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Criticism of Public Education

Inequality of Opportunity, Highly Bureaucratic Systems, Achievement-Based Outcomes, School Choice, Reform after Reform

Despite several decades of reform, public education in the United States is criticized by some as not teaching all children effectively. Consistently poor test results and low graduation rates attest to this. As a result, many taxpayers criticize public schools and demand better results. At the same time, many Americans express a deep faith in the ability of public education to address the needs of the greater society.

There are five issues that cloud the public's perception of the public schools and fuel criticism. While more than five issues could be identified by the public–who consistently rate the performance of schools as less than optimal–these are central issues found in schools across the country. Two of these issues are long-standing characteristics of the public education system: inequality of opportunity and the burden of bureaucracy. Two are highly debated, more recent movements that attempt to address these characteristics: achievement-based outcomes and school choice. The fifth issue concerns how these movements contribute to American public education reform.

Inequality of Opportunity

Public education in the United States has long promised quality education for all children, regardless of ethnicity, race, or income. However, critics of public education argue that many children do not have equal opportunities to learn and are not likely to attend a quality school. In fact, critics suggest that the education system perpetuates poverty and disadvantage, providing rich and poor schools with stark contrasts in learning environments and physical surroundings. Impoverished neighborhoods typically house run-down schools with less money and poor conditions, while affluent neighborhoods house newer and safer schools providing better learning environments. Furthermore, ethnic minority students are more likely to attend the lower-quality urban schools. While there have been many efforts to improve this inequality of opportunity, such efforts are only the first step in achieving equity, even with millions of dollars invested in federal programs.

Since the 1950s, federal compensatory education efforts have tried to achieve equity in education with programs such as Head Start, giving preschoolers from low-income families a chance to start kindergarten at the same level as their middle- and upper-class peers. Other major federal policy efforts created categorical programs–such as Title I, bilingual education, and special education initiatives–to promote equity for children with economic disadvantages, language barriers, and physical or mental disabilities.

A groundbreaking federal commitment, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and subsequent amendments, supports education achievement and equity by providing federal funds to states and school districts. The Bilingual Education Act (1968), the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (1975), and Title IX (1972), which removed barriers to women in education institutions, also serve as examples of early and sustained commitments by the federal government to achieve equity in schools.

Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reports that 63 percent of fourth graders perform at only basic, or below basic, levels in reading. Sixty-nine percent perform at these levels in mathematics. African-American, Hispanic, and Native American fourth graders perform consistently lower than their white counterparts. Furthermore, schools in the United States fail to teach higher-order skills to about half of the student population. And once again, this "bottom half" comprises primarily the poor and ethnic minorities.

The inequalities of access to quality schools and achievement of children in public schools have been the source of years of debate and millions of dollars in programs attempting to achieve equity for all students. Yet, as shown above, critics of public education cite ample evidence that inequality and inequity exists and that little has been done to level the playing field. NAEP data, however, does show that the gap in reading and mathematics between white students and their African-American and Hispanic counterparts narrowed between 1973 and 1999 at all grade levels.

Highly Bureaucratic Systems

Critics of American public education argue that the United States is unable to educate all children effectively, partly because of the highly bureaucratic nature of its governance structure. Attached to most federal government funding are layers of rules burdened by paperwork and regulation; thus, federal programs become difficult to implement or change. This institutionalized problem of excessive bureaucracy shuffles funds and responsibility around to various bodies and, in the case of public education, shifts the responsibility of academic achievement onto parents, administrators, teachers, and students. The result of public education being tied to the agendas of so many stakeholders–voters, politicians, school boards, administrators, teachers, unions, parents, and students–has been fragmentation and lack of control, leaving the public to wonder who has the authority in the system.

The same burden of bureaucracy also exists at the state, district, and school level. Critics assert that oversight of public schools is unnecessarily heavy. The state boards of education and administrative regulation by state departments of education add yet another layer to the policymaking process. Locally, elected school boards attempt to maintain the mission and vision of the district, yet they are often accused of micromanaging and adding layers of bureaucracy. District administrations, with central authority over the schools, are often fighting for control with the school boards.

One way to decrease bureaucracy is to decentralize control to the district or site level, known as site-based management. Not only will bureaucracy decrease when control is local, say proponents, but administrators, teachers, and the community will have a greater influence on the needs of their children, as well as strategies to serve those needs. Another way to lessen bureaucratic weight is to add competition and choice in public schools through charters and vouchers. Advocates of school choice believe, among other things, that some of the bureaucratic burden causing inefficiency and ineffectiveness will be lifted when schools are run more like businesses and parents can choose their children's schools–more like consumers. Yet, these ideas of choice and localized control meet resistance from the education establishment, who often argue that maintaining and adding to current practices is the best bet for improving public education. This resistance to change also fuels criticism from the public.

Achievement-Based Outcomes

To ensure students are mastering the skills necessary to successfully enter either the workforce or institutions of higher learning, measures of academic success have emerged. Most indicators come in the form of standardized tests, administered at several grades throughout elementary and secondary school. NAEP state performance indicators have confirmed that students are not learning and succeeding at the level expected by parents, taxpayers, and policymakers. In addition, some critics regard these high-stakes tests as unfair, citing data showing cultural bias against students from low-income families and racial/ethnic minorities, who often perform lower in these measures. However, most racial and ethnic subgroups of children have improved their scores over time, performing better on mathematics, reading, and science measures. Nevertheless, the gap in achievement, measured by these widely used tests, causes critics to blame the public education for failing to teach students.

Indicators of achievement on mathematics and science, such as the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) comparison of students in the fourth and eighth grades from forty nations (and twelfth-grade students from twenty nations), have revealed that the overall achievement of students in the United States is low compared to students in other industrialized nations. Twelfth graders in the United States were outperformed by fourteen of twenty nations in mathematics and science, according to TIMSS results, initiating a flurry of debate and concern nationwide about public education. Others have debunked criticisms of achievement in the United States based on TIMSS data since cross-national comparisons do not consider the dramatically different student diversity and pluralism in America and the varying governance serving its diverse population. Still, the aftermath of TIMSS resulted in government pressure on students to enroll in more difficult math and science classes, and also forced the nation to reevaluate its place among competing nations in the global economy. Despite all of this concern about students and their ability to perform in the economy of the early twenty-first century, data from 1990 to 2000 showed steady economic growth in the United States, the strongest in several decades, in fact.

State-level accountability systems have emerged across the country during the 1980s and 1990s. These systems include rules for state-administered standardized tests and curriculum standards for all grade levels. In these accountability systems, some states reward students, teachers, and school and district leaders for improving academic achievement. Part of the criticisms came when leaders had difficulty implementing these systems of accountability, often due to having standards not aligned with tests and curriculum not aligned with standards. Efforts to improve these disparities and ultimately improve achievement outcomes have been slow to show results. For example, experts continue to change the measures themselves, putting teaching strategies and curriculum used to teach them in constant flux. In addition, where schools are consistently performing very poorly on high-stakes tests, the state intervenes by way of sanctions or takeover of the school or district. Critics say these interventions and accountability systems are presented with little evidence of their likelihood to positively change the system. Seldom are these changes backed with research-based rationale.

School Choice

Many believe competition among schools can solve the problems of poor student achievement, inequity, and government bureaucracy. Since the 1990s, school choice has gained enormous momentum, providing a variety of enrollment options for children, such as charter schools, voucher programs, district/school open enrollment, and tax credits/deductions. Advocates of school choice feel that when parents become consumers of education, schools will compete, forcing public schools to improve student academic performance or risk closure. They also believe that public schools are unable to reform successfully because of too much government oversight. Critics of school choice argue the lack of a monitoring mechanism will mean far less accountability with no guarantee that all children are learning basic skills. Others challenge the constitutionality of some choice programs, arguing that including religious schools in a choice program–particularly when vouchers with public funds are involved–violates the separation of church and state. A brief description of each of the various school choice options follows.

Charter schools. Charter schools are independent public schools formed by communities, and they are therefore relatively free from state and local laws and regulations. The school operates under the framework of a contract, or charter, established by the parents, businesses, and the community the school serves. Less controversial than vouchers, charter schools and their enrollment have grown tremendously since 1994 when Congress authorized the Public Charter School Program through Title X of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Since 1991, thirty-seven states have passed charter school legislation. Although there is some evidence that charters may improve academic achievement, the research is mixed. Early studies cited higher achievement for some groups in some grades when compared to conventional schools, as well as lower achievement for others.

Vouchers. Vouchers are public funds given to families and organizations to provide tuition for children at any public, private, or parochial school they choose. Advocates of voucher programs say they expand options for low-income parents. Critics claim that vouchers divert public funds away from already ailing public schools and into private and religious institutions. Furthermore, they argue that vouchers "skim" off the best students, thereby further stratifying and segregating schools. Moreover, legal disputes related to the constitutionality of vouchers pervade state and federal courts. Capacity and cost are two major barriers to the implementing of a sound voucher program. While there is a demand for school choice, the supply of schools and their capacity to enroll additional students depend on their ability to expand, which adds to teaching staff, class size, and administrative faculty. In addition, private schools vary widely in their tuition costs. Because vouchers are given based on state per-pupil expenditures, many families may still have to pay significant costs to send their children to the school of their choice, and many families will be unable to afford to send their children to the school of their choice.

District/school open enrollment. Sometimes referred to as intradistrict/interdistrict choice, District/school open enrollment allows families to choose a school in their area other than the one the student was assigned, dependent on availability of space. Open enrollment laws can be either mandatory or voluntary.

Tax credits/deductions. Tax credits and deductions allow families to recoup money on their taxes spent on private education costs, including tuition, textbooks, transportation, and other direct school expenses. Since these deductions can only be taken after the money is spent, through deductions of taxes owed, many low-income families are not able to participate.

A strongly debated issue, criticisms of school choice come from many angles. Some criticisms have been aimed at the idea of competition among schools in general, while others criticize those in the system who are opposed to this promising effort to improve education for many American children.

Reform after Reform

As educators and legislators continue to believe in the power of change through education reform, dollars will be spent on one innovative idea after another to improve academic performance, efficiency, or other structural characteristics of the schools. American public education has, since 1980, endured reform after reform, with few reforms sustained over the long-term, and little to show for the effort except frustration and lack of clarity in the mission of the reforms. Instructional reforms (e.g., whole language vs. phonics instruction in reading), pedagogical reforms (e.g., constructivist vs. direct instruction), and management reforms (e.g., centralized decision making vs. site-based control) create a reform buildup in schools and districts. Even after years of reforms, some assert that classroom practices have changed very little. Yet, states, districts, schools, and classrooms have periodically seen positive outcomes from their reforms. This often results in countless efforts to replicate success stories when the context may not be conducive to the same effects. Research shows that effective reforms are gradual and incremental, suggesting that change and reform is a step toward progress, not progress itself. Educators and reformers are then charged with the task of asking the public to be patient in seeing results. Too often, this reform build-up creates doubt and mistrust among those inside and outside of the system.

Public education in the United States has historically been both the panacea for societal ills and the target for criticism and disapproval. For every critic pointing out the failures of the system, there's a success story to be told that outlines the progress public education has made. Given the many failed reforms and less than successful attempts to create a more equal and fair system, there is no evidence that eliminating the entire system would improve the system or halt any criticisms. Instead, like every other institution in America, educators, policymakers, and reformers learn from the mistakes of the past and continue to pave new ways of helping students learn and succeed.


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