Public Education is Suffering while Private Education is Getting By

Advancing the Goal of Ending Education as We Know It

What Ails Our Schools

Let's Not Lose The Forest For The Trees

So much of education reform efforts have focused on the details of operating school systems that important structural issues have been neglected. Not enough work has been done to reform the frameworks under which K-12 education operates. Thus it is not so much the "cogs" of school system operation that should be in focus, but rather we should be looking at the global environments in which they operate. In terms of the metaphor, we should be concerned more with the forest than the trees. The irony is that what turns out to be best for the forest will often also help the trees to thrive.

To understand the ailments of K-12 education it is useful to review some of the problems. Some relate to what one might call "incompetence" while others reflect various types of corruption in the systems.

There Is Corruption And Incompetence In Our Schools.

Few would deny that some of the problems in K-12 education relates to various kinds of incompetence. Teachers, school administrators, policy makers, government officials often err in their work as they attempt to carry out their assigned tasks. Some incompetence is inadvertent while some of it is the result of corruption. For our purposes, we think the corruption and the incompetence stemming from it are more important to understand than the inadvertent varieties. So we want to study corruption.

Before discussing some examples of corruption within public school systems, we should define it. We like the Encarta Dictionary definition of it:

corruption: dishonesty for personal gain

Corruption Is Tolerated Because It's The Tradition
If one looks objectively at the way our public schools operate, one sees many "traditional" practices. In doing so, the tradition of it often obscures the unethical and sometimes criminal activities that go on within these systems.

We find it convenient to consider five sub-species of corruption:

Willful illegal activities. Many state and local education officials knowingly use inflated or exaggerated student proficiencies to make themselves look better than they really are. Isn't this fraud on the parents and students and thus a crime?

Marginal illegal activities wherein the participants are ignorant of the law and/or see the activities as the traditional practice- time honored etc. Such educators generally do not understand the criminality of their acts- sometimes because they see their practices as traditional.

Violations of professional ethics where there is no criminal offense. An example of this is the typical decision of state education officials to dumb down the curriculum students are taught.

Unethical laws frequently encourage forms of dishonesty and other abuse that are technically not criminal. The federal legislation governing the NAEP examinations, for example, forbid measuring and reporting student proficiencies at the local level. This encourages local officials to use their own metrics, which often grossly inflate or exaggerate student accomplishments. Asora Education's guidebook projects and other work in estimating NAEP scale proficiencies at the local level have been motivated, in part, to address this form of corruption.

The coercive behavior of teachers' unions is surely unethical and yet is allowed under labor laws and regulations. The unions' insistence that tenure and seniority based compensation be protected harms students by interfering with school managers' ability to hire and retain the best instructional staff.

The silence of victims, though not a direct cause of corruption, is often an enabling circumstance that fosters its spread. Most parents and stakeholders of our education system are ignorant of the corruption. Others are suspicious and yet take no action to investigate what problems may exist. Some do understand the corruption and do little to address it- perhaps from a feeling of powerlessness. Many parents want "lip service" from the schools in the form of a child's high letter grade without regard to the student's actual modest accomplishments. These factors indirectly aid the corruption within our K-12 education systems.

Examples Of Corruption And Incompetence.

Before discussing remedies to the various dysfunctions of K-12 education, it is useful to consider some examples. We don't claim to have an exhaustive or comprehensive list, but think some of the following are illustrative of the serious problems in this industry.

High Dropout Rates and Achievement Misrepresentations:

We can begin by looking at two problems that beset nearly all public education systems in the United States.

Our first area of concern is that of the
high dropout rates. Nationwide, within the regular public school systems (not including charter schools), about 30% of entering 9th graders never graduate from high school with an academic diploma.

The second issue is one of
accountability. It is about the misrepresentation of students' achievement in regards to state administered achievement test scores where the public systems routinely and grossly inflate the scores. It is also about the high percentage (over 75%) of bogus 12th grade diplomas issued to sub-par students. Private schools are not much better-where nationally about 55% of their diplomas are similarly unearned. This is all done with relative impunity- despite the corruption involved (types 1 and 2). (You can verify this by reviewing U.S. Department of Education statistics. See, for example, where you can compare the performance statistics.) We are also working in this area. For more details please consider our Reports on Reform section where you can download some further information on dealing with test score inflation.

On this latter point, it is clear that the practice of social promotion, that is endemic in both public and private schools, is the essential cause of the low proficiencies. Asora's Stellar Schools are designed to structurally prevent social promotion.

One might ask, what allows or motivates state education officials to lie about student proficiencies? Many of them don't see such misrepresentations as criminal (type 1 corruption) but rather are ignorant of the implied fraud or think "everyones doing it" (type 2 corruption). The structure of the federal legislation that established the NAEP examinations forbid the use of them for reporting at the local level. This, unfortunately, gives states the option to apply different standards. (type 4 corruption). The educators choosing the lax standards were professionally corrupt (type 3 corruption) and the many parents and other stakeholders who didn't complain about the exaggerations were really the victims of them (type 5 corruption).

Aspects Of These Problems Are Worldwide:
A recent study from the American Institutes for Research suggests that European and Asian public school systems also suffer under the "weight" of social promotion- though not quite as severely as in the United States. When, as the study indicates, the best public education systems in the world have only half of their children at proficient levels it suggests that the problems of social promotion and their remedies should be considered on the global stage. Asora Education, therefore, seeks foreign collaborations in the development of its schools or ones similar to those we espouse.

High School Graduation Rates:
A currently "popular" issue among educators is that of "high school graduation rates" and how they might be increased. We think this is a mistaken approach to measuring high school success. Public schools systems can (and do) award diplomas that reflect low and inconsistent standards such that graduation rates become an almost meaningless statistic. Better measures consider the student's actual performance upon leaving school. They are discussed next.

Students often receive diplomas that not only reflect a lack of NAEP proficiency, they also reflect a lack of proficiency against the more lax state standards. This seems to have an aspect of fraud (type1 corruption) and one would think of some of the other types as well.

High School Failure Rates:
By combining the analyses of dropout rates and student proficiencies, we have defined something we call the "high school failure rate" (sometimes called the "real dropout rate") that reveals what percentage of entering 9th graders fail to have 12th grade proficient skills four years later. The national average "high school failure rate" is about 84%. This is discussed in quantitative terms and in more detail in our downloadable short report: Real Public High School Dropout Rates.

High School Success Rates:
A related measure is the "high school success rate," which is the percentage of entering 9th graders who actually have 12th grade proficient skills when they graduate from high school. Nationally, this percentage is about 16%.

K-12 Education's Abuse of Children:
A broader issue related to the foregoing is about the extent to which public and private education authorities are culpable for the demonstrable harm their schools are doing to students and the surrounding society? We delve into that question in another downloadable short report: Are K-12 Schools Engaged in Child Abuse? School Reform News also published an essay we wrote on this subject in its April 2007 issue, "Integrity Is Remedy for Harms Caused by Social Promotion."

Private School Mediocrity:
It is generally presumed that when public schools are failing that there will be nearby private schools where children can be sent to get a good education. However, there are indications- at least in suburban areas- that non-profit private schools, while almost always better than their public school counterparts, are not all that much better. It is generally believed that non-profit private schools primarily compete with the public schools and therefore they need not be markedly better to succeed- they simply must be "enough better" to fill their seats. This tendency towards private school mediocrity does not seem to extend to those few private schools that are for-profit. This latter observation has led us to explore what kind of for-profit educational enterprises might work best to provide children a superior K-12 education at reasonable cost. Our best description of some of these issues is found in one of our earliest downloadable reports and its downloadable appendices: Profitable Education in Stellar Schools. We also have additional background information about public schools in our downloadable Business Plan.

Even in the private school environment, we think there is a lack of professional ethics (type 3 corruption) when their aim is to be somewhat better than the public schools as opposed to reaching for a higher standard (say equivalent to the NAEP).

And Who Should We Blame?

Parents? Typically, children spend more time with their parents than in school and thus are in a position to learn more at home than at school. This suggests that parents who do not help their children learn at home are part of the problem.

Parents are also the managers of where and how their children learn outside of the home. Many rely on the misleading information disseminated by the schools and the media. This leads some parents to mistakenly believe they are making informed choices about their children's education.

Teachers? Both common sense and research studies tell us that having a good teacher is a very important ingredient in a child's learning. Not all teachers teach well. A significant minority of teachers are ineffective.

Then we have the fact that a majority of teachers, in nearly every public school system, have voted for unions that block reforms and best educational practices. This suggests that most, but not all, teachers bear significant blame and responsibility for the dysfunctional public schools attended by most American children.

School Administrators? Those who run the schools and school districts tend to be in the employ of elected officials and thus do not have much control or discretion to implement reforms. Nevertheless, school administrators can work at the margins to push the systems towards being more consumer friendly.

Teachers' Unions? Teachers' unions not only work to protect their members jobs, they also participate politically in efforts to influence laws, policies and personnel who manage the school systems. Thus we find most school boards in the United States are controlled or heavily influenced by teachers' unions. By doing this they prevent school boards from acting in the best interests of school children.

School Boards? Members of school boards, whether or not they are friends of the teachers' unions, have an obligation to primarily operate the schools to benefit the children attending them, while putting teacher interests at a lower priority. Most school board members in the United States neglect this duty.

Law Makers? Our elected representatives at the state level, but also at the local and federal levels, have considerable power to change the environment in which schools operate. They make many laws that affect schools, school children and other players involved in K-12 education. Examples, include laws on collective bargaining, charter schools, vouchers, assessments and curricula.

Business Organizations? Organizations, such as the Chambers of Commerce, often complain about the skills of high school graduates and yet seem to do little to help schools improve. These Chambers often have as members the very school officials responsible for the schools' poor performance. It seems that out of courtesy to their fellow members, they often refrain from criticizing them.

All Of The Above?

We believe the persistence of these kinds of incompetence and corruption is exacerbated by the failed marketplace of K-12 education. The next section addresses the role market failure plays in the degradation of our K-12 schools.

Market Failure
Most Americans regard K-12 schools as special institutions that are not part of our competitive free market economy. For that reason, most observers shy away from applying the lessons of economics on this important sector of our economy. Because of this neglect, the healthy incentives usually associated with a free market of competing enterprises are not present- and dysfunction has taken its place instead.

Our approach to improving schools is thus aimed at restructuring the local marketplace in which schools operate, rather than in micro-managing the instructional systems and strategies employed in the schools. We believe the problem is macroscopic and one in which a healthy competitive marketplace has not developed.

Problems in this marketplace were understood by an early giant of economics, Adam Smith, and by a recent one, the late Milton Friedman. Consistent with their writings in this area we see at least two dysfunctional characteristics of the education marketplace:

1. Erroneous consumer information about student and school performance.

2. The distorting effects of the subsidized public monopoly in government schools.

By changing these two factors in a beneficial direction, we believe many reforms would follow with demonstrable benefits to the school children within the improved systems.
Transparency and choice are the solutions we envisage for these problems.

Reform The Framework,
Not The Cogs

From the standpoint of economics, providing consumers with bad information about the products and services in a marketplace will lead them to make poor decisions. In the case of the education marketplace this would include the passive acceptance of their children's enrollment in an inferior local public school (that falsely boasts about its excellence that is based, in part, on the school system propaganda).

Alternatively, we think that an educational marketplace with honest information about student proficiencies would tend to increase the competition among schools (public and private). That, in turn, would lead to performance improvements that would be much less likely in the highly propagandized environment in which we actually live.

We at Asora Education are making an attempt to replace this pervasive propaganda with more realistic estimates of local school proficiencies. If we can get the attention of education consumers (parents and other stakeholders) we may be able to harness their rage and encourage them to make better choices for their children. Thus our guidebook projects may help provide a cure to this disease of lying- from so many state departments of education. Their remedy is clear: use testing standards consistent with the Nation's Report Card.

Thus we think that the widespread reporting of realistic (honest) measures of student proficiency will give education consumers a "wake up call," which might encourage their more active participation in finding and negotiating a better learning environment for their children.

Transparency Reform
As Arne Duncan, U. S. Secretary of Education, has said and many others have acknowledged, our school systems often misrepresent or hide the failures of our public schools. Additionally, private schools often withhold information about their students’ proficiencies, making comparisons with public schools very difficult- even for those well-grounded in statistics.

The public systems conduct their own assessments that generally exaggerate the numbers of children performing at grade level. This exaggeration, on average, grossly inflates the percentages of children deemed to be at or above grade level as compared to the measurements reported by the Nation's Report Card. Typically, this inflation doubles the number of students said to be proficient. Only Massachusetts and South Carolina (in 2009 testing) did not markedly misrepresent student skill levels in this way.

Moreover, at the classroom level, teacher administered assessments and grading are generally too easy. Report cards often show skill levels significantly above actual student proficiencies. The grade inflation in report cards not only exaggerates against the Nation's Report Card criteria, but they also exaggerate with respect to the relatively lax state proficiency criteria.

Of the solutions to the two dysfunctional characteristics cited above, the one of improving the assessment information available to the stakeholders of K-12 education is more easily addressed. School authorities generally have it within their circumscribed powers the freedom to manage how student testing is done within each course of study. We understand that the present arrangements in which schools administer such tests presents a conflict of interest wherein each school reports on its own successes and failures. To alleviate such conflicts of interest and to establish a more objective testing process, we recommend contracting with independent testing organizations to measure student skills in each subject area- including all tests used as input to students’ course grades.

Subsidy Reform
We don't disagree with the concept that there is a community or public responsibility to ensure that all children have access to a good K-12 eduction. Thus we agree that government has a responsibility to subsidize K-12 schooling. But if subsidies are not administered in a market friendly manner, bad things can and do happen.

Rather than subsidize only the public schools with universal (full tuition) support to all of their students, we think
subsidies should follow the child. By doing so, parents are empowered to make "consumer" choices in the selection of schools. The market distorting effect of restricting the subsidies to just public schools goes away when parents are given the choices to direct their children to alternative schools. Thus we advocate for public and privately funded vouchers, scholarships, tax credits, etc that provide the means to empower these choices.

The marketplace for education is further improved if we can limit the amount of government subsidy by asking parents to use private funds to supplement the government contribution. In fact, we think means testing is a good way to award vouchers. We like the model used at the college level wherein Pell Grants (tuition scholarships) are means tested. Children of low income families would have larger grants (or subsidies) while those of middle and high income families would have increasingly smaller (or no) stipends as family affluence increased.

Choice Engenders Competition Which Fosters Successful Reforms
In any system of schools it is difficult to foreordain what reforms would best increase student performance. But in a competitive environment, trial and error, together with other experience will guide schools toward solutions that best match local circumstances. What works best will not always be the same in different schools and different communities. Rather, the best practices will evolve as local situations change. As in other industries, competitive forces will tend to grow the more successful enterprises while thwarting the expansion of the laggard performers.

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