The recently aired, million-dollar PBS series, "SCHOOL: The Story of American Public Education" purports to provide viewers with an unbiased history of public education in America. But not surprisingly, with programs produced by a network run by government interests, Americans are treated to the government's point of view.
And the government's point of view is unremittingly positive. SCHOOL describes America's public schools as "great social and political inventions," without qualification. Music, lighting and tone of narration cast supporters of the status quo in a positive light, while casting as a "challenge" to our democratic way of life the growing army of parents, teachers, lawmakers and students who stand up for reforms such as school choice. SCHOOL completely ignores the negative impact of unionization and centralization of the public education system, the millions of students failed by the system every year, and the rapidly growing dichotomy between money spent and student achievement.
Instead, SCHOOL looks at the changing face of public education since the days of Horace Mann and Thomas Jefferson, devoting significant time to public education since 1900, with a focus on modern reform efforts. This would be fine if it were not for the fact that certain facts are ignored. For example, since 1919, public school spending has increased by an estimated 1,300 percent in real terms; the student-to-teacher ratio is actually smaller today that it was 50 years ago; and the number of teachers with advanced degrees has more than doubled in recent decades.
If we take the SCHOOL series at face value, what matters most are money, certified teachers and teaching conditions, and class size. If these were the true measures, our children would be better educated than ever. Yet, when measured in terms of value added per dollar invested, American students rank last in international comparisons. A recent report by the Institute for Policy Innovation demonstrates that education at every level of government consumes more money today than does any program other than Social Security. In addition to academic mediocrity, what are we buying with all this money? Further losses: Lost production in the workplace and remedial training that has become the norm in our colleges and universities. One expert calculates that our public education policies will cost American businesses and institutions of higher learning $4.9 trillion between 1987 and 2010. A Mackinac Center for Public Policy study found that unprepared high school graduates cost Michigan's businesses and universities $601 million per year. Extrapolating that number nationwide yields an annual rough cost to American business and schools of $16.6 billion.
SCHOOL interviewees claim that the education crisis is overblown and that student achievement is on the rise. Yet, test scores have remained relatively flat in recent years, after a downward spirala three decade downward spiral encompassing the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Worse yet, despite hundreds of millions of new dollars spent on special programs, the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress results show that only a few states are making headway toward closing the achievement gap between white students and black and Hispanic students.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the SCHOOL series is its treatment of current, incentive-based reforms such as school choice. For example, the series ignores more than 60 studies documenting the successes of charter schools. There is no mention of the Arizona study showing that charter school students get the equivalent of an extra month of academic growth per year when compared to students at typical public schools. Ignored are the improvements achieved in Florida as a result of market pressures brought to bear through that state's voucher program.
Also ignored is the impact of the unionization of school employees and government officials. Is the fact that unionization tracks statistically with the dramatic drops in student achievement of the 1960s, 70s and 80s merely coincidence? And even if it were, wouldn't that be worth mentioning? Prior to the 1960s very few teachers belonged to a union. By the 1990s that number had risen to 75 percent. Since 1970, centralization of decision-making and funding has empowered bureaucrats and diminished the importance of taxpayers and parents, all coinciding with the precipitous drop in achievement.
Champions of the public school system don't do that system any favors by glossing over or ignoring its failings. As stalwart champions of democratic values as they may believe themselves to be, there's nothing democratic about ignoring the wishes and desires of millions of parents and students who want the freedom to choose a better way.
SCHOOL concludes with a quote from a Stanford historian, "I do not see any way to achieve a good future for our children more effectively than by debating together and working together on how we educate the next generation." Our question is: When will the public school establishment begin this process, and stop propagandizing in the service of what's wrong?