Thinking Outside of the Box

Published May 1, 1999

Most people make no distinction between public schools and public education. But, as Andrew J. Coulson points out in his book, Market Education: The Unknown History, one is an end, and the other only a means to the end. Public schools are not an end in themselves, but just one of many possible means of achieving the goal of public education.

By putting public education and public schools in the same conceptual box, policymakers have been led to focus on improving public schools as the only way to improve public education. For example, since 1969 the school year has been 49 days longer than it was six decades earlier__162 now vs. 113 then__for a cumulative 25 months of added in-school instruction by tenth grade. Yet reading scores today are no higher than they were in 1909.

In fact, literacy levels have declined over the past 30 years, despite significantly increased resources for public schools:

  • Inflation adjusted per pupil expenditures have increased more than fourteen times since 1920.
  • In 1955 there were 27 students per teacher; in 1995 there were 17.
  • In 1949 there were 19 pupils per staff member; by 1990 there were 9.
  • For those who argue that students today are simply less able to achieve, every IQ study since 1932 shows an average gain of about 3 points per decade, or an average of nearly 15 points higher by the end of the 1970s.

To respond to those who contend that special education, beginning in the early 1970s, is to blame for reduced literacy levels, Coulson points out that definable “disabilities such as deafness and mental retardation have been on the decline for years.” The growth in special education is almost entirely due to more students being classified as Specific Learning Disabled (SLD) or having Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)–“disabilities” with no medical diagnosis.

Such outside-the-box thinking–challenging accepted wisdom and looking for answers in places other than the public schools and education establishment–is urgently needed in the public education arena today.