Why is it that now with a bustling economy, rising productivity, and shrinking unemployment American public schools are not receiving credit for the turnaround? In light of scathing criticism of poorly performing public schools, the question sounds foolish. It isn’t if you consider the Great School Scam of the 1980’s.
For the last decade, U.S. Presidents, corporate leaders, and critics blasted public schools for a globally less competitive economy, sinking productivity, and jobs lost to other nations. The United States, as one highly popular report put it in 1983, had educationally disarmed itself in a hostile economic war. “If only to keep and improve on the slim competitive edge we still retain in world markets,” the report said, “we must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational system.”
And school reforms have spilled over the country since the early 1980’s. States legislated higher graduation requirements, a longer school year, new curricula, and more tests for students. This year, national school reformers using this belief in better schools as an engine for a better economy crowned their efforts with strong bipartisan support for President Clinton’s education bill setting eight national goals while establishing standards and tests to prod 15,000 school districts to reach those goals.
Reforms have occurred. More students take academic subjects than in the 1970’s. Scores on tests of basic skills are higher now than in previous decades. More students go to college than ever before. That is why I ask: Now that America outstrips Japan and Germany in labor productivity, economic growth, and share of world merchandising exports, why haven’t public schools received the educational equivalent of the Oscars?
Not even a cheaply framed certificate of merit is in the offing for public schools. For the myth of better schools as the engine for a leaner, stronger economy was a scam from the very beginning. Even though few reputable economists ever equated declining test scores with declining global competitiveness–critics of public schools did. Even though most corporate leaders knew that falling productivity was connected to shifting technologies, restructured industries, and poor managerial judgments–they joined business round tables to lobby for school reforms. Even though Presidents Bush and Clinton knew that stimulating economic growth depended far more on fiscal and monetary policies than turning around schools–they pressed for national goals and standards. The bumper sticker was: Better schools, a better economy! Thus the lack of praise for the performance of public schools as the economy has brightened exposes the deceitful political logic of a decade of school reform.
When business leaders and national public officials blamed schools for an unhealthy economy, they avoided harsher public judgments about inept governmental and corporate policies and helplessness in the face of intransigent economic cycles. The political appeal of cunningly simplistic solutions for intractable problems is not, of course, confined to public schools. The current frenzy for three-strikes-you’re-out legislation to rid streets of dangerous criminals, for example, or anti-crime bills that fund more prisons are instances of public officials desperately seeking policies that masquerade as action but have little promise of eliminating the problems that initially triggered the bleak search for solutions. Gulling the public with ersatz solutions remains politically attractive.
What makes the educational swindle tricky to uncover is that no conspirators hatched the fraud. No covey of grifters dreamed up the scam over a few beers. Business leaders, national and state policymakers, and practitioners saw the obvious political appeal of harnessing schools to building a stronger economy and dreamed that such concerted efforts to improve schools would indeed improve the economy. The media amplified the delusion. What occurred was a widespread, self-inflicted, but politically useful deception anchored in deep confusion over the many purposes public schools serve in a democracy.
For almost two centuries the public has wanted its schools to do many things. Schools have been expected to take safe care of children while they are in school six to 12 or more hours a day. Schools have been expected to bend children’s minds toward the values that each community prizes and away from behaviors like drug abuse, careless sexual activity, and other destructive acts that adults have trouble controlling. Schools have been expected to create communities of children where learning and decency are valued. Furthermore, schools have been expected to create literate citizens who can make wise public judgments, contribute to their communities, and become useful workers and entrepreneurs in the economy. Note, then, that among the many purposes schools are expected to achieve, one is clearly economic. The scam begins here with a sleight of hand regarding these purposes.
No one seriously expects 15,000 school districts to set fiscal and monetary policy for the nation’s economy. No one seriously expects schools to generate millions of high-wage jobs. No one seriously expects schools to make pricing or factory-relocation decisions. What most Americans expect of their schools is to equip students adequately for future entry into the workplace. For there is a clear connection between schooling and the benefits accruing to individual students.
Few doubt the compelling statistics that the more formal schooling an individual completes, the higher the lifetime earnings. High school dropouts, on average, earn less than high school graduates, who earn less than those who complete college. While such figures vary by gender, class, and race the link between years of schooling and income has remained strong. Confusing the individual benefits of schooling with the alleged collective benefits that schools confer upon the larger economy is the shell game that has been played out over the last decade.
Thus, state and federal school policies that enhance the chances of teenagers to enter the job market, such as apprenticeships and business-school partnerships, especially in cities, are consistent with the school’s role in helping individual students. But other governmental policies setting national goals, curriculum, and tests stem from the illusory belief that such goals, standards, and tests in public schools will improve the economy. Such reforms have little to do with increased productivity, job growth, low annual rates of inflation, and other economic indicators. They have little to do with helping impoverished youths in cities get jobs.
The lack of praise for the work done by schools after a decade of energetic school reform reveals so clearly the skillfully concocted deception about the causal connection between better schools and a healthier economy. The scam may be politically appealing but, undebated or ignored, it remains a swindle that further diminishes public confidence in schools.
*I wrote this commentary for Education Week, June 15, 1994. Twenty-five years later, with updated references, I could ask the same question.