Are American Schools Working? Disturbing Cost and Quality Trends

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I. Introduction

Three blue-ribbon study commissions have recently reported on the state of education in American. The most notedof these, the National Commission on Excellence in Education,came to some disturbing conclusions. In its April 1983 reportit 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 in21 nations, American students never finished first or secondand were last seven times. Nearly 40 percent of today's 17-year-olds cannot draw inferences from written material, andonly 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 between1963 and 1980.[1]

The Commission's language was strong, but probably nostronger than the feelings of the American public. Accordingto a May 1982 Gallup poll of the public's attitude towardpublic schools, faith in America's future rests more on developing the best educational system in the world than ondeveloping the best industrial system or the strongest military force. Every major population group of respondentsplaced education first, the industrial system second, andmilitary strength third.

The poll asked:

In determining America's strength in the future -- say, 25 years from now -- how important doyou 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 and47 percent respectively who thought that developing industryand strengthening the military force were very important.

The American people obviously are becoming increasinglydisturbed by the widespread reports and personal experiencesof the declining quality of their public schooling. Considerthe change in public opinion on public school quality: In1974 public schools were given an A or B rating by 48 percentof those interviewed in a Gallup poll; by 1982, however, theratio had declined to 37 percent.[2]

Finally, a report published in 1983 by the Center forPublic Resources (CPR) entitled, Basic Skills in the U.S.Work Force, identified serious basic skills deficiencies amongsecondary school graduates and non-graduates entering thework force. These findings were in conflict with the viewsof educational suppliers, however. While most companies reported basic skills deficiencies in most job categories, over75 percent of the school system rated their graduates as"adequately prepared" in the basic academic skills needed foremployment.

In this article we will look at several probable reasonsfor the disaffection with public schooling in 1980. SectionII will examine the latest trend in educational costs. Section III will look at adverse changes in school achievementlevels and school organization. Section IV will return tothe subjects of the public's opinion on the quality of education. Section V will focus on the problem of disciplineand violence in schools. Section VI will compare public withprivate school quality; Section VII will review the prospectfor reform.

Edwin G. West

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, and The Economics of Education Tax Credits.