Public Education Failure Debate and Poll
Is Public Education Failing? 


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Education is a partisan battleground, the sense of crisis essential both to liberal demands for more money and to conservative arguments for vouchers and private schools. Good news, even qualified good news, undermines almost everybody's agenda of reform. 



Americans have often been unhappy with public education. A wave of school reform swept the nation after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first earth satellite, in 1957. In response to fears that the Soviets were ahead of the United States in science and engineering and might therefore win the cold war; as the U.S. economy floundered in the late 1970s and early 1980s and Japanese businesses outpaced their American counterparts, there was a new perception of crisis, which warned that the failures of the nation's schools were about to undermine America's ability to compete economically; in 1989, when President George Bush and the nation's governors initiated what came to be called Goals 2000, pledging to make this country the world leader in education by the year 2000.



A federal study of students across the country, during the 1920's and 1930's found that only 56 percent graduated from high school.



Graduates don't have the skills needed for a technologically advanced economy. We've doubled funds for public education since the mid-1960s, but more money hasn't improved schools. Academic achievement is stagnant or declining. 


CON 4.1

The U.S. has doubled the amount of money spent per pupil between 1965 and 1993, but the money has not gone to direct improvements for general education. Instead it has gone to special education for disabled students, school lunches, transportation and dropout prevention, all of which are indirect education benefits. Increased spending on direct benefits, like smaller classroom size and larger teacher salaries, have been insufficient to produce the desired results. Even so, the last 30 years have seen some general benefits, such as a lower dropout rate and increasingly better SAT scores for minorities.


Average Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores have declined to 899 (math and verbal combined) in 1992 from 937 in 1972. 


CON 5.1

Yet this favorite fact of headline writers tells a very partial story. Last year, 29 percent of SAT takers (students planning to go to college) were minority students, more than double the 13 percent 20 years earlier. In 1992, 43 percent of test takers ranked in the top fifth of their high school classes. In 1972, 48 percent were in the top fifth, a more elite group. In California, for example, where over half the test takers were minority students in 1992, only 66 percent came from homes where only English was spoken, and 20 percent spoke English as a second language, up from 13 percent just six years earlier. These shifts unsurprisingly produce lower average scores. Declines in average SAT scores stem mostly from expansion in the test takers' base, adding more disadvantaged students to a pool that earlier included mostly privileged students.


CON 5.2

White scores declined, but this is due, at least in part, to the broadened social class base of white test takers. In 1976, the number of white test takers was equal to only 19 percent of the 17-year-old white population. In 1992, it was 25 percent, a less elite group. 


CON 5.3

The questions on the SAT test change every year, so there is no way to know how the class of 1966 would have done on 1999's test, or vice versa.



The education bureaucracy won't concede that, despite spending trillions of dollars on education over the past 30 years, American children are further behind today. It doesn't want to admit that the S.A.T. scores of African-American children, which average 100 points less than the scores of white children, are the direct result of the current [Great Society] policies.


CON 6.1

Minority scores have gone up. From 1976 (when the College Board began tracking group scores) to 1992, black student scores went from 686 to 737; Mexican-origin scores went from 781 to 797; and Puerto Rican scores went from 765 to 772. Today we prepare more minority and lower-middle-class students to take college entrance exams. It's a sign of accomplishment, not failure.  


CON 6.2

In 1995 for the first time the proportion of white and black young people ages 24 to 29 who had completed high school was the same: 87%.



The most accurate measurement of dropouts is the census information on young adults who have completed 12 years of school. In 1970, 75 percent of youths between ages 25 and 29 had completed high school. By 1990, 86 percent had done so. Minority dropout rates have steadily declined--in 1940, only 12 percent of 25-to-29-year-old blacks had completed high school. In 1950, the black completion rate rose to 24 percent; in 1960, to 39 percent; in 1970, to 58 percent; in 1980, to 77 percent. The rate continued to rise in the 1980s, to 83 percent in 1990.


CON 7.1

While preventing dropouts is important, lower dropout rates will also reduce average test scores, since a broader base is now tested, including those less academically motivated than earlier groups that did not include potential dropouts. Fewer dropouts will also generate more anecdotes about high school graduates who don't read or compute well. So, paradoxically, expenditures for more schooling can seem to reduce academic achievement while contributing to an improved education level for society.



A more accurate evaluation of SAT trends comes from examining not average scores but the percentage of all youths in the 17-year-old cohort (both test takers and non-takers) who perform well on the test. In 1992, test takers equal in number to 2.2 percent of all 17-year-olds had verbal scores of at least 600 (good enough to get into top-ranked universities), better than the 1.9 percent with such scores in 1976. In math, test takers equal in number to 5.4 percent of all 17-year-olds got at least 600 in 1992, up from only 3.8 percent who scored that well in 1976. The number of students who scored over 500, good enough for admission to academically respectable four-year colleges, grew as well. These data suggest improved grade and high school performance.



The National Assessment of Educational Progress has been administered by the Department of Education for more than twenty years. National representative samples of students at ages 9, 13, and 17 have been tested in many areas, including reading, mathematics, science and writing. Tests were given at four-year intervals in the ?70s and ?80s and have been given more frequently since. The NAEP data permit comparisons of American student achievement over time. The twenty year results of NAEP testing do not confirm the public's conclusions drawn from SAT results that there has been a marked decline in student achievement. In fact, scores for each student age group on reading and mathematics tests were higher in 1990 than they were in 1973.


PRO 10

A U.S. Department of Education study also confirms the shortcomings of U.S. students relative to other nations. Their statistics show that U.S. 12th graders rank 19th out of 21 industrialized nations in math achievement and 16th out of 21 nations in science. 


CON 10.1

U.S. schools graduate the highest proportion of scientists and engineers in the world.


PRO 11

The U.S. consistently places near the bottom in international achievement comparisons. Had the U.S. lagged behind in funding as well as performance, the solution might be as simple as increasing education spending. But the situation is far more complex. A study by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation found that the U.S. place third out of twenty-two economically advanced nations in per-student spending. Statistics show that the United States spends $5300 per-student on primary school education, an amount 75 percent greater than the international average of $3033. For secondary education, the U.S. spends $6680 per student. This is 54 percent greater than the average nation surveyed. These numbers demonstrate that a lack of funding is not a reasonable explanation for the dismal performance of U.S. students in international comparisons.


CON 11.1

High school completion rates -- now roughly 90 percent -- and college graduation rates are the highest in history. One in four adult Americans has at least a bachelor's degree -- the highest percentage in the world (and the percentage keeps getting higher). A larger percentage of twenty-two-year-olds receive degrees in math, science, or engineering in the United States than in any of the nation's major economic competitors.


CON 11.2

The top 20% of American high school graduates are world class and getting better. They graduate from colleges and universities in unprecedented numbers and write 40% of all research articles in the world.


CON 12   01-06-00

An analysis of two decades of government data reveals SAT scores are rising, more students are achieving in math and science and college enrollment is up. A report issued by the Center on Education Policy and the American Youth Policy Forum compares U.S. schools in the 1980s with classrooms of the mid- to late-1990s and concludes there are many positive trends. The study, ``The Good News About American Education,'' found that fewer students are dropping out, students are taking more challenging courses and more students with disabilities are finding their way into mainstream classrooms. The study notes that the overall dropout rate declined by 4 percent and the rate among black youth dropped 8 percent between 1972 and 1997, the latest year for which figures were available.

-Scores on the math portion of the SAT increased 17 points and verbal scores increased 2 points between 1983 and 1999.

-Scores on standardized science and math achievement tests improved among 9-, 13-, and 17-year-old students between 1982 and 1996.

-14 percent more students went on to college in 1997 than in 1983.

Looking at school crime overall between 1993 and 1997, the study found the rate dropped from 155 to 102 incidents per 1,000 children. Violent crimes dropped by 19 incidents and seriously violent crime decreased by 4 incidents for every 1,000 students, the study said. The report did not include a recent spate of school shootings in Colorado, Oregon, Arkansas and elsewhere. Samuel Halperin, a senior fellow with the American Youth Policy Forum, said that even if the recent shootings had been included, the crime rate in public schools still would have declined. ``This report is not saying crime is not a problem. We're just saying that it's declining.''


PRO 12.1

Jeanne Brennan, a spokeswoman for Education Trust, an advocacy group for poor minority students, said the study is shortsighted on gaps in achievement between minorities and white students.


CON 12.11

Halperin acknowledged that the disparity is ``much too large'' but said statistics show the gap is narrowing. For example, among 9-year-olds the difference between black and white students' math achievement scores was an average of 29 points on a standardized achievement test in 1982, while the difference was 25 points in 1996. ``We're not saying by any stretch of the imagination that we're where we ought to be. We're just saying let's stop all the incessant bashing and look at some of the real numbers,'' he said.





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