Do We Still Need Public Schools?

Sandra Stotsky, April 2022

Do we still want a chief policy maker in in the Department of Education with little classroom teaching experience beyond grade 5 who has never administered a middle or high school? No particular ethnicity or race or gender seems to have worked. We’ve tried using all these sociocultural criteria for selecting top education administrators, especially in our major cities. But no sociocultural criterion has led to an effective policy maker.

Are recent nation-wide riots, looting, and arson all expressions of frustration with seemingly failed or ineffective educational institutions? We haven’t tried yet to make other institutions for public health or safety responsible for educating the nation’s children. There are several questions we should ask to try to understand the basis for the many waves of rioting in our major cities.

1. Why haven’t our educational institutions found effective remedial strategies for low achievers by now, over 50 years after the first federal grants to low-income schools and communities in 1965 or so under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)?
2. Do children of low-income parents in other countries perform similarly on the TIMSS, PIRLS, and PISA tests? These have been the chief international tests available for our states to participate in.

Maybe education researchers have not asked the right questions, such as:

1. How much reading or other homework do teachers assign their students in K-12?
2. How many parents check how much their children read or practice every day?
3. Why have pre-schools on average, or after-school programs extending school teaching hours, failed to create equity among demographic groups in the K-12 school population in this country?
4. Why has the use of literary texts and curriculum-aligned textbooks whose subject matter and vocabulary have been reduced in difficulty (such as recent Afrocentric curricula like Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project, located at the New York Times) failed to boost scores of children deemed marginalized?
5. What untried but new educational policies would their parents support?

Perhaps all parents would agree that an effective policy maker in the U.S. Department of Education knows well at least one of the subjects typically taught in K-12 and has read a lot and writes well. All parents might also agree that it would be useful to have a policy maker in Education who is familiar with beginning reading and arithmetic research as well as with the features of successful high schools like the old Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C.

Why hasn’t a regularly increasing amount of federal and state money in over fifty years hasn’t helped low-income students in education? Why hasn’t Congress targeted the areas of influence on school achievement noted in the 1966 Coleman Report and the 1965 Moynihan Report, the two most comprehensive reports on differences in academic achievement in this country? They both found social factors more important than educational interventions. The Coleman Report also noted that the teachers of non-black students had greater knowledge and verbal skills than did the teachers of black children. Wouldn’t all students, not just low-achieving students, benefit from academically stronger teachers? Recent information on the benefits of academically strong teachers can be found in

Unfortunately, whatever our public schools have done since WWII in the name of equity hasn’t increased general achievement in low achievers. Some scholars have even argued that no increase in achievement was ever intended.

In recent years, many educators have promoted school choice, especially via charter schools, as ways to strengthen low achievers. But school choice is useful only if curriculum choices and the portability of funds for individual students are allowed. As a Harvard economist found when he had an opportunity to design his own intervention program for thousands of Houston, Texas, students, trying to implement the features of effective charter schools doesn’t necessarily lead to much higher academic achievement.

Schools with chiefly low-income students or low achievers are considered high-performing if their test results are higher than expected. One of their characteristics, we are told, is “excellence in teaching and leadership.” According to a report on “strategies to improve low-performing schools” issued by the Center for American Progress in 2016, the phrase has been used by Roland Fryer, a prominent economist known for his attempt to inject seemingly successful charter school practices into “traditional” schools. According to the Center’s report, the vast school-improvement program he helped to design in 2010 for Houston “implemented the following best practices of high-performing charters” based on Fryer’s research on effective schooling models: (1) data-driven instruction; (2) excellence in teaching and leadership; (3) culture of high expectations; (4) frequent and intensive tutoring, or so-called high-dosage tutoring; and (5) extended school day and year.

The long-term results of Houston’s massive Apollo program, which Fryer designed, have been described as “statistically significant” gains in mathematics but “negligible” gains in reading. Moreover, “high-dosage tutoring” seems to be the source of the mathematics gains. For Fryer’s account of the Houston program and its results, see his 2011 or 2014 article. Houston’s results left policy makers with a conundrum. Low achievers seemed to respond to intensive math tutorials (all Houston students had regular math classes; only some had tutorials, too). On the other hand, it wasn’t clear that targeted and intensive tutoring could achieve more than immediate higher test results. In other words, tutoring didn’t seem to lead to lasting gains in both reading and math.

There is another problem that Houston educators needed to consider. Rice University’s evaluation report recommended not only more math tutorials but also tutorials in reading for the future. What could the statistical effectiveness of math tutorials in Houston tell teacher -preparation programs and professional developers to focus on? In this study, statistical significance likely reflects the large number of students in the Apollo program. And teacher -preparation programs and professional development do not typically show teachers how to do tutorials in any subject. A master’s degree program in remedial reading might show teachers how to do one-on-one clinical work in reading, but that is not the same thing as a tutorial in reading.

But school choice may be the best strategy now, as Thomas Sowell noted in his recent book titled Charter Schools and Their Enemies. Letting public money be used in every state for children in schools their parents want them to attend (whether private or secular schools), without mandates to use particular standards, tests, textbooks, and teachers, may finally enable school choice to be the motivational mechanism its supporters envisioned.

To ensure civic equity, however, we need to nationalize the one subject where it would make sense to ensure that all students share common historical and contemporary knowledge, such as the basic political principles embedded in the United States Constitution.

Some educators have strongly supported the use of some of the questions on our naturalization quiz as the basis for a high school graduation test. That is one way to ensure similar knowledge in diverse groups of graduating high school seniors. To ensure diverse voices in history and geography at the classroom level (in addition to what is taught about the Constitutional Period), teachers should invite the parents of students in their elementary or middle school classes to recommend or provide good ethnic stories/poems to discuss in class, with close relatives invited to attend and participate.

The road to effective education is paved with local financial control and parent choice. All students do not want to go to college. High schools could establish several sets of standards rather than a single set of academic standards and let students take course sequences that appeal to them. For a discussion of effective standards and K-12 curricula and tests, listen to Ingrid Centurion’s interview with Sandra Stotsky on education: Centurion was a candidate for public office in South Carolina and doesn’t want public schools closed down. Stotsky was the chief administrator in the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in 2000 and was considered responsible for the state’s new or revised state standards and licensure regulations in 2000/3 that led to the “Massachusetts Education Miracle.” With parent-supported reforms, schools of choice can give all students the schools they want:

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