Author Challenges 'Myth' That Education System Is Failing

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Send the ambulance back to the hospital, a new book argues. America's education system is not in crisis, as many politicians, pundits, and educators believe, but is serving children more effectively than in past decades.

Schools are doing their job so well that test scores of minority students have improved significantly and overall dropout rates have fallen, according to Richard Rothstein, who wrote The Way We Were? The Myths and Realities of America's Student Achievement.

"This is not a claim that our schools are perfect and that we should make no effort to change or improve them," Mr. Rothstein said last week at a forum held here at the National Press Club. "But we're operating on a false analysis of the current state of American schools."

For More Information:

The Way We Were? The Myths and Realities of America's Student Achievement is available for $11.95 from the Century Foundation Press, 41 E. 70th St., New York, NY 10021. Call (800) 552-5450.

Mr. Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank in Washington, and a professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles, is among several education revisionists on one side of a long-running debate over the quality of U.S. schools.

In another report that has implications for that debate, a panel of experts convened by the National Research Council said last week that the achievement levels for the National Assessment of Educational Progress are often too rigorous. That finding lent support to researchers who say that NAEP scores may overstate the academic problems of the nation's students.

Unfair Comparisons

Mr. Rothstein argues that researchers draw inaccurate conclusions when they rely on national and international standardized tests to determine the successes and failures of students and schools.

The SAT, for example, is often used to compare the quality of K-12 programs around the country, yet the exam is voluntary and tests only those who have applied to four-year colleges, Mr. Rothstein states in The Way We Were?. His project was financed by the Century Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit group formerly known as the Twentieth Century Fund.

Some researchers also fail to take into account the growing number of troubled children American schools teach, the author maintains.

"Student achievement is the product of not just the schools but of a variety of influences--early cognitive development, motivation, parental influence," Mr. Rothstein said in an interview. "The notion that you can equalize the achievement of students from disadvantaged and advantaged backgrounds just by focusing on schools is ludicrous."

While schools may be educating such children well, test scores will show some students are not performing as well as others, and thus observers may extrapolate that the system is failing, Mr. Rothstein says.

To correct this, he says, researchers should use test scores to compare schools with similar demographics. Schools that perform well should be rewarded and their methods replicated, he recommends.

Stephen B. Plank, an associate research scientist at the Center for School Organization at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, echoed Mr. Rothstein's views.

"There's no doubt that when we walk into an urban school, it is often depressing and scary and we're not giving kids what they deserve," Mr. Plank said. "But it is not fair to determine that the education system is less effective than it used to be. Schools are being asked to face bigger challenges than they used to."

"I know of no society that has an easy time educating poor kids," agreed David C. Berliner, a co-author of the 1995 book The Manufactured Crisis and a leading voice on the revisionist side of the school-quality debate. "Unless we take that into account, our data is always going to be distorted."

'Contrived' Findings?

And many minority students, despite the challenges they face, are success stories, Mr. Rothstein says.

The percentage of SAT-takers who are black, for example, rose from 7 percent in 1976 to 10 percent last year, while the number of students of Mexican origin who took the test quadrupled, the author notes. Both groups' scores improved significantly.

"To allow unsystematic, anecdotal accounts of some failing inner-city schools to color our assessment of broader progress in American education generally, and for minority students in particular, would certainly be to miss a very important part of the story," Mr. Rothstein writes.

But many observers disagree with Mr. Rothstein's view that American education is in far better shape than is commonly supposed.

His report is "contrived," said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a nonprofit organization in Washington that promotes charter schools and school choice. "Anyone can make statistics dance. We have valid proof and evidence from all sectors as well as from parents that schools are not succeeding for a vast majority of children."

Ms. Allen said colleges are diluting admission requirements and adding remedial courses.

"Achievement tests bear out the evidence that children are not reading, don't know their history or their math at grade level," she argued. "There in fact is a crisis. It may not be of epidemic proportions, but there is still a crisis."

Vol. 18, Issue 4, Page 5

Published in Print: September 30, 1998, as Author Challenges 'Myth' That Education System Is Failing
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