What's your own view of the state of public education in this country?
Where are we today: is the US system of public education as a whole in crisis?
The answer to that question, I believe, is no. Today it would be more accurate
to say that we have two systems of public education, not one. The first of them
is based principally, though not entirely, in the suburbs of this country and
[in] some of the wealthier urban jurisdictions and districts. That is a public
school system that could be better and should be better. In many respects it is
mediocre, particularly when compared to our international peers in the advanced
industrial nations. But it is not failing its students.
The second system of public education, which is based principally in poorer
urban and rural areas, is indeed in crisis. Too many of the students in those
schools are dropping out well before high school graduation. Too many are
receiving high school diplomas that do not certify academic confidence in basic
subjects. Too many are being left unprepared for the world of work. Too many
are being left unprepared to go on to higher education and advanced technical
training. Those schools are indeed in crisis and they require emergency
There are important gaps in resources between many of the wealthier
jurisdictions and many of the poorer jurisdictions. And money matters in
education--there's no getting around that. However, many of the gaps in per
pupil expenditures between urban districts and their surrounding suburban
districts have been closed in the past ten years, not eliminated in all cases,
but closed substantially in many cases. [This is] in part because a higher
percentage of the expenditures in the poorer districts are now being picked up
by the states or even by the federal government through its compensatory
So, while money matters, it's not the only thing that matters. School safety
and discipline matter a lot. Teacher quality matters a lot. Support from
parents and the surrounding community matters a lot. And a culture of learning
matters a lot. And all of those things have to be attended to at the same time
that we continue to focus on the existing and remaining gaps in resources.
What works, from your experience in public schools, especially in urban
areas that are in the crisis you described?
Some very basic common sense measures work in dealing with the crisis of urban
education. You need good leadership in the schools, a strong principal focused
on the basics can make an enormous difference. Restoring safety and discipline
and backing up teachers who are determined to maintain discipline in their
classrooms and in the school corridors can be very important. High
expectations work. A solid academic curriculum for all students works. And
determined efforts by school districts to recruit and retain high quality
teachers can make a big difference....
We are talking about education here--public education--but ultimately, given
what you've been saying [about] the disparities in education, we're really
talking about race and class in America, aren't we? If we're talking about this
new economy and people having to be highly skilled, highly trained, well
educated, deal with computers and so forth, then the danger is that you'll
leave a substantial portion of America behind unless schools in urban areas get
a whole lot better.
When anyone speaks of the distinction between the suburbs and the cities
in America, and the distinction between suburban school districts and urban
school districts, one is speaking to a significant extent about race and
ethnicity and class. If we do not close the gap between the two systems of
public education in America, the system that could and should be better, but
which is not failing its students, on the one hand, and the system that is
failing its students on the other, then we will be condemning our society to
the perpetuation of the distinctions and the inequalities across lines of race,
ethnicity, and class that we've been struggling to overcome in recent
I don't know of very many people at any point along the political spectrum who
want to look forward 10 or 20 years and see an America divided along lines of
race, ethnicity, and class. I think that all Americans of good will want to see
that those divisions narrow in the next generation. Public education reform
that brings all public schools up to a common standard of achievement and
expectation is one of the best ways of closing that gap that I can think of.
I think that we are doing fabulously as an economy, in part because we're
bringing a lot of brilliant immigrants from abroad, for whom there are plenty
of opportunities in the American economy because we're not growing our own.
It's not clear that we are doing as well with our very best students as we
should be doing, given the great resources this country has. How come we don't
have the really top-performing students, or as many of the top-performing
students, as you would think the United States should be able to produce? At
the same time, we know that, among minorities and among inner cities families,
among low-income families, the system is obviously failing.
So, I think we have problems throughout the system. Yes, the American
educational system may be almost as good as it used to be, but it sure hasn't
been improving. And everywhere else in our society, things are a lot better. We
have better cars. We have better TVs. We have bigger houses. Wherever you
look, things are better, but not in education. They may be as good--maybe not
as good--[but] they certainly aren't better.... Why is that our test scores
aren't going up, decade by decade? Year by year? Why is it that the Japanese
continue to out-perform us? The Taiwanese? The Koreans? Why can't we be the
best in the world? We're the best in every other area. Why can't we be the best
in education? Why do we have to take mediocrity as about right for the United
And, when you say that, are you talking about elementary and secondary
education? Or do you include our universities in this?
The United States has been fortunate to have great universities. And we still
have students coming from all over the world to study in the United States, so
there must be something that's bringing people here. Universities are more
competitive with one another. They compete for teachers. They compete for
students. It's an environment where being better counts. Elementary and
secondary--that same sense of competition isn't there. There's probably plenty
that could be improved in American higher education--I don't want to say there
isn't--but I think the biggest problems are in the first 12 years.
And you would say, when Americans say, "What works in K through 12
education?"--What? What do you think does work? And then, again, what doesn't
work? What's the biggest problem?
If we knew what worked, it would be so easy to fix, but because we don't know
what works, that's why we have to have competition. That's why we want to let a
1000 flowers bloom. See what happens on the ground. Try things out. Take an
experimental attitude. Those who discover what works can then spread the gospel
to others, and we'll see, as a result, improvements across the board, up and
down the line, not overnight, but in the long run--maybe in the course of the
Don't we know a lot already? That, to a certain degree, a smaller class
size, perhaps less anonymous experiences in high schools, better trained
teachers, more enthusiastic teachers, a decent level of of financial support
All of these possibilities may be part of what works. Certainly, a good
leadership counts and committed teachers count, and taking advantage of the new
technology counts. There are lots of things out there that count. But, what's
the right package and how to put it together? I think there's a lot yet to be
learned, and we'll only learn it if we ask the people in the system to try
different things out and to compete with one another to show that what they've
got is the superior product. That's exactly what we do in every other sector of
society, why shouldn't we do it in education?
When people talk about a crisis in public education . . . what do you
think the concern really is? Is it with our colleges and universities, or are
we talking kindergarten through 12th grade?
First of all, I don't think the crisis has very much to do with higher
education, at all. I think most people feel pretty happy about the higher
education system in the United States. People are really talking about K
through 12 education. And when we talk about the crisis, I think it's
important to talk about what the crisis is. We don't have an achievement
crisis in the United States. We have achievement that is, perhaps a little bit
better, maybe about the same, perhaps a little bit worse, than it was in 1970.
So there's no "crisis" in the sense that achievement has been deteriorating.
However, we want out students to have the best education in the world. And a
lot of countries have improved their education a lot since 1970, whereas we
stayed about the same, maybe a little bit better. And I think, increasingly,
we're feeling mediocre in the world of industrialized nations. We're not doing
the worst, in terms of math and science and reading and writing, but we're
certainly not doing the best amongst other nations with similar industrial
So I think that's one of the worries. The other worry is that we've been
spending a lot more on education since 1970. Education spending has gone up by
about 85% in real dollars since 1970. So, I think that the spending has been
going up because people want to have education that's getting a lot better over
time, and having it stay about the same or getting a little bit better is not
making people happy. . . .
Let me ask you sort of the macro picture here. Here's Shaker Heights,
[Ohio] which is an upper middle class community, solidly upper middle class.
And people there, in general, seem to have quite an investment in the education
of their children and are willing to tax themselves enormously to pay for a
very good public school system....Just down the road is Cleveland, a school
district that, at one point, was $150 million dollars or so in debt. Schools
were falling apart and there didn't seem to be the economic ability to generate
the funds that were necessary to repair those schools, repair them physically
and repair the education in those schools. Isn't the sort of crux of this
problem or one of the fundamental cruxes of the problem in education is this
tremendous disparity in income that people have?
School finance or the degree to which a school system only reflects the amount
of money of the people who live around it is, actually, a somewhat separate
issue from school choice. For the last 30 years we've had very active policy
making on what's called school finance equalization, which is the attempt to
make sure that schools that serve parents who do not have incomes are actually
able to spend about the same amount as schools who serve richer parents, or
middle class parents. And every one one of the fifty states has been very
active on school finance equalization. Every state legislature has a program
to equalize school finance and many state courts have been involved in it.
School spending has been equalized between rich and poor districts within a
state to a great extent over the last 30 years. It is not perfectly equally,
by any means, but average school spending has risen, as I said earlier, by
about 85% in the United States, on average. And, the poorer districts have had
their spending rise faster than that and the richer districts have had their
spending rise more slowly than that. So they have drawn together, gradually,
I think that it is important that schools that serve poor families have enough
money for education, but if you look at a school district like Cleveland, the
public school system is spending much more on a per pupil basis than any of the
private schools that parents who take the voucher are going to have their
children receive in those private schools. The disproportionate spending in
the public school versus these private schools is, perhaps, 2 to 1, maybe 3 to
1 in some of the private schools; which suggests that it's not just about
money. It's partly about the money and it's partly about making sure that the
money is well spent. . . .
Do you think that American public education as a whole is still in
I think we're doing a pretty mediocre job as a whole. There are some beacons
of quality, but they don't serve many kids. When you look at the international
comparative data, and things like math and science, you discover that our best
students are lagging way behind most other countries' average students in
things like math and physics. You have to conclude that the suburban schools
of America are not as good as they think they are. The difference is that our
suburban schools are complacent and think they're fine, and the people
attending them generally think they're fine. In the inner cities, people know
they have a problem and are actively discontented. But I think a lot of
suburban Americans are living in a kind of fantasyland.
If you look at poll data, parents in suburban school districts might say
that schools in general are bad, but that their own schools are fine.
I know, and this is of course a very tricky political issue, because you don't
particular want to tell people that they're wrong, and that something they
think is fine is actually broken. You don't endear yourself to them by telling
them that. But if we were being brutally honest, we would be saying to
suburban America that your kids actually aren't learning very much either.
While the country is doing fine, and thus this doesn't feel like a crisis, I
think the country is doing fine partly because we have an endless number of
mechanisms for coping with the fact that our education system isn't working
very well. We let everybody go to college, we let everybody get retrained on
the job, and we let everybody go back to college a second, third, fourth time.
We never say it's over, we never say it's a lost cause, we never say it's
hopeless. You can buy all kinds of educational supplements. You're given a
thousand chances, and that's the nice thing about America, but it also means
that we don't actually ever sort of finally crack the whip and say, "Shape up
or ship out." It's one of the reasons why the standards-based reform movement
is beginning to produce a kind of backlash around the country. It is beginning
to say, "Hey, we're serious, and if you can't pass this test, you can't get a
high school diploma."
Is there a public education crisis now?
Certainly [the word "crisis"] would be applicable in some places. But I think
it's a misnomer. I think the real enemy here isn't, quote, "public schools in
crisis." That makes good camera-ready copy for somebody's journal. But the
real issue is the tremendous variation between and among schools. In every city
across this country, there's huge variation in the outcomes for kids. There
are some that are doing extraordinarily well, and then you have some that are
in the same system who are chronic occupiers of that lower rung of
The enemy in my mind isn't this "crisis." It's this tremendous variation. You
need to look at what decreases the variation, when you really look at what
would allow for all kids to move to the level of performance where many of our
children already are. I think that's actually a more honest statement about
it. We have lots of kids that are doing extraordinarily well. We've got some
kids in the middle, and then you've got an enormous number of kids on the
bottom end. . . .
Below this conversation about education, we're having a conversation about
race and class in America.
That's right. Yes, we are. This is as close as America knows how to have a
conversation about race and class. The president tried to have this
conversation more overtly at one point in his tenure. It was really sort of
misguided, in the sense that America's not ready to have that conversation.
It's still too raw, or still too fretful, or we're just afraid to do it. It
doesn't make us bad. It just means that we've got to find a proxy.
The conversation about education, just below the surface, is about standards,
and assessment, and curriculum, and so on. Just below that conversation is the
real conversation: who will be part of the intellectual capital of this nation?
Who will have access to the resources that that intellectual capital commands?
Who will have access to the marketplace? And how will they access that
marketplace? All of that is going to be predicated by who has computers, and
who is using technology now, who's actually being taught at a level of
literacy that would allow them to compete, technologically and academically, in
a literate workplace. That is happening in America's public schools.
When you look, and you ask yourself, what's working in some of those other
schools? They're spending a lot of time, particularly in elementary schools,
huge amounts of time in language development--oral language development done in
a variety of ways, done by every teacher, done for long periods of time, done
in an integrated, multi-disciplinary way. They're doing it in math, they're
doing it in science, they're still using language in language arts, and they're
using language in music. They've integrated the notion that your language is
king of your ability to actually be a literate human being in this country.
And that represents one of the good things that are happening in these schools
that are working. Other schools have spotty language programs. There's a
program in, a program out, we like this program today, we don't like this one,
and we'll choose another one tomorrow. Teachers in and out. Principals and
leadership team in and out.
What you need is some constancy, both in terms of instruction, and in terms of
the human resources that are there. You need proficiency, and you need
constancy in those schools, just like you have it in other schools that are
doing extremely well. And simply, when you find principals and teachers who
are committed and love that school, they don't leave. There are no vacancies
So the real issue for me is that you can fix these schools if you really want
to hang in and do it.
what do the candidates say? ·
how bad are public schools? ·
is "choice" the answer? ·
video excerpt ·
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