 500, and laws intended to improve public education were ranked 35th.12 The list included laws directed at agriculture, economic growth and stability, space exploration, health, civil rights, jobs, and education, for example, as well as foreign policy laws dealing with war and peace, the cold war, and nation-building efforts such as the Marshall plan.
   "What was only a dream at the beginning of the twentieth century universal education had become a reality by century's end," writes Professor Diane Ravitch, who holds the Brown Chair in Education Studies at the Brookings Institution. She continues, "This was no small accomplishment, and most Americans agreed that full access to education for people of all ages was a cornerstone of a democratic society."13
   The United States' system of public education has become a powerhouse for progress. We produce the greatest number of Nobel Prize winners, year after year. Science and technology innovations have catalyzed our economic domination in the world for well over a century. We train the largest number of scientists and engineers in the world.

Myth 2: Falling Median SAT Scores Prove Public Schools Are Failing
In complete disregard of the facts, a newspaper columnist in our local area recklessly trashes our public education system. "The public is tired," he rails, "of being taxed into oblivion only to produce high school graduates who can't read and write."14 His inflammatory rhetoric is typical among many from the right who promote the myth that our schools are failing because SAT scores are falling.
   If you will bear with me, I will show you how facts can be misused to present a warped picture. It is a fact that over a long time span median SAT scores have fallen. However, this trend does not prove that students' academic performances have been declining, nor would an upward trend necessarily prove that students' academic performances have been increasing.
   Let me explain. Let's say that over a period of five years, the 10 top students in a school each year take an SAT exam, and each year the average of the scores of these top 10 students equals about 1,300 (of a possible 1,600). In the next five years, in addition to the 10 top students, 15 mediocre students also take the SAT exam, and the average score of these 15 mediocre students equals 800 for those five years. So the average of both the top and mediocre students' SAT scores in the second five years is 1,000. [(10 x 1,300) + (15 x 800) = 25,000, which divided by 25 equals 1,000] . Did the average of the top students decline? No. Did the average score of the mediocre students decline? No. Did the average of all SAT scores decline? Yes. So, just noting the decrease in the average scores without explaining that these are averages for different sets of students is misleading.
   Therefore, just because the overall average of exam scores declined over a period of ten years does not mean that the performance of either top or average students changed. What changed was the composition of students taking the SAT exam. Instead of just top students taking the exam, less proficient students also took it. In a nutshell, this is what has happened with SAT scores in the United States.
   Over the past thirty years a different mix of students began taking the SAT examinations. In the 50's and early 60's, only those who were considering application to selective colleges (heavily skewed to the top 10% of a class) took the SAT exams. Later in the 60's, a greater number of four-year colleges and many two-year colleges began to require SAT exams. By the 1970's, a greater number of students with average grades began taking the SATs and attending college. By 1980, it became common practice in many high schools to have the entire student body take the exam regardless of whether or not a student intended to apply to college. Not surprisingly, with a greater percentage of more poorly performing students taking the examinations, the average and median SAT scores began to decline. Meanwhile, the top performing students continued to do very well. For example, the mean SAT Math scores for college bound-seniors was 494 in 1983, 502 in 1989, and 511 in 1999.15 Also, the average of the poor students have shown signs of improvement.
   Pennsylvania's Governor Ridge and his Secretary of Education, Eugene Hickok, misused the SAT scores to make their case for vouchers in 1999. Governor Ridge wanted to use tax dollars to fund parochial schools. During the legislative debates, with a disbelieving Senate and Assembly, Governor Ridge pointed out that the median SAT scores of Pennsylvania students placed the state very low, 44th out of 50 states. What Ridge did not tell the citizens of Pennsylvania was that 70% of our 11th graders took the exam, while in Mississippi only 4% of 11th graders took the exam.16 He also did not mention that Mississippi, with one of the worst education systems in the United States, was ranked near the top, 4th out of 50 states, if you used his ranking criteria.17 In contrast, a comparison of test results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed Pennsylvania ranked between 10th and 16th in math and reading (regardless of the grade compared), while Mississippi was always ranked less than 47th. Another detail that Governor Ridge did not share with the public was that parochial schools in the Commonwealth ranked even lower than public schools, if you used his distorted statistics. Thus, to justify his proposal for vouchers, Governor Ridge misused SAT scores to support the myth that the public education system is broken.
   The standardized tests of the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that over a period of twenty years, the scores of black and Hispanic students have increased dramatically without a net change to the scores of white children taking the tests. The gap between the majority of students and minorities is closing, without negatively affecting the majority. A similar trend exists in reading scores between children from wealthy suburban schools and those from rural areas. These facts suggest that our public school system has yielded sustained improvement for economially distressed and socially disadvantaged children without adversely affecting the children of the economically and socially advantaged. This tendency parallels the trends seen for immigrant groups throughout America's history as they became mainstreamed into American society. We should celebrate these achievements rather than perpetuate unfounded myths.

Myth 3: We Pay Too Much for Education
One of the recycled myths spread by the Typhoid Marys of disinformation is that "our nation has the most expensive public education in the world."18 This is a favorite myth of former Vice President Dan Quayle, former President George H. Bush, and now his son, President George W. Bush, columnist and three-time Presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, former Secretary of Education and three-time Presidential candidate Lamar Alexander, columnist George Will, and former Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos, as well as Rush Limbaugh and televangelists Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Dr. James Dobson, and Dr. D. James Kennedy.
   If all these politicians and radio talk show and TV personalities say public education costs too much, does that make it true? No!
   When the cost of K-12 public education in this country is compared with the cost of similar primary and secondary schools in other industrialized countries, it is clear that the United States actually spends less per student than the average of industrialized nations; we rank 9th out of 16 nations. In terms of percent of per capita income spent on K-12 public education, we are ranked near the bottom, or 14th out of 16.19 The United States ranks a low 22nd out of 26 industrialized countries in teacher pay. An average teacher in the United States makes $34 per hour of actual teaching time compared to the international average among industrialized countries of $41. "Denmark, Spain, and Germany pay more than $50, South Korea $77."20 These are apples-to-apples comparisons.
   So where do the detractors of public education get their "facts"? Former budget director David Stockman said, when discussing the misrepresentations of data in President Reagan's budget, "the people who had made these claims seem to have made up the numbers as they went along." This appears to be a plausible explanation for the misrepresentation of the cost of public education.
   However, what the mythmakers actually do is much more dishonest. They add all the costs of education that are subsidized by taxpayers to support America's colleges and universities, which include grants for research and tuition costs for training military personnel who are in college, as well as the total state and local costs of public elementary schools and high schools. They call this the cost of "public education," but 99.9% of the American public thinks they are talking about the cost of our local public K-12 schools. That's the first deception, because the costs per student of colleges and universities are significantly higher than those of primary and secondary schools.
   Then the mythmakers divide this total cost by the total number of students, including all public K-12 students and students in colleges and graduate schools that receive any public funding. This is how they get their average "cost per student." Then, they compare this "cost per student" to the cost per student of other industrial countries that have much smaller systems of colleges and universities, and claim our system of "public education" is too expensive. That is the second deception. It's a classic apples-to-oranges comparison.
   Comparing the United States cost per student to that of France, for example, is absurd because the two systems of education are so different. First, the United States has an enormous system of over 3,000 colleges and universities, many of which have more than 50,000 students. In contrast, most of the other industrial countries have small systems of colleges and universities. In short, it's like comparing General Motors to your local auto dealership. Beyond the fact that they both sell cars, GM and a local dealership are so different in size and function that comparing them isn't very useful.
   But it's more than just a difference in scale. The systems are different. Let's compare the Towanda School District in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, with its sister city of Sarignac de Nontron, France. The cost of public education in the Towanda School District includes athletic programs such as football, volleyball, soccer, and basketball; extracurricular activities such as debate, forensics, drama, concert band, marching band, and chorus; music and art; special education; the alternative school for children who don't do well in regular classes; and some of the costs of adult education provided by local schools. None of these programs and services are available to students in the public school system in Sarignac de Nontron, France.21 France's lecture-based system of education only deals with core subjects such as math, history, languages, science, and philosophy. Obviously, Towanda's cost per student is higher, but Towanda's program offers much more to its students. However, the critics of our public education system do not take these differences into account. That's the third deception.
   Finally, America's education goals are based on a philosophy that every child should have the opportunity to get a college degree. In contrast, many other countries severely limit the number of students who can even apply to college. As a result, most of the industrialized world has few people attending college compared to the United States. We have more college and graduate school students per capita in the United States than does any other country in the world. We have the educational system with the highest quality overall in the world and, as a result, every year the best and the brightest foreign students flock to the United States for higher education.
   In summary, what those have done who have claimed that our public education system is too expensive is to compare apples to oranges on the assumption that the rest of us don't know the facts behind their comparisons. They have included the costs of our public colleges and universities, including military personnel in colleges, in what they call "public education," and they have compared United States education costs with those of countries with very different systems of education. Thus a lie is born, and all it takes are willing Typhoid Marys to spread the disinformation, creating a myth from the lie.

Myth 4: Other Industrial Countries Do a Better Job of Educating Children
Another aspect of our education system I think we should celebrate is that realizing educational dreams is commonplace in the United States, not a rarity. Our system gives opportunity to everyone, regardless of background. While it is true that more needs to be done to eliminate the disparities between wealthy and poor school districts, everyone is given a chance in our system of public education to achieve his or her dream.
   Our high school students are offered the choice of taking academic, vocational, and technical career courses. In contrast, students in Japan and Germany, for example, must take tests when they are 10 or 12 years old to qualify for the academic track. These tests determine which students will be given the opportunity to follow an academic path and which will be routed into vocational training. As a result, in some industrialized nations as few as 15% of the entire secondary school graduate population may be allowed to apply to a university.22 These systems cut out children who may be late bloomers, children who at 10 years of age are not as mature as some of their peers, or those who may perform very well academically in college but have difficulty in elementary school because of dyslexia or other undetected learning disabilities. Furthermore, these systems of early academic selection create situations where parents with the economic means put their young children in an educational pressure cooker of intense tutoring or special private schools in the hope that they will pass the make-or-break tests. Parents with sufficient political clout exert their influence over decisions that educational institutions make about their children. It is not a system that maximizes opportunity for everyone.
   Ours is a much fairer system. We seek to educate all our children, not just a few, the wealthy, or the elite.