The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from ItselfEncounter Books, 2014, 112 pp., $21.50 The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private SchoolsUniversity of Chicago Press, 2013, 304 pp., $18 Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public SchoolsKnopf, 2013, 416 pp., $27.95
Ask any passerby on the street about the overall condition of public schools and undergraduate education in the United States and you’ll probably hear a lot of the same responses, most of them negative. Ask those same people how to make those schools better, though, and you’ll likely get a litany of varied solutions, each aimed at a different scapegoat within the system at large. Should we break up the teachers’ unions? Pass out more vouchers? Hold teachers and principals accountable with high-stakes test results? End tenure in our colleges?Everyone seems to have an opinion, especially if they happen to have school-age kids. But the truth of the matter is that most people really don’t have a clue as to what will fix our schools, and part of the reason is that most people have no experience of teaching within them. Not that being a teacher is an answer-all experience. Even as an in-the-trenches secondary school educator with more than ten years under my belt, the right and proper way to make our schools work better often eludes me. Alas, as with life in general, complications and tradeoffs abound. Fortunately, three recent books try anew to answer this complex question, and each makes interesting, possibly even useful, suggestions of where to go from here.Glenn Harlan Reynolds’s work, The New School, addresses what he takes to be the ailing higher education system, and it is difficult to disagree with his premise. In this concise book, Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee when he is not writing his very popular Instapundit blog, packs in convincing evidence that over the past thirty years the costs of a college education have more than quadrupled while the quality of the education purchased has declined. He accounts for this by looking at the inefficient systems that run these institutions, taking swipes at their bloated budgets and dwindling faculty.Reynolds likens the metastasizing economy of the university system to the housing bubble and warns of the possible effects of a burst bubble on the U.S. economy. Americans hold more than $1 trillion in outstanding student loans that can never be forgiven, even in bankruptcy. Given the high costs and dwindling returns of the traditional university path, says Reynolds, future students increasingly will seek out new modes of education and accreditation. And what would be better suited to this digitized 21st century than online universities? While Reynolds doesn’t suggest abandoning in-person models, he asserts that offering students the chance to attain online degrees at a fraction of the cost is a win-win scenario for all stakeholders.Most interesting to me and other pre-university-level educators, Reynolds directs some attention, toward the latter part of the book, to similar reforms in K–12 education. Already, 1.8 million American students have left the traditional brick and mortar schoolhouse and enrolled in an online education program such as Kaplan or K12.com. Reynolds notes how these programs help offset the staggering costs of education, which have been subject to “runaway increases” over the past forty years. He also points out how these online programs grant students more flexibility, allowing them to get internships or jobs while continuing their formal education. Finally, Reynolds asserts that these programs are better overall: “Current education isn’t just expensive; it’s also not very good.”The problem, however, is that his evidence is mostly anecdotal in this neck of the educational woods. While he provides a few examples of the growing costs and the unfavorable returns of education, he only looks at a few data sets and from these draws causation from simple correlation. Reynolds writes that in the lower grades online schooling would be a challenge for many but a great boon for some, namely highly motivated, self-sufficient students. His daughter, the proud father claims, thrived under Kaplan’s program, working three days a week at her schooling while spending the rest of her time working as an intern for a local TV production company. She graduated early and is now enrolled in a “public ivy.” However, it should be noted that this is a single case study, and Reynolds admits that “[s]ome kids don’t have the discipline to sit down at a computer every day and do schoolwork with no one looking over their shoulder.” Most kids do not have a successful law professor at home for guardianship and guidance either.In Christopher A. Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski’s The Public School Advantage, the authors, both professors at the University of Illinois, assess the oft-touted “private school effect.” Based on standardized testing results stemming from the 1980s, privatized education is widely considered to be superior, so there has been a strong push for “policies that encourage students to leave government-run schools for schools in the private sector.” President Ronald Reagan once stated that “existing institutions cannot solve the problem, because they are the problem”, and this increasingly popular philosophy contributed to this newfound push into the private sector. The book is quite technical, marshaling a thorough analysis to question the standard numbers used to tout private school successes and shame public educators. The usual evidence consists of ineffective measurements that ignore numerous confounding variables, which go well beyond the commonly scrutinized raw data. Much of the time, it seems, it amounts to propaganda or advertisement more than objective analysis.Rather than use high-stakes tests that are often subject of scandal and outright fraud, the Lubienskis use two “no-stakes” studies to evaluate student scores in public and private schools currently and longitudinally: The National Assessment of Educational Progress and the Early Childhood Longitudinal Program. The scores were then adjusted for a bevy of variables, including school diversity, socioeconomic status, and the number and percentage of independent education plans (IEPs) within a given data set. In other words, the authors bracketed the inherent inequities that exist between public and private schools, which are usually ignored in the data collection that supports the “private school effect.” The Lubienskis note, for example, that a student in a private school likely has had a parent who has taken the time to research such a school and help the student apply and enroll. That student likely lives with involved parents, and that factor alone can strongly advantage private schools in a direct comparison with public ones.The authors arrive at one overarching conclusion: Public schools outperform their private counterparts, and the numbers that claim otherwise are, to say the least, misguided. In fact, the authors found that, when studies control for demographic variables, students attending a public school will outperform their Catholic school cohorts and perform as well if not better than those in charter schools. These findings have been backed up by recent studies conducted by both Stanford and Notre Dame University, leading the Lubienskis to conclude that “while many parents may see the individual reasons to secure a spot in a private school for their children, as a general policy measure reflected in myriad reform proposals and programs, such moves are inherently flawed, according to these data.”Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error addresses the spreading charter school movement in the United States. Ravitch has been an avid opponent of charter schools for years, and her critics chastise her for attacking their efforts to solve what they call an “education crisis” in this country while never offering her own solutions. Here Ravitch not only deploys vast amounts of data to support her claims that current moves toward high-stakes testing, voucher systems, charter schools, and online classrooms are a detriment to K-12 student learning; she also hands her critics the solutions they’ve long sought from her.Ravitch concludes, controversially but still persuasively, that to fix the schools we need to fix the society that hosts them. We cannot address math scores, she says, without also addressing poverty and the plight of children who come of age in it:
Gaps exist between [advantaged and disadvantaged] students because they have been exposed to very different environments. Some children hear words and have a large vocabulary; others do not. Some children have parents who are college educated; others do not. Some get regular visits to the doctor and dentist; others do not. Some live in comfortable homes in safe neighborhoods; others do not.
Ravitch goes on to present evidence from studies asserting that these factors account for 60 percent of a child’s educational success, while teachers, even by the most aggressive data, only account for 25 percent. She points out that the foreign school systems to which we compare ourselves all have less poverty than ours. (Finland’s poverty rate, for example, is 5 percent; ours is 25 percent.) Like the Lubienskis, Ravitch shows that America’s public schools currently are working: Graduation rates are very high, test scores in math and English have increased, and, while well-known and much-lamented achievement gaps among ethnic groups and socio-economic classes still exist, all sides of the chasm have continually done better, according to twenty years of longitudinal data keeping by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). As Ravitch points out when parsing the NAEP data, it quite accurately controls for extenuating variables that come with the systematic pressure put on all stakeholders within the school community.The only real solution to the issues manifest in schools with many impoverished children, Ravitch argues, requires that society address malnourishment, ensure proper pediatric medical care, and create an extensive pre-K system to get kids on the right track early on.1 Her conclusion is that to fix the schools we must first fix the underlying social issues that betray them. As W.E.B. DuBois once said, “No school, as such, can organize industry, or settle the matter of wage and income, can found homes or furnish parents, can establish justice or make a civilized world.” Such solutions may not be as easy to implement as simply mandating merit-based pay for teachers or instituting high-stakes assessment rating systems of schools, but they are the only ones, her data shows, that will actually work. If this puts the testing “industry” out of business, the book suggests, Ravitch won’t lose any sleep over it.Years of teaching experience, both in the classroom and online, confirm that all three of these books shed light on the complexities of our education system, its merits as well as its flaws. We are certain that Band-Aid-style solutions, such as a greater emphasis on high-stakes assessment, privatized education, and merit pay, don’t fix the big-picture problems that plague the system.As to improper conclusions drawn from test scores, I (Jared Pulliam) remember one instance during my second year of teaching. I had gotten a job at a particularly affluent school in the county where I grew up. The high school I had attended was one of the more problematic schools that had come under a lot of scrutiny under the implementation of No Child Left Behind. Due to plain happenstance I had been promoted to team leader of my subject area, National, State and Local Government. Due to my school’s high performance on the county-wide test for the past few years, teachers from lower-performing schools were forced to come and watch me teach for a day to see what best practices I was implementing that they could use to increase their own scores. On that day the best teacher I had had at my old high school had to sit in the back of my room and watch me, a second-year teacher who still had barely a clue as to what she was doing, only because my scores were better than his. Those scores didn’t take into account the socioeconomic realities of his school, the tutors used by many of my students, or even the fact that several of my kids were the sons and daughters of policymakers in Washington, DC, as opposed to my old school, made up of blue-collar working families like mine.Taken together, these three works drive home the point that many an overzealous education reformer needs to hear: no pet project can fix the problem, not least because there isn’t one problem—there are many. While some kids might be “waiting for Superman”, as the title of a recent documentary on education reform put it, public schools have gotten better over the past thirty years. Schools are placing greater emphasis on the use of technology, interweaving disciplines, using differentiation to engage students of all learning styles, and allowing greater opportunities for students of all backgrounds and learning abilities to succeed in their K–12 education.Regardless of how you look at the numbers or how you evaluate charter schools, online education, or unionized labor, the one undeniable fact is that when it comes to education, our children’s future is at risk, and it’s our job as citizens and teachers to guarantee them the greatest opportunities possible. The system this side of university life isn’t the failed enterprise it is so often labeled to be, but we can do better—much better. We owe that much to our children, and to our nation’s future.
1Rhena Jasey expands on this point in “Still Separate and Unequal”, The American Interest (September/October 2012).