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The Myth of America's Broken Education System


Education reform is not a new topic in American discourse. The No Child Left Behind Act–perhaps the most extensive education reform carried out in the US in the past half century–was passed in 2001. Fourteen years later, its results are mixed, to say the least.

But what if there was nothing to reform in the first place? What if the “education crisis” is another resilient, yet false, construct?

The common scapegoats for the perceived failures of our education system are administrators, teachers’ unions, uninvolved parents, and government meddling. To be sure, most critics pick one or two of the above, rather than all of them. Critics of unions believe that teachers have so much power they prevent meaningful reforms. Critics of administrators believe that teachers will do a great job if bureaucrats would simply get out of their way. Those who pin the blame on parents see it as a cultural issue: some people simply don’t value education. And then there’s the contingent that blames politicians and/or the government–government is either doing too little or too much when it comes to education, and it needs to change.

But what if they are all wrong, or at least wrong about what the underlying issues are?

Purdue University professor John Staver offers a different set of explanations. The bottom line: adjusting for child poverty rates, American students are just as academically competitive as European ones, meaning any talk of a “crisis” is completely overblown:

Whereas America is first in the number of high performers, we simultaneously have larger numbers of the lowest performers. Berliner and Glass argue that this phenomenon is due to an excessive child poverty rate — over 20 percent — in relation to comparable countries. For example, Finland’s average scores remain at or near the top across several administrations of Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests; however, Finland’s child poverty rate is below 5 percent. Many researchers assert that a 10 percent maximum poverty rate would result in more equitable scores. Analysis of PISA scores that include only U.S. schools whose student poverty rate is below 10 percent show that the U.S. would score first worldwide. Second, students take international tests in their homeland, in their native language. Translation problems occur frequently; therefore, test difficulty issues influence test scores. For example, Berliner and Glass discuss a 1991 study that reported results on a vocabulary question. Finnish and American students were asked if the words “sanguine” and “pessimistic” were antonyms or synonyms. Unfortunately, “sanguine” had no counterpart in Finnish language; therefore, “optimistic” replaced “sanguine” on the Finnish test, which substantially decreased the difficulty of the question. Ninety-eight percent of Finnish students answered correctly compared to 50 percent of U.S. students. Because translation problems occur frequently, it is not safe to conclude that versions of tests administered in different languages have the same difficulty. Another well-known international assessment is Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which originated in the 1960s. American students scored at the bottom in the first TIMSS assessment, improved in subsequent assessments, and now place above the international average. The 2011 TIMSS fourth and eighth grade mathematics results reveal that American students’ average score was higher than fourth- and eighth-grade Finnish children. These U.S. students’ families exhibited less than 50 percent poverty rates. Moreover, Massachusetts participated as a country. The state of Massachusetts exhibits high unionization, high preschool attendance, low unemployment and almost universal health care. Massachusetts’ students scored above all but a few Asian countries, and the average of Massachusetts’ black public school students was higher than the mean of Finnish students. Today’s corporate education reformers use international test results to argue that American K-12 public schools are broken. Yet, research-based evidence calls into question such attacks on American public education. Analyses of students’ scores on two international assessments are not sufficient to provide thorough, sound, evidence-based insights about the status of American K-12 education. However, research has long identified a major problem for American K-12 education that remains at large. Its name is poverty. **When will policy makers seriously engage and act to solve the problem of poverty?**

When, indeed? (Emphasis mine.)

The US government used to be engaged in a so-called “war on poverty.” It began with President Johnson in the ‘60s. Despite some initial successes–indeed, some of the programs pioneered in that era, such as Head Start and Job Corps, still exist–there’s been little enthusiasm for addressing systemic poverty in America. Instead, we’ve had decades of deregulation, and the rise of anti-government conservatism which is deeply hostile toward effective poverty reduction policies.

I believe I’ve linked this before, but it’s worth reiterating: the government didn’t lose the war on poverty, it switched sides:

Both the number and the percentage of families in poverty dropped sharply during the 1960s when the “War on Poverty” was being waged actively, and remained near their all-time lows through the Nixon and Carter years until 1979, when the Volcker recession hit, followed by the election of Ronald Reagan. These events can reasonably be said to mark the point at which the government unequivocally changed sides. The number of households in poverty has risen steadily since then and is now higher than in 1959, the year for which the poverty level was first defined by Mollie Orshansky. The poverty rate has remained consistently higher than in the 1970s, except for a brief deep at the peak of the late-1990s boom. A quick note on the data: Unlike most other countries, the US uses an absolute poverty line, rather than a measure set relative to median income. Orshansky estimated a food budget that was adequate but austere by the standards of 1960, then multiplied the cost by 3 on the basis that the food share of a poor families budget should be 1/3. It’s been adjusted for inflation since then, but not increased in real terms. It might be argued that the CPIoverstates inflation somewhat. But much the same point applies to measures of GDP per person which has increased dramatically over the 35 years since the US government stopped fighting poverty and started fighting the poor.

To the extent there is an education crisis in this country, it is actually more of a poverty crisis. Problems with administrators, teachers’ unions, uninvolved parents, and government dysfunction are all rather beside the point–these are red herrings at best, outright falsehoods at worst. The only serious means of correcting poor educational outcomes is correcting the underlying cause, which is poverty itself.

How is poverty addressed? The research is clear: you give people money. That’s it. That’s exactly how Social Security works. It’s exactly how unemployment and welfare benefits work. And those programs _work, at least as much as they are permitted to._ It may seem obvious–as if it’s too simple a solution–that the answer to people not having enough money is to just give them some. But it’s the truth. It’s effective. But because it involves many of our basic assumptions about the interplay between economics, politics, and the individual responsibilities of citizens, we are reluctant to do it. We would rather treat economics as a morality play rather than a complex, technical system where particular inputs produce certain outputs. We would rather obscure what the numbers tell us than admit we’ll enforce policies that generate human misery when policies that would reduce it challenge our moral assumptions.

And that’s something they don’t really teach you in school, either.

Photo by cogdogblog