Whither Public Education?

The author presents a critique of neoconservative education policy, arguing it is based on three fallacies: the importance of international test scores, standardized testing and failing to recognize the impact of poverty on student achievement.

Over the past three decades, public schools in the United States have come under assault from neoconservative “reformers” who see the public education system as a failing institution, threatening the ability of the United States to compete in the global economy. Neoconservatives believe the only way to save public schools is to subject them to market forces. This reform movement has been effective in framing the national debate on education: choice means privatization, achievement is measured by test scores and eliminating the collective bargaining rights of teachers enhances quality instruction. The implementation of this movement, however, has been based on several fallacies.

The Fallacy of International Comparisons

Neoconservative reformers use international test scores as an indicator of the failure of US public schools. Central to their argument is the belief that US students’ poor performance on International tests is linked to the United States’ economic productivity: Poor performance on international tests will cause the US to lose its economic competitiveness in the global economy. This lack of competitiveness, in turn, represents a threat to US preeminence in global affairs, threatening national security.

For example, on the 2012 Program for International Student Achievement (PISA) math test, the United States ranked 27th out of 34 OECD countries. Stanford University professor Eric Hanushek – a persistent critic of public education – opined about the PISA results “. . . the US is not doing well, falling behind most of the countries we would like to compete with.” Hanushek concluded the PISA results “will say things about our future economic and international leadership.”

A comparison of the top ten performing countries on the PISA math test of 15-year-old students and the 2014-15 ranking in the World Economic Forum Competitiveness Report illustrates the fallacy of low test scores and economic competitiveness. In the WEF “Global Top 10,” only Switzerland and Singapore ranked higher than the United States in economic competitiveness. Countries with high scores on PISA – like Finland, Japan, China and the Netherlands – were behind the United States.The belief that international test scores of US students are “canaries in the coal mine,” warning us of imminent economic decline, is an oversimplification of a complex phenomenon. As the Competitiveness Report suggests, the relationship between international test scores and economic power is spurious at best.

Standardized Testing Run Amok

Neoconservatives argue that standardized tests developed by corporate testing companies are essential to measure student academic achievement and the success or failure of schools. However, empirical evidence has shown standardized test scores are not a valid measure of academic achievement. Taking a test is dependent on too many conflicting variables that confound student performance, especially when the test is created externally and is standardized for a particular cohort of students.

The psychometric design of standardized tests is based on a statistical range illuminated by the bell curve. This curve ensures a certain percentage of any test-taking cohort will excel and a certain percentage will not meet proficiency on the test. Tests are specifically calibrated to ensure this result. Generally, the tests are used as a comparative measure with a specific cohort of students at a specific point in time. Knowledge of content is less important than knowing how to strategically take the test. Standardized tests exacerbate socioeconomic inequities; enhanced cultural capital provides an academic advantage for middle and upper class students. There is no level playing field when taking a standardized test.

Diane Ravitch, former Assistant Secretary of Education during the Reagan administration, argues in her recent book, Reign of Error, that widespread testing of students has had a negative impact on schools. She notes that, in exchange for a single measure – the standardized test – other aspects of achievement, like developing creativity, higher cognitive thinking and civic engagement are abandoned in many schools. Focusing curriculum and instruction on standardized testing, while neglecting important skills and aptitudes necessary for students to succeed in a global economy may produce negative outcomes on economic competitiveness.

Poverty Matters

Neoconservative reformers ignore nearly 50 years of research that demonstrates a strong correlation between low academic achievement and poverty rates. This body of research began in 1966, with the publication of the Coleman Report, a study involving 600,000 children in 4,000 schools throughout the United States. Coleman found that academic results of minority students were closely linked to the quality of the student body. Students who came from homes with significant resources, who were instilled with high aspirations and were motivated to achieve them, generally scored higher than students where these forms of cultural capital was absent. Coleman stressed segregated schools were a significant contributor to the low academic achievement of minority students. Integrated schools were a way of reversing these low academic outcomes.

In this context, race, segregated schools and poverty are inextricably linked. A recent Propublica investigation of school re-segregation found that the number of black students in schools, where 90 percent or more of the student population are people of color, rose from 2.3 million to nearly 3 million from 1993-2011. Neoconservative framing of educational policy has obstructed serious debate on the links between segregated schools, the achievement gap and the large percentages of impoverished students who attend those schools.

In 2009, David Berliner published a significant study, Poverty and Potential: Out of School Factors and School Success, in which he identified six “Out-of-School Factors” (OSFs) that play a powerful role in generating the achievement gap. The six OSFs Berliner examined are commonly found in high poverty neighborhoods and adversely affect the cognitive development of many children who attend schools in these neighborhoods. Low birth weight and poor neonatal practices; inadequate medical, dental and vision care; food insecurity; environmental pollutants; family stress; and neighborhood characteristics, including crime and chronic violence, are all associated with endemic poverty. These factors are often beyond the capacity of schools to control, however, and students affected by these factors attend school every day.

Richard Rothstein, a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute, argues that to solve the achievement gap, school improvement must be incorporated with policies that reduce the substantial socioeconomic inequalities in US society. Rothstein claims critics who argue schools alone can counterbalance these external forces and create an economic leveling effect through high scores on a set of standardized tests, perpetuate a “mythology.” As Henry Giroux has observed, neoconservative social and economic policies have negatively affected the “health and well-being of low-income and poor minority students.” Market reforms have deepened the alienation and marginalization of a strata of the public school population that will face a future devoid of hope and the capacity to become engaged, participatory citizens.

Neoconservative education policy symbolizes the corruption of US democracy in the 21st century: The will of the market taking precedence over the will of the people. The approaching 2016 presidential election poses an existential threat to public schools. The education policies of the announced Republican candidates will expand market reforms and privatization policies. The viability of the public education system lies in the balance.