What Happened To America’s Public Schools?

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In 1993 former Secretary of Education William Bennett released numbers purporting to show that there is no relationship between states’ SAT scores and the money those states spend on education. This report was widely disseminated by the Heritage Foundation, and the table summarizing its results was reproduced in The Wall Street Journal . Yet people have known for years that the principal source of differences among states lies in the proportion of seniors taking the SAT. In Utah and Mississippi only 4 percent of the seniors take the test, and this tiny elite does well. In Connecticut, which spends far more per pupil on education, 81 percent of the senior class huddles in angst on Saturday mornings to fill in the answer sheets. With the vast majority of its seniors taking the test, Connecticut is digging much deeper into its talent pool, and that excavation shows up in lower scores.

Today most educational statistics continue to show what Charles Silberman found twenty-five years ago: Now is better than then.

Whether elements of free-market competition would improve schools is not a question for this article, but it seems clear that those who support the notion have sometimes been overzealous in their search for evidence that the current system does not work. The resulting stream of negativity has created a climate in which the media accentuate the negative, sometimes inaccurately. For instance, in 1993 the usually reliable Education Week conducted a ten-year retrospective on what had happened since A Nation at Risk appeared. The answer, essentially, was not much: The “proportion of American youngsters performing at high levels remains infinitesimally small. In the past ten years for instance the number and proportion of students scoring at or above 650 on the verbal or math section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test has actually declined.” But the numbers that confirmed the fall were for scores between 650 and 800 in 1982 but only for scores between 650 and 690 in 1992. When the higher scores were added in for the later year, they showed clearly that, in fact, more students were doing well than ever.

In the three years since, the proportion of high scorers has continued to rise. Denis Doyle, a Heritage Foundation visiting fellow, voiced a popular belief in Issues ’96: The Candidate’s Briefing Book, 1996 , when he ascribed the rise in scores to Asian-American students. It is true that Asian-American students score much higher on the math SAT than do other ethnic groups, but they cannot account for most of the growth. In fact, there has been a 74 percent rise in the proportion of students scoring above 650 since 1981. Omit Asian students, and you still see a 57 percent increase.

Today most statistics continue to show what Silberman found twenty-five years ago: Now is better than then. Achievement-test scores are at record levels, and the number of students taking advanced-placement exams continues to rise even though the number of students has declined since the peak of the baby boom. Seven of the nine trends in reading, mathematics, and science tracked by the National Assessment of Educational Progress are at all-time highs. Factor out demographic changes in who takes the SAT, and there remains a small decline in verbal scores and none at all in math. And as noted earlier, the proportion of students scoring above 650 on the SATs is at an all-time high, and U.S. students are near the top in reading. The Third International Mathematics and Science Study of 1997, the largest and most sophisticated of the international studies in mathematics and science—our allegedly weakest areas—has found that among forty-one nations, American students are average to above average. Students in suburban schools measured alone ranked anywhere from first to fifth among nations, depending on age and subject.

 

The biggest threat to the American educational system may come not from within our schools but from the depth of our divisions over what exactly they should accomplish and how best to get them to accomplish it. And our divisions will not be healed as long as we ignore the history of the accomplishments that have already been made. We should begin improving our schools by appreciating how well they have, in most places and at most times, done so far.