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.