Undisrupted education

By Larry Sand
April 17, 2018

The world has progressed in amazing ways since 1983, but for the most part, public education has stagnated.

In 1983, the first mobile telephones intended for public use were released, ARPANET became the technical foundation of the internet, and A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform was released. The latter was a report issued by President Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education. Among other things, the analysis pointed to the fact that American schools were failing, and it touched off a wave of national, state, and local reform efforts.

It’s now 2018, and while telephone and internet technology have made incredible strides, public education is no better than it was in 1983. In fact, at the same time we’re acknowledging the 35th anniversary of A Nation at Risk, the biennial National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores – aka the nation’s report card – were released. Fordham Institute scholar Mike Petrilli referred to the results as “America’s ‘Lost Decade’ of educational progress.” Or perhaps “lost 3.5 decades” would be more accurate.

Here in California, there is some good news, however. The Golden State was one of seven with a 4-point increase in 8th grade reading, which enabled it to come within 3 points of the national average. But this joyful moment is dampened by the reality that even with the improved scores, 69 percent of California 4th graders are not proficient in English, compared to 64 percent nationwide. Sixty-nine percent are also not proficient in math vs. 60 percent nationally. California’s 8th graders fare no better. Sixty-eight percent of them are not up to par on reading, while 66 percent lag nationally. In 8th grade math, 71 percent are not proficient vs. 67 percent nationwide.

Of course the educational establishmentarians will start chanting the predictable and tiresome “we need more money” mantra. But as The Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke points out, we have spent over $2 trillion (inflation-adjusted) at the federal level since 1965, and have tripled our spending nationally over a forty year period and we have nothing to show for it.

If there was one true bright spot on the NAEP this year, it was Florida. Making gains in both math and reading, the Sunshine State far outpaced the country as a whole. In fact, Florida came close to matching Massachusetts, the top performing state in the nation. And considering Florida has a much less affluent populace and a far larger minority population, its gains are truly impressive.

If Florida is doing that well, it must be because they are spending a lot on education, right? Well, hardly. In fact, Florida comes in at #41 in state per-pupil spending; only nine states spend less.

So what makes Florida different? Beginning with Governor Jeb Bush’s leadership in 1999, Florida has pushed for and adopted measures that hold schools and communities accountable for results. The state has also developed an impressive array of school choice programs – educational savings accounts, vouchers, and tax credit scholarships as well as many charter school options. As Center for Education Reform founder and President Jeanne Allen explains, “Last year, Florida led all states on the Parent Power Index…which measures how much power states give to parents to make significant decisions in the educational futures of their kids.”

Spend less money? Hold educators responsible for doing their job? Give parents more choice as to where to send their kids? Those reforms earn a collective, “EEEWWW!” from the bureaucrats and unionistas who are stuck on unproven strategies like small class size and universal pre-K, all the while demanding that more money be shoveled into the bottomless public education pit.

As I wrote recently, organizations very rarely disrupt themselves. Referencing Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen, the world’s foremost authority on disruptive innovation, EdChoice fellow Matthew Ladner writes, “Mainframe computer manufacturers did not deftly transition to making personal computers rather than die – they just died. Every other brand in General Motors took every opportunity to slip their knives into Saturn’s back – sure enough GM eventually squandered an enormous amount of public goodwill for Saturn before it eventually died.”

Likewise, top-down, entrenched, unionized school districts won’t change on their own. It is up to we the people to demand change. We must insist that our families be better served and tax money be spent in more productive ways. If we don’t, our nation at risk will continue to sink deeper in the mire, and in another 35 years we might not even have a country.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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