Racing to the Bottom

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

When a progressive think tank and America’s leading business group get together and critique education in the United States, it’s official and getting more so—public schools may be getting progressively more expensive but they fail to deliver the service they claim to offer.

Both the Center for American Progress (CAP) and the U. S. Chamber of Commerce mark as a “prime target of reform: the 2,000 high school ‘dropout factories; across the country that regularly post graduation rates below 50%.” Statistically, that would put one of these underachieving assembly lines a place in two out of three American communities.

“There is ample evidence, documented in detail in our new state-by-state report on educational effectiveness, that too many of our nation’s schools and students are unprepared for the demands of the 21st Century’s knowledge-based economy,” the CAP and the Chamber conclude. “Nationwide, only about one-third of 4th and 8th graders— and well less than 20 % of low-income and minority children—are proficient in reading and math.”

“Teacher quality is insufficient.” Indeed, the two groups note, “With 40% of the teachers and principals eligible for retirement in the next 10 years, efforts to raise the bar for educators have taken on an added urgency.”

But are these 40 percent part of the problem? It’s hard to tell from the data compiled by the CAP and the Chamber although such a trend would mesh with their other numbers.

“Only about two-thirds of all 9th graders graduate from high school within four years,” the report card notes. “And those students who do receive diplomas are far too often unprepared for college or the modern workplace.”

“Fifty-three percent of college students need remediation,” Elena Rocha of CAP pointed out in a presentation at the Library of Congress. In that same forum, Lydia Logan of the Chamber pointed out that its members spend $72 billion a year on employee training.

The ladies spoke at a luncheon sponsored by the American Educational Research Association and the Institute for Educational Leadership.

“Despite steps to increase per pupil spending, decrease student-teacher ratios, and recruit a better-prepared teaching force, student test scores have remained stubbornly flat over the past 35 years,” both groups conclude in their Joint Platform for Education Reform. The report’s focus on student achievement does make it novel.

“Where most previous report cards have focused primarily on inputs in terms of spending or regulations, this report card reflects our premise that American education should be accountable, rigorous, innovative and focused on achievement,” Leaders and Laggards: A State-by-State Report Card on Educational Effectiveness promises. One thing that this report does do that we’ve never seen before is to grade states on truth in advertising.

“Alabama, for instance, reported in 2005 that 83% of its 4th graders were proficient in reading on its state test—seemingly making it one of the nation’s highest performing states,” Leaders and Laggards reports. “But according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 22% of Alabama’s 4th graders scored at or above the proficient level on reading, making it one of the nation’s poorest performing states.”

Actually, the report goes easy on some highly problematic states, namely New Jersey, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Illinois. Moreover, the “reforms” recommended by the two groups are more than reminiscent of not only the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind policy but also the Clinton government’s GOALS 2000 program.

For example, the Chamber and the CAP recommend that we “Implement innovative education models such as small learning communities, early enrollment in college-level courses for credit, youth apprenticeships and online learning.” Nobody asks whether such plans solve the problem or simply give it a new source of funds.

Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.