Policy Analysis No. 26

Are American Schools Working? Disturbing Cost and Quality Trends

By Edwin G. West
August 9, 1983

I. Introduction

Three blue-ribbon study commissions have recently reported on the state of education in American. The most noted of these, the National Commission on Excellence in Education, came to some disturbing conclusions. In its April 1983 report it is revealed that approximately 13 percent of all 17-year-olds, and perhaps 40 percent of minority youth, are functionally illiterate. In 19 academic achievement tests given in 21 nations, American students never finished first or second and were last seven times. Nearly 40 percent of today’s 17-year-olds cannot draw inferences from written material, and only a third can solve a math problem requiring several steps. Between 1975 and 1980 there was a 75 percent increase in remedial math courses at four-year public colleges. Finally, scholastic aptitude tests (S.A.T.s) fell continuously between 1963 and 1980.[1]

The Commission’s language was strong, but probably no stronger than the feelings of the American public. According to a May 1982 Gallup poll of the public’s attitude toward public schools, faith in America’s future rests more on developing the best educational system in the world than on developing the best industrial system or the strongest military force. Every major population group of respondents placed education first, the industrial system second, and military strength third.

The poll asked:

In determining America’s strength in the future — say, 25 years from now — how important do you feel each of the following factors will be — very important, fairly important, not too important, or not at all important?

The proportion of those questioned that thought developing the best education system in the world was “very important” was 84 percent. This compared with 66 percent and 47 percent respectively who thought that developing industry and strengthening the military force were very important.

The American people obviously are becoming increasingly disturbed by the widespread reports and personal experiences of the declining quality of their public schooling. Consider the change in public opinion on public school quality: In 1974 public schools were given an A or B rating by 48 percent of those interviewed in a Gallup poll; by 1982, however, the ratio had declined to 37 percent.[2]

Finally, a report published in 1983 by the Center for Public Resources (CPR) entitled, Basic Skills in the U.S. Work Force, identified serious basic skills deficiencies among secondary school graduates and non-graduates entering the work force. These findings were in conflict with the views of educational suppliers, however. While most companies reported basic skills deficiencies in most job categories, over 75 percent of the school system rated their graduates as “adequately prepared” in the basic academic skills needed for employment.

In this article we will look at several probable reasons for the disaffection with public schooling in 1980. Section II will examine the latest trend in educational costs. Section III will look at adverse changes in school achievement levels and school organization. Section IV will return to the subjects of the public’s opinion on the quality of education. Section V will focus on the problem of discipline and violence in schools. Section VI will compare public with private school quality; Section VII will review the prospect for reform.

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Edwin G. West is professor of economics at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and the author of numerous works on the economics of education. Among his books are The Political Economy of Public School Legislation, Education and the State: A Study in Political Economy, andThe Economics of Education Tax Credits.