If the education establishment were to adopt a theme song, it might want to consider The Carpenters’ ballad "We’ve Only Just Begun." At least that’s the chorus that has gone up since the ABC News program 20/20 aired a special on public education titled, "Stupid in America: How Lack of Choice Cheats Our Kids Out of a Good Education."

Time and again the establishment’s defenders imply that "we’ve only just begun" to reform the public education system in America. But we’ve been reforming now for more than 50 years, and what we’ve tried isn’t working.

Stay Engaged

Receive our weekly emails!

One example of this refrain appeared in a Lansing State Journal Op-Ed by Ingham Intermediate School District Superintendent Stanley Kogut Jr. Like others in the establishment, Kogut was dismissive of reporter John Stossel’s findings based on numerous interviews of education officials, members of the teachers unions, parents, students, reformers and experts to find out whether American kids are "stupid" because they score significantly lower than students in many other countries on international tests. The program, which aired Jan. 13, was a sobering, sometimes maddening glimpse into what happens inside many public schools, and every American taxpayer or parent ought to see it.

I could quote statistic after statistic and study after study, but when you see on your television screen an 18-year-old who is unable to read a children’s book, you can’t avoid the conclusion that something is terribly wrong. And when you witness his Individual Education Program consultation where his school principal says he is doing just fine, you can’t help but be outraged at the injustice of a system that not only fails this student, but condones his performance and denies his mother’s desperate plea for help.

To give her and millions of other parents help, Stossel argued that just as American consumers have a choice about their cell phone plans, parents should be empowered to choose the kind and quality of their children’s education. Perhaps it’s this common sense conclusion that drove some educators, union representatives and administrators — like Mr. Kogut — over the top in their defense of the public education system.

Kogut’s objections, like most that the Stossel report has drawn, attempt to outflank Stossel with two tactics — challenge validity and seek a Regis Philbin lifeline. Kogut challenges the validity of Stossel’s report by saying that it’s "anecdotal" and based on international test results.

Anecdotal evidence isn’t reliable because it may highlight exceptional cases that deviate from the average experience. Stossel’s critics say he’s just found an exceptional 18-year-old who couldn’t read a children’s book. But how exceptional is he? According to the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, 52 percent of adults whose highest educational attainment is high school graduation are functionally unable to comprehend and interpret a continuous text. Only 42 percent of this group are able to comprehend and interpret a set of texts on a particular subject. Likewise, the 2003 International Adult Literacy and Lifeskills Survey tells a similar story. The average literacy scores for people ages 16 to 65 in five countries were significantly higher than Americans’ scores.

But international test results aren’t a valid comparison, Kogut insists, because other countries’ systems don’t try to be equitable.

Frankly, Kogut’s contention that, "The American education system was set up to help all students be successful" is baffling. By "all students," does he include minorities, who are caught by a perennial achievement gap that often narrows significantly in independent schools?[1] Does he mean students with disabilities, whose progress is often negligible because "the system" does not appropriately serve them?[2] Does he mean parents in urban areas who often fear for their children’s safety at school?

Perhaps he means the 18 percent of Michigan fourth-graders who did not meet state reading standards on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program test last year, or the 27 percent of seventh-graders whose achievement was below standard in the same subject. He surely could not mean the 22 percent of last year’s high school class, who did not have what the state considers an acceptable level of proficiency in reading.[3]

This leads directly to the second tactic Kogut and others use to attempt to outmaneuver Stossel — asking for a Regis Philbin lifeline. The clock is ticking. The public is watching. Like phoning a friend on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" the lifeliners claim they just need a little more time and input before they can fix problems that they’ve only just begun to address.

It’s as if bureaucrats suddenly woke up to find themselves in charge of a system on the road to destruction. They exempt themselves from all responsibility for the disastrous policies that created the problems. Furthermore, the timing of the disaster could hardly be worse, they say, given the "flattening" of the world through international competition in the "global knowledge economy."[4]

These well-intentioned defenders of the status quo claim, as Kogut does, that they’re giving high school dropouts a "second chance" with remedial education. But who squandered their first chance? They claim, as Kogut does, that they’ll work on better instructional methods. But what methods might be tried that haven’t been tested before? They claim, as Kogut does, that unions are working to improve education. But how much more money needs to be put into the system before we’ll realize that another spending increase won’t fix the problems? They claim, as Kogut does, that they’re working very hard. But who is questioning their earnestness?

They insist, as Kogut does, that parents already have choices and that parents aren’t involved anyway. But how can we gauge the efficacy of the current choices when they’re limited to the same schools and when parents don’t have basic liberties that would transform the current system? They insist, as Kogut does, that they’ve only started to fix the huge problems confronting them by pursuing solutions like more money or state graduation requirements. But hasn’t education reform been on the political agenda in fits and starts since the 1950s, while we have continued to struggle to impart the same basic competencies?

At this rate, we have a long way to go to improve kindergarten-through-12th-grade educational quality for every Michigan child. But if we Michiganians institute the kind of education policies that Stossel’s program illuminates — including parental choice and rewarding teachers based on their effectiveness — we’ll move from a perpetual state of "only just begun" to being "on top of the world." And it won’t be a flat world.


Ryan S. Olson is director of education policy at 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.

[1] See Mackinac Center for Public Policy, "How Ideology Perpetuates the Achievement Gap," Feb. 2, 2005 http://www.mackinac.org/6974

[2] See, for example, the summary in Marie Gryphon and David Salisbury, "Escaping IDEA: Freeing Parents, Teachers, and Students through Deregulation and Choice," especially p. 12 and pp. 22-23, notes 96-100. http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa444.pdf

[3] Michigan Department of Education, Michigan Educational Assessment Program, Winter 2005 Grades 4, 5, 7 and 8 MEAP Test Results and Class of 2005 Summary Data (http://michigan.gov/mde/0,1607,7-140-22709_31168 _31175---,00.html).

[4] Here they’re borrowing the theory of Thomas Friedman, "The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century" (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005). A few of Friedman’s assumptions have been indirectly called into question by Gary Gereffi and Vivek Wadhwa, "Framing the Engineering Outsourcing Debate: Placing the United States on a Level Playing Field with China and India"
(http://memp.pratt.duke.edu/downloads/duke_outsourcing_2005.pdf). For a summary of the study, see Salil Tripathi, "India’s Skill Shortage," The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 5, 2006 (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB113641402711637897-search.html ?KEYWORDS=duke+university& COLLECTION=wsjie/6month, subscription required).