A Nation at Risk

Cato Unbound is right now hosting a discussion about the legacy of A Nation at Risk, the report that 25 years ago this month famously warned that a “rising tide of mediocrity” in American education was threatening “our very future as a Nation and a people.” The report also, by the way, was invaluable in setting the political stage for the subject of a Cato forum to be held tomorrow, “Markets vs. Standards: Debating the Future of American Education.”

Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute and a former New York Times education columnist, penned the lead Cato Unbound essay, which is responded to by FLOW CEO Michael Strong, Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Sol Stern, and the American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick Hess. I encourage you to read all the essays, and just thought I’d throw in my two cents.

I should begin by saying that I think Rothstein is right on a couple of points.

First, I agree that A Nation at Risk started a flood of ill-considered railing that the United States was heading to economic irrelevance as a result of our education system. As Rothstein notes, this simple correlation—mediocre education equals nation of burger-servers, great education equals everyone a CEO—ignores myriad variables outside of education that influence economic success. Unfortunately, Rothstein identifies mainly bits of economic kryptonite as the real keys to economic success, especially beefing up protections for labor unions, but his basic point that education is far from the only force shaping the economy is a fair one.

Rothstein is also right to declare that the extent to which American education was in decline in the years leading up to ANAR was somewhat exaggerated, based mainly on a drop in SAT scores that could at least in part be attributed to wider ranges of kids taking the test. In contrast to the impression Rothstein gives, however, slumping SAT scores was far from the only evidence ANAR offered to back its assertion not that American schools were stuck in reverse, but in hopelessly mediocre neutral. ANAR offered a long list of indicators of educational woe, including poor American standing in international comparisons, functional illiteracy among adults, and numerous indicators that 17-year-olds—the final products of American education—were in very poor educational shape, a condition that remains today.

Clearly, stubborn mediocrity and decline are two different things, with the former perhaps a bit more tolerable than the latter. But stagnation is bad, and especially hurts because, as Michael Strong points out, not only have we gone nowhere, we’ve stood pat while hugely increasing education funding:

Richard Rothstein cites evidence that public schools have improved math scores at age 9 and 13, but not age 17. Thus whatever gains are being made in elementary and middle school are being lost in high school. Since 1973, K-12 educational expenditures have more than doubled; on a per-dollar basis, “investing” in public education now shows a thirty-five year trend of steadily decreasing returns.

So while Rothstein is probably right that ANAR—or, more accurately, many of the people reacting to it—somewhat overstated our educational decline, the report’s conclusion about immovable mediocrity is much harder to refute, and the dreadful return on investment undeniable.

One of the highest-profile movements focused on overcoming this seemingly permanent state of mediocrity is school choice, which at its most basic level would let parents choose where their children are educated and attach education money to the kids. Were this universally applied, our recalcitrant, regulation-strangled, special-interest-dominated public schooling system would be bypassed and schools would be forced to compete and innovate. In practice, however, choice has been implemented in very hamstrung forms: choice only among public schools, charter schools that must be approved by government and often remain shackled to rules and regulations, and voucher programs open only to relative handfuls of kids. As a result, choice has not come close to creating the real, innovation-driving, educational free market necessary to truly transform American schooling

In perhaps the most interesting wrinkle of the Cato Unbound debate, Hess offers what seems to be a not-so-veiled critique of co-respondent Sol Stern, whose recent City Journal piece pushing choice to the reform margins has caused a big stir in education policy circles. Hess appears to rebuke Stern for failing to consider all that is needed to get a real market up and running, a problem that bedevils school choice supporters and detractors alike:

[S]ome who were once enthusiastic proponents of “choice” have reversed course and expressed doubts about the viability of educational markets — without ever having stopped to consider all the ways in which simply promoting one-off choice programs falls desperately short of any serious effort to thoughtfully deregulate schooling or promote a coherent K-12 marketplace. Indeed, some have abandoned the choice bandwagon with the same ill-considered haste that marked their initial enthusiasm.

Hess is absolutely correct that for too long choice supporters have touted each and every little voucher or charter school proposal that’s come down the pike, and some have lost their choice enthusiasm when those little programs have produced little change. But the problem is not choice itself. The problem is that choice must be big to overcome well-nigh immovable American public schooling, and getting people to realize that is going to take a lot of time and, probably, a lot more failure.