U.S. and international testing, Part 3: The demonization of public education by the right


by David Safier

This is the last in a series of posts about the latest international test scores for reading, math and science. Here are the first, second and third posts.

A balanced reading of the latest international tests shows U.S. schools to be very competitive with schools in other developed nations. Our scores, if not the best in the world, are reasonably high, and very often quite a bit higher than many European countries. Even more encouraging, our scores improved since the last round of tests. Yet most of the headlines and stories I read emphasized the few countries that came out ahead of us and the areas where our scores were lowest. A reasonably positive international comparison was turned into yet another criticism of our schools.

Why? Because the steady drumbeat for the past 30+ years by conservative "education reformers" has convinced people, including many in the media, that our schools are failures, so too often the media is willing to accept the naysayers' analysis of the data as fact.

Somewhere in the middle of the Reagan administration, the right's demonization of public education began accelerating. It was no longer enough to say we needed to improve our schools, which everyone agrees with. Our entire system of public education was a total and abject failure, conservatives told us. The Reagan administration's famous "A Nation at Risk" actually compared our schools to a plot by our enemies to weaken the country. Our schools, according to the report, were that bad. Not coincidentally, this attack on public education came at the same time the phrase "The government is the problem" came into popular use by high level politicians and other conservatives. The crusade to shrink government meant shrinking public schools along with other services that promote the general welfare. Privatization was the order of the day. School vouchers were on conservatives' lips. The country's first charter schools began in the early 90s.

The problem for conservatives was, the facts didn't support their thesis that our schools were failures. For the past 30 to 40 years, student achievement has risen steadily across all racial and economic categories. I.Q.'s are measurably higher. Until the 1980's every decade of the 20th century had more of our high school aged population in school and increasing graduation rates. Since the 80s, those numbers haven't risen, but that doesn't deny the fact that school attendance is at a historic high. Today's best public schools are probably better than any in the history of the country and rival our best private schools in quality. And most serious academic studies indicate that neither charters nor private schools do a better job than district schools at educating similar students.

Of course, there are serious problems with our schools, mostly schools with low income populations. But our schools have never done a good job educating those students. Truth be told, I don't know of any country in the world that raises the achievement of low income students to the level of their higher income peers. And since fewer of those difficult-to-educate students are dropping out, their percentage of the overall school population has increased, making it look like we're doing a worse job educating students when in fact we're struggling to reach students who before were considered unreachable.

The emphasis on standardized testing is one of the conservatives' favorite tools, because it puts a number, a score, on the "failure" of our schools, and numbers can be cherry-picked to prove whatever a propagandist wants to prove. It's easy, for instance, to point to AIMS scores to "prove" Arizona schools in low income areas are failures, so those schools should have money stripped from them and students should be given vouchers to attend private schools. And so on.

I won't rehash my measured-but-positive analysis of the U.S. results in the latest international scores. You can read the analysis in my earlier posts, linked to at the top of this post. But let me say once more: We should be giving more measured praise to the quality of our public schools and their efforts to educate every child of school age. And we should pour time, money and research into creating strategies to improve the level of achievement of our lowest-achieving students, which is where our schools are most lacking.


  1. In agreement with Jana Happel: “the right has pursued an agenda to privatize public education and has cherry picked data to do so.” As a retired statistician, I am reminded of the saying: Figures lie and liars figure! Data can be manipulated to come to any conclusion you may proffer. The public school system is the cornerstone of a democracy. We would be wise to protect ours with all the strength we have!!!!!!!

  2. Rep. Kavanagh, studies comparing test scores in Arizona with scores in other states have indicated that Arizona students perform worse on the tests than comparable groups in other states — across the board. That means upper middle class students in an Arizona high rent school district would have lower scores than similar students in other states. The same is true with all economic and racial categories except one — African Americans. But they represent such a small percentage of the Arizona population, it doesn’t make for a good comparison.

    So let’s put that finding together with the information from the international tests. Overall, U.S. students are pretty competitive with students in other countries based on international test scores. As I wrote in part 2 of this series, we know that states in some parts of the country perform better than others — those in the Northeast, for instance, especially Massachusetts — and others perform worse — especially many states in the South, but also including Arizona. Arizona’s low scores are most likely increased by a factor other than its population’s economic and ethnic makeup. Most likely that other factor is our lowest-in-the-nation spending per student.

    So yes, budget cuts have hurt our children’s educations and their chances of competing with other students in the country. “Decimate” is too strong a term, in my estimation, but our budget cuts are very likely handicapping Arizona’s children. Maybe you feel comfortable with the idea that your actions are handicapping, rather than decimating, the economic future of our children and our state. I don’t.

  3. Rep. Kavanagh, Those who complain that budget cuts have decimated education are not “speaking critically of education.” They are speaking critically of you.

    Since you took the time to post here and engage in the discussion, it would be welcome if you addressed the issue raised, which is that the right has pursued an agenda to privitize public education and has cherry picked data to do so.

  4. Educators and proponents of education have spent the last four years complaining that budget cuts have decimated education in Arizona. It’s not just conservatives speaking critically of education.