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The politicians and pundits who have convinced us that our schools are failing have sold us a bill of goods.

The Myth of Our "Failing" Schools


Everyone knows that our nation's system of public education is in terrible shape. Schools are failing. Students are not getting the education they need and deserve. If we don't reverse this trend, and soon, U.S. children will continue to fall further and further behind in their ability to compete in our global economy. As Walter Williams wrote in a recent column, "There's no question that the American education system is in shambles. In our inner cities, education is nothing short of a criminal disgrace."

But sometimes, what everyone knows is wrong. Is public education really worse today than ever? I decided to see for myself. And I wanted to look beyond the episodic exposés that find a group of high-schoolers who graduate without learning to read, or students failing to make gains on standardized test scores. The bigger picture was readily available; all I did was look at education statistics in the most recent almanac.

I compared current high-school and college graduation rates with rates from the recent past. If public education were failing surely those percentages would be going down. But as it turns out, the "failure" of U.S. public education is a myth.

In 1960, only 41 percent of U.S. adults were high school graduates. Just 40 years ago, almost 60 percent of U.S. adults had not completed high school. By 1998, the most recent year for which information was available, about 83 percent of Americans had finished high school. In the last 40 years of the 20th century the percentage of Americans with a high-school education has doubled. Not surprisingly, at the same time, the high-school dropout rate fell precipitously, from 27.2 percent in 1960 to 11.8 percent in 1998.

For African-Americans, gains in high school completion were even more impressive, rising from only 20 percent in 1960 to 76 percent in 1998.

What about college graduation rates? Those figures are even more dramatic. In 1960, less than 8 percent of the public had four years of college; for African-Americans the figure was just over 3 percent. But by 1998, the percentages had more than tripled: for all Americans — 24 percent; for African-Americans the rate quadrupled, 14.7 percent. Since 1950, when separate statistics were first available for Hispanic Americans, they too have made huge gains in both high school and college completion rates.

These statistics do not describe a system of public education in decline. In fact, this country has made huge and rapid advances in the effort to educate our nation. And if we look a bit further back in history, there's even more evidence of how far we've come. Fifty years ago, most African-American children attended inferior segregated schools. Look back just 100 years ago, and you'd find an America in which most children in their teens weren't in school, because they'd already gone to work.

The politicians and pundits who have convinced us that our schools are failing and are in need of an emergency infusion of "higher standards" have sold us a bill of goods. It may be that "everyone knows" how bad our schools are, but the facts — which I found easily, in less than 10 minutes —tell a different story.

So why are people like Walter Williams trying to convince us that our schools are so awful? Perhaps it's simple ignorance. But Mr. Williams' column provides a clue to his underlying agenda. After telling us how awful our public schools are, he proposes a solution: school vouchers and tuition tax credits. He claims it is only the "elite ignorance and arrogance" of politicians and bureaucrats that keep us from instituting such "reforms" to solve the problem.

At the risk of stating the obvious, this argument is simply backward. It is the privileged "elite" of our society who would most benefit from tuition tax credits and vouchers. Public education belongs to all of us, whether or not our own children attend a public school. It's every taxpayer's investment in our nation's future. And for those who are economically disadvantaged or disabled, public education can unlock doors. Some students may choose not to walk through those doors, but they are open for everyone. And each time a student takes advantage of that opportunity, our entire society benefits.

I'm not claiming that public schools are perfect. Far from it. There's still much to be done before we can say we are helping each child reach his or her full potential. Public education is an imperfect human institution, as anyone who has been through the system knows. Some students still get passed along before they master the basic skills they need. There are great teachers, lots of OK teachers and some lousy teachers. There are things of great value to be learned — and the impersonal, frustrating experiences typical of any large bureaucracy. There are bullies, social cliques, and inequities — and one of the greatest democratic institutions ever created.

Public schools, especially in our rural counties and inner cities, need more and better teachers, better facilities and equipment, and more exciting, inspiring curriculum. And they need the money that will allow them to afford those things. But despite all its shortcomings, public education is still one of the great American success stories. You could look it up.

Paul Fleisher is a veteran teacher in the Richmond Public Schools, and author of more than 20 books for children and educators.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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