Reassessing the View That American Schools Are Broken

Article excerpt

A growing number of scholars and political commentators have concluded that the U.S. public school system is flawed, and that it can only be corrected by fundamental changes in the institutions that govern education. Chubb and Moe (1990, p. 3), for example, argue that the "existing [educational] institutions cannot solve the problem, because they are the problem." Widespread belief that the current educational system is flawed, rather than any concrete or systematic evidence indicating that an alternative system performs better than the current one, has motivated frequent calls for radical "institutional reforms" of schools.

The view that the U.S. school system has failed, or is "broken," is commonly supported by three arguments: (1) there has been a steady decline in the performance of American students on standardized tests, (2) American children perform worse on international comparisons than foreign children, and (3) the existing system fails to convert school resources (such as smaller classes) into school outputs (such as better test performance).(1)

This paper reassesses the claim that American schools are broken. The first section examines trends in National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores, and the relationship between average test score performance and school resources on an aggregate level. Although the aggregate data show a surprisingly strong, positive relationship between educational spending and student achievement, one should be cautious about drawing any causal inference from such a relationship because of changes in the composition of students over time and changes in the focus of educational spending. More convincing evidence comes from the randomized experiment on class size, which I describe in the subsequent section. Next, I infer the influence of schooling on student performance by considering gains in student achievement by socioeconomic status (SES) during the school year and during the summer months. The paper's final section summarizes evidence on the increasing economic rewards associated with completing high school.

The main conclusion from this review is that the widely held belief that American schools have failed--that they are performing worse today than they have in the past, that a high school degree is no longer valuable, and that additional resources yield no benefits in the current system--is not supported by the evidence. The evidence suggests that the perceived crisis in education has been greatly exaggerated, if indeed there is a crisis at all. Nonetheless, major changes in U.S. schooling might produce more desirable results. However, it would not be prudent to radically restructure the U.S. education system out of misplaced frustration that the current system has failed miserably or out of an unsupported presumption that progress cannot be made in the context of the existing system. In light of these findings, the conclusion offers incremental proposals to improve our schools.

WHAT DO THE AGGREGATE ACHIEVEMENT TEST DATA TELL US?

AGGREGATE TIME TRENDS

Concern over the deteriorating performance of U.S. students is often based on time-series trends in the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). For example, Chubb and Moe (1990, pp. 7-8) write, "the single most important symbol of the underlying problem came to be the monotonic decline, from the mid-1960s through 1980, in the scores of high school students on the national Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT." The emphasis on the average SAT score is odd because the exam is not designed to measure students' current levels of acquired skills, but instead their potential to perform well in college. Even more important, the students who take the SAT are a self-selected lot, and the selection has changed dramatically over time. As a wider segment of American students has attended college, the percentage of high school seniors taking the exam has increased. This increase has been particularly strong among students who rank in the bottom half of their high school class (see Berliner and Biddle [1995]). …