Schools of Doom: Why, after a decade of reform, is American education still in crisis?
After 30 years—some historians might say 100 years—of rhetoric about the “crisis” in American education, it’s getting hard to come up with new ways to frighten the public about the state of American schools. So maybe it’s understandable that the Council on Foreign Relations chose a foreboding title for its March report: “U.S. Education Reform and National Security.” The message is even blunter in one of the chapter titles, “The Education Crisis Is a National Security Crisis.” The council points to a slew of subpar standardized test scores as well as to the surprising fact that 75 percent of young people don’t qualify for military service. (Education is hardly the only reason for that; criminal records and lack of physical fitness can also be disqualifiers.) The solutions recommended by the council task force, co-chaired by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former New York City public-schools chief Joel Klein, are almost as well worn as the crisis talk: Parents need more vouchers, which let them use public dollars for private schools; teachers need to be easier to fire; and we all need more charter schools.
“I think we should raise the alarm level,” Klein told PBS NewsHour. “When a secretary of state calls this out as a national-security issue … I think we need to stop thinking this is somehow a narrow education problem and we will all be fine.”
The message, boiled down, has a familiar ring: Schools have failed, and we desperately need alternatives—or we will not be fine. Based on the urgent tone, you might think that lawmakers had been ignoring the education-reform movement. But the reformers’ policy agenda has been widely embraced. Between 1999 and 2009, the number of American students in charter schools tripled. Vouchers also experienced a boom, with 19 states now offering programs. Several states have made it easier to fire teachers.