What Really Ails American Public Education?

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         Lately, much has appeared in the print media about the malaise of public education in the United States. Numerous reforms have been proposed, many of which involve empowering school administrators, holding teachers accountable for student performance, and creating more charter schools. But what if these reforms exacerbate rather than remedy what ails public education?

           American public education today remains highly decentralized. Because of the existence of a federal system, with its emphasis upon diffused power, local school districts have been created almost entirely through the exercise of state power, in the form of legislative acts. Under the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved to the states or to the people. Presently, there are approximately 15,000 local school districts in the United States. According to the National Governors Association, state funding of local school districts varies dramatically among states, ranging from about 8 percent in New Hampshire to 74 percent in New Mexico. On average, states fund approximately 50 percent of local school districts' needs from their general budget. Local governments contribute an average of 44 percent, largely from local property taxes. As of 2005, the federal government's average contribution was reported to be 6 percent of a district's budget.

       Although many of the state governments exercise significant control over these local school districts, and some provide significant funding, the primacy of local control is firmly embedded in American political culture and has been repeatedly endorsed by the federal courts. In San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez,  411 U.S. 1 (1973), the United States Supreme Court denied a constitutional challenge to the primarily local, and unequal, funding of Texas' public school systems. The court observed that "in Texas education remains largely a local function, and that the preponderating bulk of all decisions affecting the schools is made and executed at the local level."

        The court's refusal to concede to the proposition that unequal funding of local school districts was a denial of equal protection meant that any efforts to create statewide systems of public education, instead of funding them with local property taxes would be futile. "The people of Texas may be justified in believing that other systems of school financing, which place more of the financial responsibility in the hands of the State, will result in a comparable lessening of desired local autonomy."

        In a similar vein, in Milliken v. Bradley, 418 U.S. 717(1974), the United States Supreme Court restated the ideological conviction of the court's majority that local con418trol of public education was a sacrosanct principle of the American political system. The court set aside a lower court order which required interdistrict busing as a remedy for unconstitutional racial segregation in the Detroit public schools. Despite the compelling equal protection issues presented, the court observed that "the notion that school district lines may be casually ignored or treated as a mere administrative convenience is contrary to the history of public education in our country" and that "no single tradition in public education is more deeply rooted than local control over the operation of schools; local autonomy has long been thought essential both to the maintenance of community concern and support for schools and to the quality of the educational process."    

        The problems caused by a decentralized, unequally-funded system of local public education across the United States are compounded by the existence and tolerance of widespread economic and social inequality which also explains, in large part, the uneven outcomes in America's decentralized education system and the dismal performance of so many of the children who are enrolled. In a report released in March 2009, David Berliner, Regents Professor at Arizona State University, analyzed those "out-of-school factors" (OSFs) which "play a powerful role in generating existing achievement gaps" that continue to undermine the purpose of the federal "No Child Left Behind" act. Berliner, in a wide-ranging review of the existing data and summary of the educational literature, identified six significant factors among poor children that adversely affected their health and learning opportunities and which therefore "limit what schools can accomplish on their own: (1) low birth weight and non- genetic prenatal influences on children; (2) inadequate medical, dental, and vision care, often a result of inadequate or no medical insurance; (3) food insecurity; (4) environmental pollutants; (5) family relations and family stress; and (6) neighborhood characteristics."
         These six factors, Berliner concluded, "are related to a host of poverty- induced physical, sociological and psychological problems that children often bring to school, ranging from neurological damage and attention disorders to excessive absenteeism, linguistic underdevelopment, and oppositional behavior."

        Berliner further observed that, "Because America's schools are so highly segregated by income, race, and ethnicity, problems related to poverty occur simultaneously, with greater frequency, and act cumulatively in schools serving disadvantaged communities. These schools therefore face significantly greater challenges than schools serving wealthier communities, and their limited resources are often overwhelmed."

        The data which Berliner cites showed that, in 2006-2007, the average white student attended a public school in which about 30 percent of the students were classified as low-income. By contrast, the average black or Hispanic student attended a school in which nearly 60 percent of the students were classified as low-income, while the average American Indian was enrolled in a school where more than half of the students were poor. "These schools," Berliner concluded, "are often dominated by the many dimensions of intense, concentrated, and isolated poverty that shape the lives of students and families."

        If American public education depends for its vitality and its support upon local autonomy, how then does one ensure that, in an increasingly national and global workplace, a high school diploma awarded to a graduate of a secondary school in El Paso, Texas is equivalent to that awarded to a graduate of the Boston Latin School or the Bronx High School of Science? The sad truth of the matter is that, because American public schools are purely creatures of state and local governments, and were not created through the exercise of national legislative powers, in contrast to most European countries, the demands, the financing and the outcomes of these local systems of education vary enormously.

        Today, for example, the United States spends more money as a proportion of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product--7.5 percent--on education than do countries in the European Union, but the educational outcomes are significantly worse. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has reported that, "In most OECD countries, a child at the age of five can now expect to undertake between 16 and 21 years of education during his lifetime either full- or part-time, if present patterns of participation continue. Australia and the United Kingdom, at 20.7 years, show the highest educational expectancy among OECD countries, while in the United States a five year old can expect almost four years of education less during his/her lifetime.

        Children in twelve European counties rank higher in mathematics literacy; and in eight European countries, the children were ranked as possessing better scientific literacy than their peers in the U.S. The 2003 results from the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) document the comparatively poor performance in mathematical proficiency, on average, of fifteen year olds in the United States. As the OECD noted, "Out of 30 OECD countries which participated in PISA 2003, the average performance for the United States was statistically higher only than that of five countries (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Mexico and Turkey) and statistically lower than that of twenty countries."

        Equally a cause for concern, as of 2006, is the fact that the average adolescent in European Union countries completed 17.5 years of education, versus his counterpart in the United States who, on average, completed only 16.5 years of education. In nine European countries, more young people entered university education than in the U.S. and, as of 2006, the United States slipped from first to seventh in the number adults aged 24-35 who have received a bachelor's degree, as opposed to Canada (53 percent), Japan (52 percent), Sweden (42 percent), Belgium (41 percent) and Ireland (40 percent).

        The totality of the evidence suggests that American education, at almost every level, is experiencing a profound crisis and has failed to create a literate, educated citizenry. For example, the National Adult Literacy Survey found that over forty million Americans age 16 and older have significant literacy deficiencies. In addition, more than 20 percent of Americans read at or below a fifth grade level which is far below the level needed to earn a living wage. The data with respect to scientific literacy is also disquieting. Americans in general do not understand what molecules are, less than one third can identify DNA as a key to heredity, and one adult in five thinks that the Sun revolves around the Earth.

        These disturbing trends are replicated the area of citizenship education. If America's secondary schools and its colleges and universities are charged with the responsibility to create an educated citizenry, they have failed miserably in that mission. In a 2005 report by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 14,000 freshman and seniors at fifty colleges and universities were administered 60 multiple-choice questions which were intended to measure their knowledge of American history and government, world affairs, and the market economy. The first of its major findings was that "America's colleges and universities fail to increase knowledge about America's history and institutions. There was a trivial difference between college seniors and their freshman counterparts regarding knowledge of America's heritage. Seniors scored just 1.5 percent higher on average than freshman, and, at many schools, seniors know less than freshman about America's history, government, foreign affairs, and economy. Overall, college seniors failed the civic literacy exam, with an average score of 53.2 percent, or F, on a traditional grading scale."

        Also unsettling are the number of parents and children who have opted out of the American system of public education. In Wisconsin, backers of an on- line education program persuaded state lawmakers to keep open eleven other virtual schools, despite a court ruling against them and the opposition of the teachers union. Further, two models of online schooling predominate. In Florida, Illinois, and half a dozen other states, the growth has been led by a state-led, state-financed virtual school that does not give diplomas but offers courses that supplement the traditional school.

        As of 2008, Florida Virtual School, for example, was the largest internet school in the country; 50,000 students are reported to be taking courses. The other model was a full-time online charter school such as Wisconsin Virtual Academy. In 2008 alone, about ninety thousand children got their education from one of 185 such schools nationwide. In Colorado, one school district was using four certified teachers to teach 1,500 students across the state.

        The number of children being home schooled is only one of many indicators that suggests that public education in the United States is in chaos and that the model of locally funded, locally controlled education has become dysfunctional. After reviewing data provided under the federal "No Child Left Behind" Act, educational researchers and statisticians have warned that there is a "dropout epidemic so severe that only about 70 percent of the one million American students who start the ninth grade each year graduate four years later."

        The increasing inequalities among local school districts in United States and between educational outcomes in the United States versus other member states in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are directly related to the ideological stranglehold which the liberal ideology of individualism--which owes, at very least, its inspiration to John Locke--continues to exert over American politics. This tradition of local autonomy in public school systems has led to the emergence of an increasing number of autonomous charter schools which siphon off badly-needed funds and better-performing students from more troubled, urban school systems. This trend, coupled with the existence of so many private secondary schools and colleges and universities, make it virtually impossible for American educational institutions to adopt and enforce uniform learning and graduation requirements or to effectively measure educational outcomes.
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