The Truth About Public Schools

These are trying times to teach in public schools. So many in government and the media have jumped onto the bash-the-public-schools bandwagon.

Vouchers are the most recent, and the most serious attack. Implicit in their very existence is the assumption that public schools have failed, and that we educators are to blame. It's a wonder any college graduates at all enter the education profession anymore. It's a wonder so many remain in it.

However, an astounding but little-known piece of research, completed in 1991 by the Sandia National Laboratories, should give teachers heart. (Endless peer-reviews ordered by an apparently disgruntled Bush Administration delayed its dissemination.)

The Sandia researchers, who had hoped to get to the bottom of ”The Problem” with public schools, came to a startling conclusion: “To our surprise, on nearly every measure we found steady or slightly improving trends.”

How can this be? Everybody knows that more kids are dropping out than ever before, right?

Wrong. Sandia Labs evaluated graduation figures for the last hundred years and determined that “today's youth are obtaining high school diplomas at unprecedented rates.” About 75% of our kids graduate on time, and another ten percent later go on to obtain a G.E.D. That's the highest rate in our country's history!

Did you know that college graduation figures are even more flattering? At present, one quarter of our youth garner a college diploma--the highest rate in the world! Even more encouraging is the fact that women and minorities comprise an increasing number and percentage of them.

Ah, but everybody knows that those diplomas don't really mean much anymore. Our standards have fallen. Current S.A.T. scores make that eminently, and depressingly clear.

Wrong again. Sandia Labs found that, while it is true that average S.A.T. scores are lower, this is because elite students aren't the only ones taking the exam anymore. You see, now many, many more kids aspire to college. (Quite an achievement on teachers’ part.) Since most of them are from middle and lower classes, it is only natural that average S.A.T. scores have dropped a bit. Nonetheless, the performance of elite kids during the last 15 years has increased by nearly 40 points.

Yeah, but everybody knows that public schools are inefficient, and waste a lot of money. (It's teachers’ outlandish salaries, I guess.)

Wrong yet again. Yes, the average per-pupil expenditures have increased dramatically in recent years. But Sandia Labs took the time to look behind those figures. They uncovered that the increase was primarily due to special education classes--the ones for the troubled or learning-disabled kids most private schools refuse to admit. It costs roughly seven times more to teach them.

Once the researchers removed these federally mandated (but unfunded) special-ed. programs from their calculations, they ascertained that the cost of regular public education has remained constant during the past twenty years. In other words, educators have never before done so much with so little.

The Sandia National Laboratories concluded, “The U.S. education system is performing as well as or better than ever before.” So, no matter what “everybody knows,” educators ought to be mighty proud of themselves.

For a copy of the Sandia Report, “Perspectives on Education in America,” contact Heldref Publications, The Journal of Educational Research, 1319 Eighteenth Street, NW, Washington, DC 200036-1802.