Are Public Schools Failing?

No

Enemies of public education and even well-meaning critics frequently take the schools to task for everything from low achievement and high dropout rates to bureaucratic unresponsiveness. But all of these so-called failings of the public education system are based on false impressions or drastic exaggerations.

Much of our bounty today- a vigorous economy, record employment levels, a strong nation- is due in great part to the American public education system. Public school parents overwhelmingly and consistently give "A" and "B" grades to the schools their children attend.

As you read this, 47 million children are heading back to public schools in America, 1.9 million of them in Michigan. The national school attendance rate is 92 percent. Ninety-nine percent of those children are safe in their schools and in most cases are also in clean and wholesome environments. You hear on the news some nights about the one or two American schools that have had a major problem. Meanwhile, all the rest of the teachers are teaching and students are learning.

National statistics show that most other complaints about the schools are false. The national high school dropout rate- at 5 percent in 1996- is at an all-time low. Achievement has increased gradually for 30 years in reading, as scored by both national and international tests. We lead the world in reading at fourth and eighth grades. Our adult literacy rate is among the highest in the world at 92 percent of the adult population.

We led the world in 1998 in fourth-grade science, and we performed well compared to other industrialized nations for eighth-grade science. SAT scores have increased gradually over the last 10 years. We are graduating more students from college than ever before, and that includes producing a higher percentage of scientists now than 20 years ago. The achievement gap between minority and white students has narrowed.

Even more remarkable, the average hourly cost to educate a child in American public schools is $5.63less than what most private day-care programs charge.

Overall, public schools have responded to the demands to improve, but have gotten no credit for their historical contributions to society. Recent achievements have all but been ignored.

Those of us who support public schools are not apologists for poor teaching, sloppy and ineffectual management, rigid and autocratic administrators, or arbitrary union contracts. There are areas where reform is needed- but not the wholesale destruction of the institution that helped create our vast middle class.

We know, for example, that children of the poor do poorly in school, whether they live in large cities, poverty-ridden rural areas, or on reservations. How to serve poor children better is the true crisis in public education. But the problems facing poor children will not be solved by schools alone; the Detroit reform effort, for example, will work if it coordinates all the political, social, and economic resources available.

The onslaught on our schools is led by a paper-thin coalition of political leaders who want to dismantle all government-run social services; religious groups that want government support for parochial schools; and a liberal elite that believes all public schools should mirror college preparatory private schools. Taken together, they are a powerful and vocal force that dominates the debate on the future of education in America.

But we are one nation largely because of the unifying force of public education. Look around the world to the schisms in nations from India to Kosovo there, you will see what life is like without a strong and universal public education system.

Guy Blackburn, Ph. D., is a policy analyst for the Oakland Intermediate School District.