Many Americans still do not understand how one comes to be trapped in a ghetto, be it the burnt-out streets of Bushwick or the leafy back roads of Appalachia. They still think it is possible to hop a bus or hitch a ride and simply "escape." And in some cases it still is.
Poor Americans are finding their escape routes cut off not by lack of transportation, but by disappearance of the opportunities for improvement that once existed in multitudes--particularly education. The refugee from despair finds himself a helpless immigrant in his own country, ignorant of the customs, unfamiliar with the language, unable to add and subtract. As many as a quarter of America's youth today fail to master basic skills necessary for survival in the world Around them, and for disadvantaged youth the rates are higher. Alienated by the high school they encountered, they often remain alienated from themselves and others around them.
Performance Declines: Measuring Them, or Denying That They Exist
A number of empirical measurements confirm the common-sense perception that the quality of public education has continued its long-term decline despite ever-greater expenditures.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress, a government-funded nationwide review organization, reports that 17-year olds' achievement in science, writing, social studies, and mathematics has dropped regularly over the past decade.12 The Carnegie Council on Policy Studies in Higher Education charged in its late 1979 report that alone out of every three youths is ill-educated, ill-employed, and ill-equipped to make his way in American society," and noted that the high school dropout rate is 23% with even a fifth of the graduates failing to master basic work skills.13
The most thoroughgoing evidence is provided
by trends in Scholastic Aptitude Test scores over the past two decades.
As detailed in the accompanying table (SAT Score Averages for College-Bound
Seniors, 1967-79) average scores have steadily fallen. Reaching further
yet back to 1963, when declines first began to be noticed, math scores
have fallen from 502 to 467 and verbal scores from 474 to 427. With
a base score of 200 on each test, these drops amount to 14% overall, or
approximately one per cent a year.14
SAT Score Averages for College-Bound Seniors, 1967-1979
| This damning evidence has inspired a spate
of counterattacks on the validity of the data and the tests themselves.
These are worth considering individually.15
The declines, first of all, are not peculiar to certain states, regions, or population groups; performance has sunk rather evenly over the entire nation.
Further, the decline cannot be attributed
to greater numbers of students taking the tests. Were this the cause
for falling average scores, we would expect the "spread" of scores to widen;
but it has not changed substantially. Far from its being the case
that lower performing students dragged down the average, it was the best
students whose achievement suffered the most. The declines are also
The contention has been advanced that a higher retention rate of potential high school dropouts has depressed the average quality of performance to be expected from test-takers. Here again: this rationale fails to account for declines in scores of top-rated students, or why the declines also show up in elementary and junior high school grades where no "dropping out" is allowed.
Another set of rationales has it that the scores reflect an unusually stupid peer group of children moving through the educational system. While the evidence about inherent ability garnered from IQ tests is too sketchy to either confirm or deny this hypothesis, the pattern of performance declines is not what we would expect were one generation inherently inferior: i.e., poor showings in lower grades first, then in higher grades. Instead, after about 1966 "declines occurred more or less simultaneously in all the upper elementary and all high school grades of any given state or district."16
Of the various other explanations advanced, the one receiving the most attention is the notion that social distractions (urban decay, drug use) and weakened home environments make children less receptive to schooling. Applicable as these factors are, placing great emphasis upon them bespeaks a lack of sound perspective. There were times before when social conditions of hunger and violence "distracted" kids much more forcefully than today, when parents enjoyed far less ability to assist with their children's education, when the cultural barriers of language and ethnicity were more formidable; still, children learned, somehow, to read, write, and compute with a facility that might strain their youthful counterparts today.17
Lack of acceptance for these various rationales has led public educationalists to intensify their attacks on the tests themselves, reviving, in a sense, the age-old practice of killing the messenger that brings bad news. Pushing a so-called "College-Truth-in-Testing-Bill" proposed largely at the behest of teachers' unions, supporters told the Washington Post that
ULCA economist Thomas Sowell has replied to this line of thinking:The testing organizations are huge and largely unregulated, yet their products assign children to classes for the retarded, determine school tracking and college admissions and in general shape the lives of most Americans...18
One reason today's public education fails to teach students basic skills is that some teachers themselves are unequipped to teach, particularly some of the newer ones. A chilling fact: today's twenty-three year old novice teacher was in kindergarten in 1963, when SAT scores began their sixteen-year decline....The problem is not that the tests were unfair. The problem is that life is unfair, and the tests are measuring the consequences. As a child moving from an-all-black school in the South to an all-black school in Harlem, I suddenly found myself changed from the top student in my class to the bottom student. The problem was not that the tests were biased. The problem was that my previous education was grossly inadequate...Test scores have been almost superstitiously worshipped for too long. The answer, however, is not an equally irrational refusal to get whatever small help they can provide... 19
Concern over the declining test scores resulted in a wave of high school senior competency exams beginning in 1977 and 1978, and low results in some school districts began to point to the extent of malpractice among the ranks of teachers. After 53% of the students who took Mobile, Alabama's first competency exam failed it, angry parents deluged school officials with evidence of poor teaching. A parent presented a note sent home by one fifth-grade teacher, which read in part: "Scott is dropping in his studies he acts as if he don't Care. Scott want pass in his assignment at all, he had a poem to learn and he fell to do it." This particular teacher had a master's degree.20
In a suburb of Milwaukee another confrontation between teachers and parents and school board members revealed curriculum proposals "riddled with bad grammar and spelling. Teachers had written dabate for debate, documant for document. Would was woud, and separate was seperate. Angry parents waved samples of their children's work that contained uncorrected whoppers, marked with such teacher comments as 'outstanding' and 'excellent.'"21
Time reports that many Chicago parents "were appalled by what they saw on television news of schools and teachers" during a week's strike recently. "Recalls one mother: 'I froze when I beard a teacher tell a TV reporter, "I teaches English."’"22
The teacher unions seem loath to help sort out the incompetents from the many fine teachers who work in public schools. Claiming that teacher testing, which has been approved in twelve states, is incapable of accurately reflecting teacher ability, the National Educational Association has taken a stand against any kind of teacher competency exams. The smaller American Federation of Teachers, representing 550,000 members, has taken what might well be the "smarter" position, opposing competency exams-for existing teachers but sanctioning examination of prospective employees.23
Competency examination, for all the fire and brimstone the issue arouses within professional ranks, is at best a bandaid solution to a problem that requires a "holistic" improvement in health. So long as our schools generate graduates who are functionally illiterate, the teaching profession will have a hard time attracting qualified practitioners. So long as our schools are predominantly government-run, the trend toward lower performance will continue.
Violence in the Schools
One of the political assets still drawn upon by public education is the fact that older Americans retain relatively favorable impressions of their own days in school. However, these sunlit memories bear little resemblance to today's clouded reality.
Nowhere has education changed more than in the area of violence and disorder. In 1976, the National Association of School Security Directors reported 3,000 rapes, 11,000 armed robberies, 256,000 burglaries, and 190,000 major assaults in the schools. In February of 1977 Senator Birch Bayh addressed a conference of the NEA on the subject of violence:
In 1977-78 the National Institute of Education reported that some 2.4 million secondary school students had something stolen from them in any given month and 282,000 were attacked. In 1978-79, 110,000 teachers, or 5% of the U.S. total reported being attacked by students, a figure up 57% over '77-78.24I know I do not have to tell a gathering of professional educators that the level of violence and vandalism has reached disturbing and at times critical levels.It has currently been estimated that on a national scale we are currently spending almost 600 million educational dollars each year as the result of vandalism in our schools. This staggering waste of scarce educational resources is more money than we spent for textbooks in 1972 and is enough to hire 50,000 additional experienced teachers without increasing taxes by one cent. Even more shocking, however, are the 70,000 serious physical assaults on teachers and the literally hundreds of thousands on students perpetrated in our schools annually.
Difficulties with enforcing order turn precisely upon the question of compulsory public education. Because these schools are "public," students are said to have a right to attend them, and dismissals become a legal matter. (No such "right" inheres in attending non-public school though fair dismissal procedures are commonly spelled out as part of the tuition contract.) Since Wood v. Strickland (1975) upheld students' due process rights against dismissal, expulsions have dropped 30% and cases of shocking leniency have come to light with increasing frequency. In a Washington, D.C. high school a boy was suspended for a short time after trying to shoot his girlfriend in class.25 The San Francisco Board of Education, trying to "get tough" with students who carry deadly weapons to school after three students were murdered in San Francisco schools during the last two years, recently reiterated its policy of "considering" expulsion for such cases - but failed to get a Board vote for mandatory expulsion.26
A more "muscular" and hardline response, in any event, would represent only another bandaid fix, and a potentially ugly one at that. Violence assuredly disrupts the educational process and inflicts considerable ill upon its victims. But the political lesson it teaches - that civil authority not only cannot stop violence, it creates the context in which it flourishes - reflects the basic harm which compulsory education does to individual rights. Children are ignorant about a great many subjects, but one thing about which they are acutely prescient is hypocrisy, and a government which practices compulsion teaches compulsion, no matter what it says.
What Is To Be Taught?
Another kind of conflict also occurs in public, tax-supported schools, and this conflict is inherent in the very nature of those schools. This is the conflict over what should be taught in the schools.
For years, educators, parents, and government officials have been wrangling over what constitutes a good education. Our school districts are constant battlegrounds between conflicting forces. There are those who want to go back to basics - the three R's - while others prefer an unstructured curriculum. Some want prayer in schools; others want sex education. Some want to exclude gay teachers; others want a positive discussion of "alternative lifestyles." Some want to teach evolution, others - like Ronald Reagan - insist that the Biblical story of creation also be taught. Some want special treatment for gifted children, others don't.
As economist Walter Williams, who grew up in the Philadelphia ghetto and now teaches at Temple Universiy, wrote recently,
Public Education's CostA state monopoly in the production of a good or service enhances the potential for conflict, through requiring uniformity; that is, its production requires a collective decision on many attributes of the product, and once produced, everybody has to consume the identical product whether he agrees with all the attributes or not. State monopolies in the production of education enhance the potential for conflict by requiring conformity on issues of importance to many people. For example, prayers in school, ethnic history, saluting the flag and educational tracking are highly controversial issues which have received considerable court attention and have resulted in street fighting and heightened racial tensions.With all this conflict raging, what is the result? Some groups "win," and the schools reflect their values. But others are then forced to send their children to schools of which they don't approve. These conflicts are unavoidable in any government controlled system. As long as the schools are supported by taxes, different groups of taxpayers will compete to control them.
Public education, with 41 million pupils, is a $95 billion industry.27
Between 1969 and 1979 public education costs rose 187% as compared to an 30.6% increase for other consumer goods and services. Per-pupil public school expenditures have stayed approximately twice as large as non-public figures, and now hover around $2,000 per student annually. Urban and some suburban districts often spend more, while rural schools typically spend less.28
Why? A number of straightforward trends taken together account for the increase of the public education budget. First, teacher salaries have improved from their historically sub-standard levels to where the average salary of elementary school teachers is $15,661 and of high school teachers $16,387, for nine months' work, comparing favorably to other technical and professional occupations. The average yearly pay for a government-employed clerk is $15,500.29 Average pay for school superintendents is $39,1344. Larger districts (more than 25,000 pupils) pay their superintendents an average of $48,000, and in Chicago the head of schools is paid $82,500. Average maximum salary for assistant superintendents is $36,336 with the salary spread for assistants ranging from $21,800 to $57,968. Thus administrators are certainly holding their own in the salary sweepstakes.30
Second, despite declines in enrollment, teacher numbers have not shrunk substantially; the ratio of students to teachers was 25-1 in 1960 and had fallen to 18-1 by 1975. The number of administrative personnel in government schools has risen even faster than the number of teachers. In 1950 there was one full-time educational employee for every 19 students. By 1978 that figure was one for each nine students.
On the whole, despite enrollment declines, the public education bureaucracy has continued to grow. Teachers are fond of attributing this to the increasing "demands" being placed upon the schools - demands such as special programs for handicapped and disadvantaged children - but to a large extent these demands are largely generated from within the professional education sector itself, so that crocodile tears about "society's" escalating expectations are less than convincing.
The bureaucracy has grown also in response to increasing Federal involvement, which culminated recently with the new Department of Education. This bureaucracy in turn becomes a powerful lobbying force working hand in hand with teacher organizations to expand public education through the $100 billion barrier and beyond.
The National Education Association has been open about its intention to control the political decisions affecting its welfare. The organization, which speaks for 1.8 million educators, endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time in 1976 when it backed Jimmy Carter, and its reward was the Department of Education. "We're the only union with our own Cabinet Department," one NEA official boasted when the new department was established. The group expressed its gratitude, and showed its ability to land on the right side of a political battle, when it spearheaded pro-Carter efforts at the 1980 Democratic national convention. The NEA had the largest and most carefully manipulated bloc of interest-group votes at the convention (302 delegates and 162 alternates) , exceeded in size only by the State of California delegation. 269 of these were pledged to Carter, and only 28 for Kennedy, as the result of pro-Carter NEA efforts which began in the fall of 1979.31
Vice President Mondale, speaking to the convention's NEA caucus, expressed the Carter Administration's attitude toward this avowed special-interest group: "I've learned that if you want to go somewhere in national politics these days, you better get the NEA behind you."32
Perhaps this explains why Carter, at the signing of the new Department of Education bill, boasted that "we have increased tremendously the Federal contribution to education, 60 per cent in 2½ years, with the help of Congress."33
And this policy of ever greater federal funding for education in turn helps explain why public education's cost continues to rise in the age of the tax revolt.
What Is Their Answer?
Public educationalists have responded in many ways to widespread and growing public dismay with the schools. Some of the more recent rationales suggest that public education's apologists are increasingly detached from reality, talking to themselves, taking care of their own narrow concerns as a priority.
Take, for instance, the various explanations proffered for the sixteen-year decline in SAT scores. While both major teachers' unions try to fend off teacher competency testing, they point the finger of blame at television or lack of discipline. They console each other in "teacher burn-out" seminars that teachers can't teach because they are not permitted to do so. Says David Imig, executive director for the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, "The teacher today is expected to be mother, father, priest or rabbi, peace-keeper, police officer, playground monitor, and lunchroom patrol. Over and above that, he's supposed to teach Johnny and Mary how to read."34
But in reality the teacher is not expected to be anything of the sort; society has never asked teachers to be supermen. Teachers took that role upon themselves, slowly and unwittingly as they went along with their unions' bold claims for the results which would flow from more education dollars. The babble over "teacher burnout" is nothing more than a way of evading the systematic way in which public education always raises expectations beyond what can be financed or accomplished in reality.
Teachers' unions, for all their apparent political strength, may actually be in their dotage when it comes to grappling with the issues of the day. The NEA's two most significant battles in the last two years have been wholly self-centered in purpose: one, to establish federally funded "teacher centers" for ostensible "teacher development" and not-so-apparent union activity, and, second, to reassure NEA members of their "Cabinet-level" importance by stampeding Jimmy Carter into forming the Department of Education. These are not the battles of civil rights, individual liberty, or even a war on poverty; the profession has become bureaucratized and complacent though many individual teachers still work for justice and learning in the world.
What Are the Alternatives?
Conceptually, it is easy to see that what education in America needs is a good infusion of healthy competition from alternative ideas. Some of the alternatives exist in the present marketplace only in embryonic form, and so it is hard to know precisely how large a role they can play in educating America's youth. Examples include work-study programs, structured home-study courses, and some of the more recent personalized communications innovations.
Practically, though, we are fortunate in being able to call upon services of an existing, vibrant non-public education sector.
Almost one fifth of America's elementary and secondary schools are funded by voluntary, private means. About 11% of all students are enrolled in these non-public schools, about five million students for the 1978-79 year. Half of the total number of schools are Catholic. More than seven percent in 1978-79 were Lutheran, with about 22 percent having other church affiliations. The remaining 20 percent of the schools have no religious Affiliation.
Comparative expenditures per pupil for 1977-78 were $561 for Catholic schools, $651 for Lutheran schools, and for non-affiliated private schools $1,322. Average cost per pupil in public schools for that year was $1,739.36
Census figures for the year 1976-77 showed that 60 percent of students in non-public schools came from families with annual incomes less than $20,000; 38%, with less than $15,000; and 15%, with less than $10,000.37 Minority enrollment in California's Catholic schools is 43.4% as compared to 39% in government schools. After a period when segregation academies managed to tar all non-public schools with the charge of racism, it has become abundantly clear that the non-public schools' record on this question is as good, if not better, than the public schools'.
Voluntary schools are also significantly better at meeting the extraordinary educational needs of disadvantaged children. In Chicago, there is a waiting list of 850 students at Westside Prep, a one-room school taught by Marva Collins. Mrs. Collins takes students who have been declared "retarded," "brain-damaged," "slow," "troublesome," or otherwise "uneducable" and teaches them. (This is a remarkable turnaround of the old article of faith that non-public educators leave all the "problem" kids to the public-schools.) Her 6 to 12 year old students learn what Jefferson called the "liberating arts", they read Thoreau, Shakespeare and Sophocles, write essays, and practice mathematics.
Marva Collins has chosen to operate without teaching machines, audiovisual aids, or other expensive equipment, saying that all education requires is a good teacher and a student.
Sufficiently embarrassed by Collins' accomplishments to try to discredit her in print, Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers looked into her past and found that when Marva Collins taught at Delano Elementary School, a "public school with a representative group of neighborhood children," her students did not achieve higher reading scores than any other classes in the school. Shanker also notes that some of her students have returned to public school, whereupon their reading scores dropped again.38
Perhaps that is exactly the point. Despite Marva Collins' emphasis on personal teaching, perhaps the most significant difference of all is that her students operate in an environment that frees them from the petty harassment, numbing bureaucracy, and sheer violence of the public schools.
The Collins example would be less convincing were it not one of many such cases: low-cost, high-quality schools in New York, Boston, Palo Alto, and hundreds of other places, which have amassed an enviable record of performance, on a shoestring.39
One of the encouraging things about the increase in educational alternatives is their diversity. Many parents, of course, send their children to traditional elite private schools or to Catholic parochial schools. But many new "Christian schools" affiliated with conservative Protestant denominations are springing up, especially in the South. And contrary to some media reports, these schools are not racially motivated or all-white. Black enrollment in the three largest Christian schools in the Washington, D.C. suburbs is estimated at 10 to 20 percent. In another alternative to public schools, more and more Jewish parents are sending their children to Hebrew Day Schools.
In New York thousands of black parents, disgusted with the poor performance of inner-city government schools, are sending their children to black-run private schools. These schools stress self-discipline, parent involvement, and educational achievement. One black parent quoted in the New York Times said of her decision to place her son in a private school in Harlem, "The public schools couldn't develop my son's potential, and they were well on the way to damaging him as a student. (Private school) is an expense I can hardly afford, but a parent has to make these sacrifices. You simply cannot place your child's future in the hands of officials in the public school system."
Across the country, in Los Angeles, parents fed up with the public schools decided to build their own. They pooled their funds, bought land, built the schools, hired the teachers, and planned the curriculum. As columnist Richard Reeves wrote in Esquire, "They simply took over - or took back - a function of a government they detested. In the words I heard over and over again from angry, exhilarated parents: 'We took control of our own lives!'"
In an even more individualistic spirit, more And more parents are teaching their children at home. Despite great legal harassment from state authorities, they believe they can give their children a better education at home than in any school. Thomas Hempel, the president of the Port Byron, New York, school board says, "I really think the public school system turns out mental and moral cripples." So he teaches three of his children at home. Parents in many states have faced legal challenges to their decision to educate their children at home. And in a particularly tragic case of the government's desperate battle to preserve its monopoly, Mormon fundamentalist John Singer was shot in the back and killed when ten Utah police officers came to his mountain farm to seize his children and take them to public school. Fortunately, most legal battles have ended more peacefully, and some courts are even recognizing the right of parents to educate".their own children as they choose.
I think the vitality and diversity of these educational alternatives is encouraging. Different parents want different kinds of educational experiences for their children, and such schools reflect this; but they are all agreed that their children need a good education, and that they don't get it in the public schools.
How, then, to open such positive alternatives to all Americans?