The Politics of Education

By every measure and employing any number of standards, America’s education system is failing.” – The Lonely Realist

Shockingly, America ranks behind 21 other countries in math, reading and science. The world has progressed and American education quite simply hasn’t. Progress requires the decision to change and the will to execute. That’s where politics gets in the way. There is no question that America needs to make a priority of improving children’s learning skills to nurture their knowledge and curiosity and thereby seed America’s future. Instead, evidence abounds of inertia coupled with tribalism that prioritizes politics over pragmatism, parental control over teaching excellence, and conformity/nonconformity with cultural/woke/religious mores, stifling free speech, encouraging book-banning, and furthering (rather than suppressing) divisions, surefire ways to undermine learning and perpetuate educational mediocrity.

America became the greatest nation on Earth because it developed the best education system on Earth … from K-12 and again at the university level. The American system dwarfed in size, ambition and quality educational opportunities offered anywhere else. Excellence in learning was the American Way. Obtaining an education was a key to unlocking the American Dream. With the world’s most highly-educated citizens, America became the wealthiest and most successful nation in the world. Americans excelled, building, innovating, investing and creating seemingly endless opportunities for themselves and their children.

And yet today the most recent study of international education (PISA 2018) ranked the U.S. 37th out of 79 countries in math, 13th in reading and 18th in science, with the U.S. sliding further down the scale during COVID when America’s children in K-5 experienced comparative annual declines of 20% in reading and 33% in math. Also shocking is the fact that 54% of Americans between the ages of 16 and 74 read below the 6th grade level. By 21st Century standards, they are functionally illiterate. These facts are a national disgrace. They require bipartisan efforts, and yet neither party has made educational excellence a part of their agenda. The Biden Administration has neither articulated nor attempted to implement an education policy and the Republican Party has opted to target education as a a tool of radical left indoctrination.

The sad reality is that improving the education of America’s children is less important to America’s political class than playing to voter tribalism …, though that hasn’t always been the case. A bipartisan Congress in 2001 set national standards in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA), mandating standardized testing to provide a measurement mechanism for educational success that stressed competition through the accumulation of data. After pushback from special interests opposing “teaching to the test” and an “emphasis on capitalist competition,” a super-majority in Congress in 2015 enacted the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the successor to NCLBA that eliminated nationwide testing in favor of State-by-State standard-setting. That hasn’t worked. The States that have complied with ESSA have set self-serving internal bars that fail to provide an accurate means for measuring relative success – with accountability being ignored. ESSA can work only if the performance of both schools and teachers is transparent and measured pursuant to objective educational standards. Not only have States lagged in producing the data necessary for transparency, they have varied so much in standard-setting that the data doesn’t permit competitive comparisons.

Even though America’s politicians in 2001 and 2015 favored educational success through smaller government, individual choice and local decision-making, States have not followed-through. Without common standards and accurate data, there is no means to measure educational success …, and today States are disinclined to produce either the appropriate measurement mechanisms or the data mandated by ESSA. There are no consequences for failure.

States instead have pursued vote-buying policies, an example of which is the educational voucher program that dispenses with quality measurements and gives parents a State-funded subsidy to choose among private schools, religious schools and home-schooling. The model favored by former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and the one adopted by Arizona, Arkansas (starting in 2025), Florida and Utah, with Texas and others likely to soon follow, provides vouchers to all families irrespective of need or income (which favors families earning >$200,000/year). The voucher program adopted by Florida found Governor DeSantis, when signing the legislation that he himself had sponsored, expressing concern that “If you have a family that’s very high income, they [already] have school choice. They don’t necessarily need to be eligible for [Florida’s universal] program.” Florida’s voucher program quite simply is intended to achieve Betsy DeVos’ goal that vouchers “liberate kids from race indoctrination.” The Economist  reported earlier this month that existing voucher programs have not been successful in improving educational performance, in part producing worse math scores, perhaps because they’ve been targeted at vote-buying rather than at underperforming students and schools.

Another approach involves the licensing of charter schools that are pre-screened with the goal of providing educationally disadvantaged families with improved school options. The most successful model follows the NYC template adopted by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg …, the competitive, meritocratic elements of which were discarded by his progressive successor. The NYC model saw the creation of 275 charter schools primarily in disadvantaged neighborhoods with charter schools consistently outperforming public schools on standardized tests.

Both the voucher and charter school templates are designed to create competitive educational options with goals that can be attained only by utilizing data sufficient to separate educational excellence from educational mediocrity. Although existing data supports the further testing of both models by more narrowly targeting vouchers and expanding the charter school remit, that is not the policy approach Federal and State politicians are taking. Educational success can be achieved only if all educational choices are subjected to comparative standards (such as those mandated by ESSA) that lead to accountability – consequences that improve educational performance. Until that happens, America will continue to have a failing education system that favors populism over excellence.

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Finally (from a good friend)

  • jeffcsiegel
    Posted at 13:43h, 16 April

    I just read a book by Michael Crichton called Rising Sun. Written in 1992, the theme of the book is Japan is taking over the US. They owned Hawaii, Southern California and lots of our prime real estate (Rock Center), many of our industries and even movies. Their education system is superior to ours. Stupid American’s enabled that and we need to wake up.

    30 years later I wonder went wrong with their plan? They are still well educated people. However they are no longer dominant. Is it just the demographic time bomb that has so diminished them? It is the rise of other Asian powers including most importantly China that has just divide the US pie among them?

    If our system is so inferior, why aren’t we poor?

    • The Lonely Realist
      Posted at 16:37h, 16 April

      Rising Sun was a fascinating science fiction piece by an excellent author. I greatly enjoyed it. Creigton projected then-existing trends, as sci fi writers do and as Creigton consistently did very well. TLR’s observations about education state the obvious realities and highlight the possible consequences. America truly does need to address the educational realities.

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