American Education: Defaulting on a Sacred Debt

Published March 1, 1998

“Education, whether it was the story telling of the village elders, the writing of medieval monks, the lessons of a lone teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, or lectures given behind the ivy-covered walls of a university, was the way that each generation passed on to the next the collected knowledge, wisdom, and skills earned by all previous generations. Education is the sacred debt that each generation owes to the next. . . . It is a debt that we are failing to repay.”
From the Foreword to the American Legislative Exchange Council’s
1996 Report Card on American Education

A state-by-state analysis of the condition of America’s 94,000 K-12 public schools warns that, if the American education system is not opened up to competition soon, taxpayers will continue to dedicate increasingly scarce financial resources to a system that is incapable of using those resources effectively. The absence of any statistically significant correlation between student achievement and such factors as spending, salaries, and staffing strongly suggests that the public school system is not making effective use of the substantial financial and staff resources channeled into it.

While acknowledging “modest progress” in some measures of student achievement, the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Report Card on American Education, issued last October, points out that achievement has not returned to the levels attained by American school children in 1970. The country’s education system, the report concludes, “is committing a great social disservice by not adequately educating and preparing our children for the 21st century.”

“We are losing the battle to regain the ground lost over the past 26 years, while our investment in education has soared to unprecedented heights,” notes the report’s Foreword.

Graduation rates, for example, have fallen 4.6 percent since 1980 and 3.4 percent since 1990, despite an 88 percent increase in inflation-adjusted per-pupil expenditures since 1970. The country’s 1980 graduation rate of 72.1 percent fell to 68.8 percent by 1996. That year, average per-pupil spending reached $5,719, ranging from a high of $9,787 in New Jersey to a low of $3,295 in Arkansas.

While results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that American students improved their math skills from 1992 to 1996, the low level of overall math skills still gives cause for alarm. Although all states saw an increase in NAEP math scores, only five states–North Carolina, Michigan, West Virginia, Delaware, and Connecticut–saw an increase in percentage proficiency.

NAEP test results show that almost 40 percent of the nation’s eighth-graders cannot perform at the Basic level of achievement in math. Worse still, in many urban schools as many as 80 percent are below the Basic level. That means that these eighth-graders–students who are nominally “prepared” to handle the challenge of a high school curriculum–still have problems understanding whole numbers, decimals, fractions, percentages, diagrams, charts, and fundamental algebraic and geometric concepts.

Ten states are rated top in student achievement, based on high rankings on multiple indicators–graduation rates, NAEP 1996 eighth-grade math tests, and 1996 college entrance exams. But, as the accompanying table shows, the success of those states is unrelated to such factors as spending, salaries, and staffing, suggesting that the public education system in general is not making effective use of its resources.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].