Academic journal article The Cato Journal

Education Reform as Economic Reform

Academic journal article The Cato Journal

Education Reform as Economic Reform

Article excerpt

In 1642 the Massachusetts Bay Colony enacted an ordinance pronouncing, for the first time on these shores, that public education was a fundamental mission of the state. The Law of 1642 expressed concern over lack of knowledge of English and of the "Capital Lawes." By 1647 towns in Massachusetts of at least 50 people were required to hire a school master, because the "Old Deluder Satan" was prone to tempting children into ignorance of the scriptures. Education has thus since the earliest days of the country been seen as a public function in the United States. In the founding era, Jefferson was the most famous advocate of broad public schooling. But it was not until the era of industrialization and mass immigration in the latter portion of the 19th century that public schools, from grammar school through the universities, became an imperative in most states. The need to acculturate immigrants and to prepare citizens to participate in an increasingly sophisticated economy was a primary driving force in this movement.

But at least since the publication in 1983 of "A Nation at Risk," American public schools have been as notorious for their flaws as they once were celebrated for their necessity. What are seen as the myriad problems of public schools have drawn much comment, often including highly detailed solutions to what are claimed to be highly specific yet complete causes of these problems. The maze of competing diagnoses and proposals makes education reform a difficult problem to study. But reforming education shares some features with the problem of reforming economic policy, a widely studied problem. Economic reform seeks to improve economic growth and hence the opportunity available to residents of the reforming country, and educational reform similarly seeks to better provide children with the skills that open up more choices to them. This article applies some of the findings of the literature on economic reform to draw lessons about repairing American public education.

Taking the Measure of American Education

U.S. education may in theory be measured against some hypothetical ideal, but constraints afflicting collective education apply in all countries, not just in the United States. The performance of U.S. students relative to that of students in other countries is revealing, in that a poor U.S. performance would indicate problems peculiar to this country. The National Center for Education Statistics has summarized results of international performance on standardized tests in science and mathematics (NCES 1997). The standardized mean scores for each country are reported in Table 1.

The results are striking in one sense. American students begin above average, and decline relatively throughout. Every day in an American school seems to cause the average American student to fall further and further behind his foreign counterparts. This is a rather striking finding. It suggests that the problems in American schools are not related to the higher levels of poverty and inequality that by some measures prevail in the United States and that in theory bring with them many substantial handicaps to school performance. Nor does poor American performance appear to be related to differential family structure, religious objections to modern science, or any of the other usual suspects often trotted out as explanations. There is no reason to think that these problems begin to take hold late in a student's educational life.

Rather, if these were significant causes of poor American performance the relative gap should be similar throughout the school life. Note that black American achievement measures relative to those of white Americans are relatively constant as students move through the school system. Data from the National Association of Educational Progress show that in mathematics, blacks' scores are 87.1, 86.3 and 88.9 percent of whites' scores in 4th, 8th, and 12th grade, respectively. …

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