Dancing Around Education: A 170-Year Waltz With Reform

(The following remarks were delivered to a Bluegrass Institute audience on Nov. 16, 2004 in Crescent Springs, Kent.)

I'd like to begin by discussing a little volume that was published in 1886. I’d be amazed if anyone in the room had ever heard of this book before today, because it has been obscured by history — though, if you had lived in the latter part of the 19th century, you might very well have read it. If you were an educator, you definitely would have read it. It’s an intriguing book, not just because of its content, but because it was written in 1886.

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Before I tell you the title, I’d like to place its appearance in the context of the history of American public schools. The year 1886 was not quite 50 years after Horace Mann in 1839 began organizing the first schools in America as state-mandated, state-controlled and state-funded endeavors. As the first Secretary of Education ever in America, Mann promoted these schools to replace the locally controlled, locally funded schools that America had relied on for more than 200 years before 1839.

As far as I know, this was the very first book ever to use data to demonstrate that the system Mann created was unsuccessful. The book utilized decennial census data of the era to show government schools, even then in their infancy, had failed to correct the social ills they were supposed to ameliorate, such as crime, unemployment and illiteracy.

While it is the first book of its kind, you can be sure that many more have followed in the nearly 120 years since it was written. The title of the book is, "Poison Drops in the Federal Senate: The School Question from a Parental and Non-Sectarian Standpoint, an Epitome of the Educational Views of Zach. Montgomery, on Account of Which Views a Stubborn but Fruitless Effort was made in the United States Senate to Prevent His Confirmation as Assistant Attorney General." And to that we can all say a prayer of thanksgiving that the current market for book titles is much shorter.

I open my remarks with this book because its appearance only 50 years after government schools came into existence illustrates so well that there never has been a "Golden Age" or a "halcyon era" in American public schools — to borrow the words of Diane Ravitch, a premier education historian. Indeed, the call for education reform has been going pretty much nonstop since Horace Mann began promoting schools that were owned and controlled by the state almost 170 years ago. It would be an understatement to say that it’s a problem we seem to have difficulty in resolving.

Yet what function in our culture could be more important than the education of our children? We know that their future prosperity depends on a good education; indeed, the very survival of the United States as a free society depends on well-educated citizens, as our founding fathers understood. This contrast — the fact that we’ve unsuccessfully tried to reform education for 170 years against the backdrop of its importance — raises two critical questions.

First, why is education so difficult to reform, such that after 170 years of trying, two out of three American fourth-graders in public schools can’t even read proficiently for their grade level? And second, after 170 years of trying to reform education, are there any public policies that work?

In the brief time I have for this speech, let me attempt to ask and answer these two questions.

As you might imagine, the answer to the first question — why has education reform proved so difficult? — is layered with complexity. But I want to share seven basic observations that illustrate why education reform has proven so elusive for 170 years:

  1. The ideological origins of compulsory education are not as open, democratic and fundamentally American as you might think. The modern source for the idea that a proper use of coercive power by the government may include forcing parents to send their children to a school that the state owns and controls actually began in the aggressive military aristocracy of 19th century Prussia. Historically, the idea more than 2,000 years old, going back to the military aristocracy of ancient Sparta.

    "The State of Public Instruction in Prussia," a book published in 1835, was actually used by many early American educators, such as Horace Mann, to model the American system. But many wonder if a system created to mold the thinking of young Prussians for unquestioning obedience to the State is actually appropriate to a free society such as ours. It is this question, among others, that I think is fueling the modern home-school movement.

  2. There are irreconcileable worldviews in the theories of the major educational theorists and philosophical thinkers of the past three centuries. The differences stem from the simple question, "What is the purpose of education?" No one has been able to answer it in a way that satisfies everyone.

    A state-run monopoly on schools merely imposes its own worldview on children, usually regardless of what families think or want — an issue that is as relevant today as it was when Montgomery wrote about in 1886.

  3. Curriculum — a word which we derive from the Latin root for a chariot course — contains the same issue of competing worldviews.

    Upon hearing the origin of the word curriculum, a friend of mine joked, "No wonder our kids are running around in circles, not getting anywhere." But the present day battle for control over the curriculum is no laughing matter. In 21 states, including Kentucky, a form of official government censorship exists by requiring state level approval for textbook adoption.

    A recent study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute shows how this process results in textbooks that are a collection of politically correct, mind-numbing amalgams of factually light, factually irrelevant or even factually erroneous information.

  4. An honest look at past American policy paints an unflattering picture of discrimination, in which government officials blocked the schoolhouse door to keep black children locked out from opportunity. Though such polices are now unlawful, present policy often has government employees blocking the schoolhouse door to keep black children locked in chronically failing schools, thereby depriving them again of opportunity.

    Government policy does this despite the black-white achievement gap which has been so well chronicled by scholars like Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Abigail Thernstrom and others. Although I don’t have time to discuss this huge issue at length, the Bluegrass Institute will be hosting Ms. Thernstrom in January 26-27, 2005.

  5. Beginning in 1960, teachers associations like the National Education Association morphed into labor unions. Since that first strike, teachers unions have extracted hundreds of millions of dollars in dues from members across the country that they use as a political war chest to advance their own agenda, which extends way past what should and shouldn’t happen in the classroom or the school.

    The power of the unions is so strong in influencing public education that author Peter Brimelow refers to their influence on the government school system as "a monopoly on top of a monopoly," because both have what amounts to exclusive rights over public education.

  6. Education reform has been even more difficult because the federal government has gotten involved. Although the feds had been involved at a distance since the mid-1800s, their power came to be felt when the former Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, and it has continued right through the current No Child Left Behind Act — the biggest federal education law ever, funded next year at around $60 billion dollars.

    And this is really only a drop in the bucket. Education spending at the local, state and federal levels now tops an almost incomprehensible figure of a half-trillion dollars per year — an average of about $10,000 per year per student.

  7. We can’t agree on how learning should be properly assessed; how schools should be accredited; or how teachers should be held accountable, compensated, prepared or certified. And a question I’ve been asking is, "If teacher certification and accreditation are the hallmarks of educational excellence, how is it that so many children who attend accredited schools under certified teachers can’t perform at grade level?"

These seven areas have profound implications by themselves, but when they interact, they create almost intractable problems.

For example, if you take an inner-city school in which two out of three black children can’t read at grade level — such as in Detroit — and you mix that with subject matter from inadequate textbooks presented by unionized teachers who eschew any form of accountability in a system that spends an average of more than $12,000 per year per student and that is so corrupt that the state had to take control of it, what is the solution?

After hearing this overview, you may be wondering if there is anything that does work. This brings us to the second question I posed earlier: After 170 years of attempting to reform the system, are there any public policies that work?

I ask you first to note the wording of the question: I used the term "public policies."

I posed the question that way intentionally because people sometimes object to education reform by saying things like, "If every parent cared about their child’s education, they would become more involved, and that would solve the problem." As wonderful as that would be, making it happen requires "the power of the cosmos," to use the words of economist Thomas Sowell. This is a power we don’t have.

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do to improve our schools.

We can begin by considering policies that worked before we created the current education monopoly, or policies that are being used by countries whose students are outperforming ours and that we haven't already tried.

So I return again to Zach Montgomery’s book from 1886. Montgomery demonstrated that education worked better when it was directly controlled by parents at the local level, rather than by the government. This is a pretty simple idea, yet its implications are far-reaching.

Think about it for a moment. Who knows better what kind of school your children need — you, or the government? You know their dislikes and likes, their temperament, their character, their abilities and their strengths and weaknesses. Rather than sending your child to a one-size-fits-all school controlled by the government, wouldn’t it be great if there were many schools from which you could choose?

And using some rudimentary principles of economics, if there were many schools from which to choose, wouldn’t only the better schools tend to stay in business? They would have to rely on the quality of their program for students (and thus their funding), instead of relying on the government’s current method of assigning children (and money) to their school on the basis of a zip code.

These premises are the bedrock of an education reform movement that has been gradually expanding in America for the past 15 years or so. Broadly known as "the school-choice movement," these policies have taken different shapes in different places, but they have one thing in common: They give parents the ability to choose the best and safest education for their children.

For this reason, I prefer to call this reform, "the parental choice in education movement" because that’s what it is. Things like charter schools, vouchers — which are like the GI Bill for elementary and secondary school students — education tax credits, magnet schools and similar proposals are public policies that we can enact that effect and sustain real reform. And there is a growing mountain of data that demonstrates that parental choice in education and competition actually work.

But what of other countries that produce better educated students than we have for the past four decades? What are their policies?

Obviously in a short presentation such as this, I don’t have time to review the structure of public education of every country around the globe, but let me just tell you about the Netherlands. Noted author and scholar Andrew J. Coulson has recently written about this.

The Netherlands has a universal voucher system, meaning that parents can at public expense send their children to any school public or private. This has been their public policy for 87 years. The result is that about three-fourths of all Dutch children attend private schools.

How does such a policy impact student performance? As Coulson notes, "Dutch high school seniors and recent graduates score first in the world in mathematics, second in science, and fourth in literacy. By comparison, American seniors and recent graduates score 19th in math, 16th in science, and 12th in literacy."

Coulson points out that America's poor results extend to our best students: "When the top 10 percent of our high school seniors were compared to top seniors in other nations on tests of mathematics and physics, they placed second to last in both subjects against other countries for which the data were available, and behind every other industrialized country."

Clearly this should indicate to all policymakers that after 170 years, reform is needed.

As you look to Kentucky’s future, I encourage you to work with the fine scholars of the Bluegrass Institute, which is committed to giving every parent the power to choose the best and safest school for their children. In the end, the families of Kentucky will prosper, and our nation will remain free.

And 170 years from now, people will refer to the thoughts we've discussed today as the model for an education system that really works.


Brian L. Carpenter is director of leadership development for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.