The Educational Systems We?ve Got

March 16, 2005

Frustration, thy name is education in America! Since World War II, not many weeks have passed without at least one shrill outcry about the state of the nation?s schools. "It?s a crisis," we are told. Something is seriously wrong and must be fixed.

Periodically, creative minds, funded by government and private foundations, set to work to study the problem or to "fix" the by escaping those schools. Yet, no matter how determined the effort and how inventive the product, the so-called crisis persists. Because the new solutions take months or years to be tested, by the time their failure is recognized, if not acknowledged, a new "crisis" emerges. At the time of this writing, the proposed solutions are charter schools, a voucher system, and frequent testing to hold schools "accountable" for their performance. These solutions will yield to others in the future, as new crises are proclaimed and, in all probability, the outcomes will be the same?the schools will remain as they were, essentially unchanged, many of them utterly inadequate.

When do crises occur? What is the stimulus to fix the educational system? Crises often follow some kind of unfavorable international comparison, such as when the Soviet Union appeared to have an edge in space in the 1950s, and when the Japanese economy boomed in the 1980s. They also surface with the release of data unfavorably comparing the performance of American students with those in other nations. Another apparent stimulus to resolving a perceived education crisis is a candidate seeking to become the "education" senator, governor, or president. At times of these proclaimed crises, government and education leaders have scrambled to improve the system. But, like a virus that is immune to every conceivable treatment, the schools over the last half-century seem to have been immune to any and all interventions. Blue chip panels have told us nothing we did not know. Patchwork, haphazard changes, even well fashioned experimental programs, though potentially effective, have not taken us out of the morass that was said to exist.

Crisis management attempts have been doomed to failure because the diagnosis is wrong. Three enormous myths have undermined all such attempts.

The first is the myth that we are faced with an educational crisis. Such a crisis doesn?t exist and never did. The reality all along is, in fact, the absence of crisis. What we do have is an ongoing problem of inferior schooling for a large portion of our children. Schoolchildren of the lower socioeconomic classes have been shortchanged during much of the nation?s history, and they continue to suffer from that today.

The second myth is that we have only one, unitary educational system that must be upgraded. This is wrong. The reality is that we have three. The first system serves the well to do and privileged, and a few exceptional students from the lower social classes. It is, by any standard, first-rate. This system helps its students learn to learn and to think independently and creatively, even to challenge accepted views, which is the route to invention, discovery, and informed leadership. The two other systems that serve the rest of the population are of lower quality. The second educational system provides basic skills and knowledge and helps its students to learn to learn, but does not encourage independent, creative thinking. It serves that large segment of the population that provides employees for the enormous middle tier of jobs in the country, including those who tend to work in offices, factories, hospitals, and shops where dependability and accuracy in performing routine tasks and the inclination to follow orders are requirements for successful performance. The second system also screens out exceptional students, who are elevated to the first system. The third system, which serves the urban and rural poor, is very much custodial in nature and thoroughly inadequate. It provides mostly rudimentary skills to children who have little reason to envision a bright future. Teaching takes place in settings that are often disruptive and not amenable to learning.

The three school systems could also be named in terms of their societal functions. Referring to the labor market status of graduates (or dropouts) of the respective school system, the first is the elite leadership school system; the second is the work force school system; and the third is the marginal school system.

As I define them, school systems include more than the schools the children attend, starting at about age five, and include more than any preschool experience they may have. In particular and of vital importance, school systems include the children?s families. Instruction begins at home not at school, and it begins at birth. The quality of "teaching" provided by parent-teachers is crucial to children?s performance when they enter school and thereafter. Consequently, any plan to address the nation?s serious educational problem (e.g., through the elimination of the third system and the strengthening of the second) must also incorporate and give high priority to the training of parents as parent-teachers.

The third myth is that the educational system is failing to produce students who can meet the needs of our society, as it is now constituted. Actually, those needs are met. When the educational system is judged on the basis of what leaders expect of its performance in maintaining the well functioning of the economy, it is highly effective.

One need only examine the present state of affairs in the United States and compare it with two former competitors whose educational systems we once envied, to recognize the falsity of the claim that the schools are failing to support the economy. Our nation?s economy has created incredible affluence. Its unemployment rate was at record low levels at the end of the last century, and even during the recession in the early twenty-first century, it is the lowest among advanced industrial nations; and the United States is recognized as the world?s mighty superpower. When the Soviet Union succeeded in sending the first person into space, the outcry was that Soviet children?s education in mathematics and the sciences was superior to ours, as if that claim explained their technological success. At an earlier time, the outcry was "Why can Ivan read and Johnny can?t?" But when the United States far outpaced the Soviets by its astronauts? bold and dramatic moon landing and other spectacular explorations in space, no voices were heard declaiming the quality of U.S. education. Likewise, when the Japanese economy was going full speed in the 1980s, their glowing success was attributed to their educational system, which of course was promoted as a model for us. Since the early 1990s when that economy went into a tailspin, no one is on record declaring that Japan?s economy is floundering because its educational system had suddenly and seriously declined.

To think that the American economy is suffering, as a result of its educational system, is a myth, further belied by the following comparisons.

The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the market value of all goods and services bought for final use during a year. Divided by the Purchasing Power Parity weight (GDP/PPP) to standardize international dollar prices, the United States in 1999 was the world leader with a per capita GDP/PPP of $33,900, outstripping, in order, Japan at $23,400, followed by Germany, France, and the United Kingdom.
The consumption of electricity is an indicator of multiple factors including natural resources, climate, and standard of living. The U.S. per capita consumption in rounded kilowatt hours was 11,800, followed next by Japan's 7,100 hours, France?s 6,100 and Germany?s 5,600.
The number of persons per vehicle is a reflection of both need and affluence. For the U.S. the number in 1996 was 1.3 per vehicle. Italy was next at 1.5 while the figure for Japan was 1.8.
As a measure of housing conditions in a nation, the number of persons per room is used. In the United States and the United Kingdom, the number is .5 or, in other words, two rooms for every person. A couple living in an apartment with a kitchen, living room, and two bedrooms would be at the .5 level. Germany came next at .6 per room while for Japan the figure was .7.
Because of their crucial role in modern society, the availability of computers is another indirect measure of a nation's capacity for growth and progress. In 2000, the number of personal computers per 1,000 people was 511 for the United States, the leader, 306 for the United Kingdom, and 287 for Japan.
In the ten-year period of 1986?1995, the distribution of Nobel Prizes shows the United States very decidedly in the lead. At least one American physicist won the award in seven of those ten years, and at least one chemist, physiologist (or medical scientist), and economist won the award in their respective fields in eight of the ten years. Between 1986 and 1997, the United States had 65 recipients, Germany 11, the United Kingdom 7, France 6, Italy and Japan, 2 each, and Russia 1.
The United States has a remarkable record in the number of its people who go on to post-secondary education. In 1993?1994, when 14 percent of Russians, 20 percent of Germans, and 21 percent of Japanese over the age of 25 had post-secondary education, the equivalent figure for the United States was 45 percent. (Information is not available on France, Italy, and the United Kingdom). In the fall of 1997, a record was established in the United States when 67 percent of young people who graduated from high school during the prior year enrolled in a college or university.
The record is equally impressive for college graduates. In a 1995 comparison of 21 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), in only two member countries did more than one-fifth of the population between the ages 25 and 64 complete college: The Netherlands with 21 percent, and the United States with 24 percent. With the passing years, other countries are improving their performance?a good thing for the world?and catching up to the United States, often using our country's education as their model.
"Quality of life" merits high status in evaluating a nation?s accomplishments. The criteria used by the United Nations Human Development project for its index of the "most livable countries," are life expectancy, adult literacy, school enrollment, educational attainment, and gross domestic product. The United States, the leader among large nations, was ranked 6thththth, Japan 9thth, France 13th, the United Kingdom 14th, and Germany 17th.
There are other markers of accomplishment by the United States. This country has over eight thousand, nine hundred free public libraries. Its museums, theaters, opera houses, and concert halls are highly regarded worldwide. American cinema and its television productions, sometimes to the regret of cultural nationalists abroad, are consumed globally. The countless regional and local expressions of the arts and humanities bespeak the widespread interest and sophistication of the population. Some one hundred and twenty thousand book titles are published annually, catering to the tastes and personal and professional needs of voracious readers. The nation is no less accomplished in the culinary arts, fashion design, and sports. And, for good or ill, it is the unquestioned leader in military power.

The United States could not be the thriving, accomplished society that it is, if it had been suffering for the last half century from the many alleged educational crises in its history, including the present moment. However, it could have been ailing from a chronic problem of gross educational inequity?and it still is.

Although schools are important to a nation?s ongoing development, they don?t drive a nation?s economy. Economic and political forces do that. In fact, those same economic forces, and the powerful leaders behind them, determine how much of the society?s resources will be allocated to education and which children will get the lion?s share.

The three school systems plus higher education can be called the "educational enterprise." When that enterprise is judged on the basis of its performance in maintaining the well functioning of the economy, it is highly effective. When it is judged on the basis of its capacity to give high quality education to students in the first school system, it is equally effective. However, so far as its capacity to enhance equality and justice, and the full development of all of the children?it is ineffective, the result being that children in the second, and especially in the third school system, are denied first-rate education.

Why do so many children get inadequate schooling? Not because the affluent and politically powerful want to do injury to children, although that is the outcome. Rather, the economy?which largely drives policy about taxation and the allocation of resources?has no need for a well-educated populace. The hard fact is that the economy operates perfectly well with the leadership provided by the first school system, the responsible work force provided by the second school system, and the marginal rejects from the third, who swell the ranks of the unskilled service force, welfare rolls, prisons, and the unemployed. To fill the jobs that the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts as the largest number in the coming years, one does not require even a high school education, though that would be desirable. About 60 percent require no more than on-the-job training, most of them only short-term training of that kind.

The demands of the economy are usually the driving forces in societal decision-making. As this society functions, with an economy geared primarily to profit, there is no need for change. Whatever contributes to maintaining stability in the political-economic system, such as the schools for future business and political leaders, managers and professionals, gets abundant support from private and public funds and this support starts with early education. Whatever contributes little if anything toward that end?schools for the children of welfare recipients, unemployed, immigrants, the poor, homeless, and prisoners?gets very little private and public support. From the perspective of the well functioning of the economy, this policy makes perfect sense. From the perspective of the complete development and well functioning of all the people, this is a failed, inequitable, and inhumane policy. Later, you will see in greater detail that the history of education shows the tension between these two competing forces, as one or the other prevailed in federal and state decision-making. Mostly, economic motivation has prevailed.