The Next Chapter in American Education

Tuesday, January 30, 2001

Americans have much to be optimistic about today. Our economy has been growing at an unprecedented pace; crime is down across the country; welfare rolls have been dramatically reduced; and the political principles on which this country was founded have spread throughout the world. But when it comes to public education, Americans have a certain optimism gap. Most Americans worry about the state of American education in general but believe that their own children’s schools are doing fine. The public has it half right: American schools are in general not very good, but our local schools are probably not any better.

Illustration by Taylor Jones for the Hoover Digest.

Spending More to Get Less

In our nation’s public schools, from kindergarten to the 12th grade, we spend more than $6,000 a year on every child, almost three times what we spent per student, in constant dollars, in 1960. Despite this increase, academic achievement among our students has, at best, stagnated during the past 40 years. According to the best measure of student achievement—the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—by the fourth grade, two-thirds of American children cannot read at a proficient level, three-fourths cannot write proficiently, and four-fifths are not proficient in mathematics. According to a recent report from the Brookings Institution on American academic progress, the area in which American students are weakest in math is basic arithmetic. Tom Loveless, the author of the report, also examined the results of the long-term-trend math test of the NAEP and found that math and science scores have remained essentially flat since the tests were first administered in 1973.

Nevertheless, on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), our fourth-graders were in the top third of industrialized nations in both subjects; eighth-graders were in the middle of the pack; but when our students got to the 12th grade, we fell completely off track, finishing 19th of 21 nations in math and 16th of 21 in science. On tests of advanced physics, American 12th-graders finished 15th out of 16 nations. In advanced math, they finished dead last (and these tests of 12th-graders did not even include most Asian nations). To put it simply, the longer a child stays in school in the United States, the less that child knows relative to students in other industrialized nations.

The Stakes Are High

Why does all this matter? After all, the United States is living through the longest economic boom in its history. In the midst of our mediocrity in the classroom, we have become an economic superpower the likes of which the world has never seen. If we are truly falling short in our duty to educate the young—and objective measures suggest that we are—can we then assume that excellence in the classroom and success in the business world are not related?

There are a number of explanations for this paradox that, working in concert, form the beginnings of an answer. First, it is apparent that an economy run in a free market with relatively few trade restrictions can survive—and even prosper—on the backs of a very talented few. Bill Gates has put it this way, “Take our twenty best people away, and I can tell you Microsoft would become an unimportant company.” Mr. Gates did not need a Harvard education to do well; he needed a few circuits, a small group of intensely bright people like himself, and the freedom and incentive to test his ideas in the private market. The same could be said for a multitude of other leaders in both the new and the old economies.

The second explanation is that America is a land of second, third, and fourth chances. When our K–12 education system fails, a number of safety nets cushion the fall. American companies now spend billions of dollars every year for on-the-job training, in large part to cover for the shortcomings of our school system. In addition, our colleges and universities are increasingly devoted not to higher learning but to remedial education. Roughly one-third of entering college freshmen were enrolled in remedial courses in the fall of 1995, 70 percent of them in community colleges, which represent the fastest-growing sector in U.S. higher education.

By the fourth grade, two-thirds of American children cannot read at a proficient level, three-fourths cannot write proficiently, and four-fifths are not proficient in mathematics.

The final answer is that the United States aggressively imports immigrant workers every year to fill skill-intensive, high-tech jobs. In 1999, the Immigration and Naturalization Service granted 115,000 H-1B visas explicitly for this purpose, and, in 2000, Congress voted to increase that visa cap to 195,000. Proof of the potency of immigrants in the United States can be found in a fascinating study by Anna Lee Saxenian of the Public Policy Institute of California, which found that ethnic Chinese and Indian immigrants run nearly one-quarter of American high-tech companies. These 2,775 immigrant-run companies had total sales of $16.8 billion and employed more than 58,000 workers in 1998. Moreover, one of the most important parts of our school system has become devoted to educating immigrants. Roughly one-third of all master’s degrees and 45 percent of all doctoral degrees in high-tech fields were awarded to foreign nationals in 1996–97.

This is the American experiment in action, and it is part of what makes this nation exceptional. But the fact is clear: we should not have to import talent from across the world because our education system is failing to train our own students. The precariousness of this situation is more than just economic. That a significant portion of our population passes through our schools unable to do rudimentary arithmetic, ignorant of basic American history, and incapable of reading a simple paragraph not only ensures a fresh supply of have-nots in our economy but dims the glimmer of our national greatness.

To put it simply, the longer a child stays in school in the United States, the dumber that child gets relative to students in other industrialized nations.

The purpose of an education is not merely to prepare citizens for work, it is to prepare them for life—for the eminently practical tasks of living well, thinking wisely, and acting sensibly. When effectively executed, education serves not to separate but to unite the classes, endowing them with a respect for their national heritage, an appreciation for commonly shared values, and reverence for diligence, truth, and compassion. When our schools fail to fulfill this vital role, our citizens (especially those least able to learn these lessons at home) are forever diminished—and we, as a nation, are diminished as well.

Policy Reforms, Grassroots Action

Public policy can do some things to improve the situation, and a few cities and states are enjoying success on the basis of these reforms. Much has been made of the successes in Texas under Governor Bush and his predecessors and deservedly so. Focusing on improving the reading skills of younger students and holding schools accountable for educating all kids—black and white, rich and poor—Governor Bush strengthened his state’s education system. The results, as shown by the latest administration of the NAEP, are impressive. Among both white and black fourth-graders, Texas ranks first in the country in math, and among Latino fourth-graders, it ranks sixth.

American companies now spend billions of dollars every year for on-the-job training, in large part to cover for the shortcomings of our school system.

Other examples of success are readily available. Arizona, led by state school commissioner Lisa Graham Keegan, has seen the creation of more than 400 new charter schools and the implementation of a rigorous accountability system. By no means are the successes limited to conservative leaders: with Paul Vallas (an appointee of Mayor Richard Daley) at the helm in Chicago, the city has banned the practice of social promotion and has shifted decision-making power down to the school level, giving principals and teachers a stake in their own success. As a result, what was once the worst school system in America is beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel. In 1995, just 26.5 percent of Chicago elementary schoolchildren were reading at or above national norms; by 1998, more than 34 percent were. Reading and math scores for Chicago high school students have improved for three straight years; those same scores for elementary school students have improved for five straight years.

In addition to education reforms at the state and local levels, there is evidence that individual families are taking action as well. Consider home schooling, which represents one of the most robust, promising, and courageous movements in modern-day America. In 1994, the parents of about 700,000 school-age children made the decision to educate their children at home. This population is growing by about 15 percent each year, making the current number between 1.5 and 2 million home-schooled children—about 3 to 4 percent of school-age children nationwide. More important, the best available evidence suggests that most home-schooled children are getting an exceptional education.

The United States is heavily dependent on foreign-born workers to fill high-tech jobs. Indeed, ethnic Chinese and Indian immigrants run nearly one-quarter of American high-tech companies.

There is considerable interest in working outside of the traditional education system in other areas as well. The number of charter schools in the United States has skyrocketed from four in 1992–93 to over 2,000 today, enrolling over half a million children. In 1992–93, two states had charter schools; in 1999–2000, 33 did. And, in 1999, when the Children’s Scholarship Fund held a lottery for 40,000 private school scholarships among lower-income children, there were 1.3 million applications.

These, surely, are tangible signs that parents are thirsting for new ways to provide their children with a good education. But in many more places than reform has succeeded, it has been defeated—either stamped out before it has a chance to succeed or fiercely resisted during implementation. These disappointments are not simply the product of partisan fighting or special interests, they are the textbook consequence of having an educational system with few penalties for failure and not enough rewards for success.

In the school systems that have succeeded, a common thread of creativity, passion, and entrepreneurism runs through their efforts. They each demand more of their students, teachers, and (sometimes) principals by raising standards, measuring performance, and rewarding success. They hold both the adults and the students accountable for their actions. They have moved power down to the school level, giving principals the ability to make hiring and firing decisions and giving teachers the authority to discipline their students. And they have often made schools competitive with one another by allowing parents to choose where to send their children to school and by making it possible for new and different kinds of schools to come into being. Given these traits, it should not be a great surprise to anyone that the next chapter in education will be found in large part in the intersection of the public and private sectors.

Harnessing the Private Sector to Fuel Reform

As various education reforms demonstrate, our educational failure is neither complete nor inevitable. But whatever has happened in traditional areas of education reform, something new has arrived on the scene. Over the past several years, the forces that transformed the rest of the economy through advanced technology and the Internet have begun to focus their attention on education. Several leading businesspeople and entrepreneurs have invested significant amounts of time, energy, and money into elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education. John Chambers, CEO of Internet giant Cisco Systems, even went so far as to say recently that “education over the Internet is going to be so big that it is going to make e-mail usage look like a rounding error.”

It is important to recognize, however, that lots of private sector money has already been invested in educational technology but with relatively little to show for it by way of student learning. Spending for technology in K–12 education topped $6.7 billion during the 1998–99 school year, an increase of almost 40 percent from the previous year. These billions of dollars have made a clear impact on the physical infrastructure of schools: in 1994, only 35 percent of public schools had Internet access; by 1999, 95 percent did.

Our colleges and universities are increasingly devoted not to higher learning but to remedial education. Roughly one-third of entering college freshmen were enrolled in remedial courses in the fall of 1995.

But the unfortunate truth, according to the best and most up-to-date surveys, is that the vast majority of teachers have not begun to integrate computers successfully into their teaching—nor have they been given the tools, the time, or the training to do so. Computers often sit in classrooms unused or used for activities that have no real impact on learning or academic success. Students sit at terminals with little or no instruction and very few quality programs to help them along. One of the best studies of education and technology—performed by the Educational Testing Service (the same group responsible for the SAT)—has found that fourth- and eighth-grade students who use computers in school at least once a week fare worse on tests than those who use them less frequently.1 This set of facts caused so keen an observer as Tom Wolfe to label the entire affair “Digibabble.”

Two things are clear. First, advanced technology by itself is no panacea. Second, a thoughtful application of technology to education does not mean that we can, or that we should, do away with traditional institutions. It certainly does not mean that we can sideline parents, teachers, and other concerned adults. In fact, a successful fusion of technology with education will require just the opposite: better teachers; more flexible, receptive, and competent schools; and increased parental involvement.

The next chapter in education will be found in large part in the intersection of the public and private sectors.

It would be a mistake to assume that the Internet and high technology, which have touched virtually every other sector of American life in the past 10 years, will pass over education. It is true that many of the attempts at implementation thus far have been disappointments, wasting both schools’ money and students’ time. Even in the past year, several highly publicized education and technology companies have had major problems.

But the fact that computers have not yet changed education does not mean that they will not or cannot. New programs are being developed every day, programs that are as diverse as the nation’s schools and students. As some products and services prove themselves successful, and as they begin to spur on true academic excellence, they will begin to shape those that follow—and we will, I believe, soon begin to see the future shape of the marriage of education and technology.

The most ambitious models will take advantage of the imminent explosion in bandwidth to make the best content and the best teachers available anytime to any student. They will be interactive: between students, parents, and teachers and between students themselves. They will be flexible, accountable, and student centered. As a friend and colleague of mine has said, “The educational unit of the future is not the classroom but the child.”

In fact, I am leading a new company that is developing an Internet-based school that will offer a comprehensive education to thousands of students. With the explosion of technology, we will soon have the ability not only to play a video over a computer but to carefully monitor student performance (not just once a week or once a quarter but every single day), tailor instructional programs to fit students’ abilities and interests, and focus on their strengths and weaknesses. With the Internet and other new technologies, we will be able to deliver top-quality content, integrated assessment programs, and a high-standards curriculum to all kinds of students, families, and schools—at any time and in any place.

Conclusion

I am as optimistic about the future of U.S. education as I am frustrated by the past and disheartened by much of the present. We can do better, and we know how. The emerging combination of elements—federal, state, and local education reforms; widespread frustration with the current school system; and rapidly surging technological capabilities, plus smart and aggressive investment from the private sector—will usher in a new, and possibly very bright, chapter in the ongoing evolution of education in America.

Note

1. It is important to note here that the same study found a positive correlation between the frequency of computer use at home and academic achievement for eighth-graders. For fourth-graders, however, a negative correlation also existed between the two.