The end of the school year and the layoffs of tens of thousands of teachers are bringing more attention to reformers’ calls to remake public schools. Today’s school reform movement conflates the motivations and agendas of politicians seeking reelection, religious figures looking to spread the faith and bureaucrats trying to save a dime. Despite an often earnest desire to help our nation’s children, reformers have spread some fundamental misunderstandings about public education.
1. Our schools are failing.
It’s true that schools with large numbers of low-income and English-as-a-second-language students don’t perform as well as those with lots of middle- and upper-middle-class students who speak only English. But the demonization of some schools as “dropout factories” masks an important achievement: The percentage of Americans earning a high school diploma has been rising for 30 years. According to the Department of Education, the percentage of 16-to-24-year-olds who were not enrolled in school and hadn’t earned a diploma or its equivalent fell to 8 percent in 2008.
Average SAT and ACT scores are also up, even with many more — and more diverse — test-takers. On international exams such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, U.S. elementary and middle school students have improved since 1995 and rank near the top among developed countries. Americans do lag behind students in Asian nations such as Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan on these tests, but so do Europeans. The gap in math and science scores may be an East-West divide.