Public Education in America

The Failure of American Public Education

John HoodMany American critics believe that the major problem with public education today is a lack of focus on results. Students aren’t expected to meet high standards, the argument goes, and the process of education takes precedence over analyzing education results in policy-making circles.

This is a valid argument (as far as it goes). Indeed, it can be taken one important step further. We not only fail to hold individual students accountable for poor performance, we have also failed to hold the entire government-controlled school system accountable for its performance since at least World War II. Public education is itself a failure. Why shouldn’t individual students follow its example?

The history of reform efforts in American public education is replete with half-hearted measures, with almost comical misdiagnoses of education problems, with blame-shifting, and with humbug. Everyone is an expert (most have, of course, suffered through the very system they want to reform). At any one time during the course of school reform, an illusion of debate often obscures a surprising consensus on the heralded “magic bullet” of the decade—be it school centralization or progressive education or preschool education or computerizing the classroom—that will solve America’s education problems. These magic bullets always misfire. But instead of changing their weapon, policy-makers simply put another round in the chamber, foolishly believing that the newest fad will succeed despite the failures of its predecessors.

Some critics believe that public education reforms fail because they are compromised or sabotaged by the education lobbies—teacher associations, administrators, and the legislators in their pockets. There is certainly some truth to that explanation, as we shall see. But in many cases, attributing the failure of reform to subversion merely exonerates that reform. Most reform ideas are either irrelevant or destructive of education. They would fail whether organized political interests opposed them or not.

Many conservatives believe that American public education is in poor shape today because of cultural and social trends, most beginning in the 1960s, which destroyed classroom discipline, the moral basis for education, and a national consensus on what students should learn. Again, there is some truth in this proposition, but ultimately it fails to explain why American students do not possess the communication and computational skills they need today to succeed in college or in the working world.

Furthermore, many free-market thinkers believe that applying market competition to the public schools will solve many of America’s educational problems. I’m sympathetic to this argument, but it ignores the role of government policies other than student assignment to schools, which inhibit school success. When government policy continues to impose rigid personnel rules, bureaucracy, regulations, and a mandate to use education to engineer social or political outcomes, a school cannot successfully impart the needed skills, knowledge, and perspective to its students—whether these students choose to be there or not.

Lastly, the rhetoric of school reform often ignores the crucial role of individual decisions (by students, by parents, by business owners, by educators) in determining educational outcomes. You can lead a horse to water, the old adage goes, but you can’t make him drink. It’s a folksy way of imparting an important individualist truth. Providing students opportunities at school does not guarantee success if students watch television rather than do their homework—and parents let them. By assuming that any set of reform ideas can magically create a well-educated citizenry, we oversell the role of policy-making. Education requires initiative, a trait notoriously difficult to create or impose.

A Century of Reform

Public education and public-education reform share a common history. There is no past paradise when all students excelled. There is no perfect prototype for public education hidden in history, to be uncovered today and bestowed on a thankful nation. Rather, American public education is best thought of, historically, as mediocre. It was a serviceable system for preparing students for an agrarian or assembly-line world in which only an elite pursued higher education.

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