The dispiriting scores came from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a collection of federal exams given to representative samples of children. The results were from the 2018 administration of eighth grade U.S. history and civics.
In U.S. history, only 14 percent of public school students rated “proficient” or above, meaning less than one in five could consistently do such things as “identify a feature of Native American life in the late 1800s,” or “identify a right guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.”
In civics, only 23 percent of public school students rated “proficient” or higher, meaning only about one in four could consistently handle such challenges as “explain two ways Congress fulfills a constitutional responsibility” or “identify the purpose of a country’s constitution.”
Perhaps these results reflect too many public schools not delivering any education at all. On the same day these scores were released, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a case brought by Detroit students who said they were unable to function as citizens because the public schools failed to provide even basic literacy. The court agreed, finding that the school system “does not provide even a plausible chance to attain literacy,” and hence keeps people from performing basic citizenship functions, right down to reading road signs.
The primary reason we have public schools—government-run schools directly funded by taxpayers—is a promise to form good citizens. Indeed, over just the last couple of weeks a controversy erupted over a Harvard Magazine article highly critical of homeschooling. Elizabeth Bartholet, director of Harvard Law School’s Child Advocacy Program, is calling for a ban on homeschooling, saying it cannot guarantee the formation of citizens of a democracy the way that public schooling promises.
Of course, the problem for anyone who opposes educational freedom on the grounds it does not guarantee what public schooling promises is that that promise is demonstrably hollow.
Meanwhile, private schools appear to outpace publics in creating citizens. Students in Roman Catholic schools—the private schools with sufficient data for NAEP to confidently break them out—saw 29 percent of students score at least “proficient” in U.S. history, versus 14 percent of public‐school kids. In civics, 41 percent of Catholic students were at least proficient, versus 23 percent of public schoolers.
These differences could reflect private school kids being wealthier or otherwise better off than public school students. But studies that have controlled for many such variables have found that private schools as a whole exceed or equal, and never lag, the performance of public schools in instilling civic knowledge and fostering behaviors such as volunteering in one’s community.
There are many possible reasons for this, but one that stands out is that unlike public schools, to which people are assigned by their home address, private schools are chosen, typically by people who share, or at least voluntarily accept, a school’s values. That enables private schools to teach deeper, more rigorous curricula; they do not have to skip or sugarcoat controversial conclusions lest they upset someone and ignite paralyzing controversy.
Whatever the reason for superior private performance, the irony is rich: public schooling was created expressly on the promise it would create good citizens, and that promise is still being invoked to oppose educational freedom. But it is private education, not public schooling, that is doing the better job of forming Americans.