President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as our next Education Secretary makes perfect sense if you think he wants to keep his word. During his campaign he promised that his administration would “free children from failing government schools,” creating a market-driven educational system. In Ms. DeVos, he has found a true believer in this policy direction. She believes that public education as we know it has failed and needs to be replaced with a new system of independent, privately operated schools. The New York Times’ Kate Zernike describes her thus:
As a philanthropist, activist and Republican fund-raiser, she has pushed to give families taxpayer money in the form of vouchers to attend private and parochial schools, pressed to expand publicly funded but privately run charter schools, and tried to strip teacher unions of their influence. [Her efforts] to expand educational opportunity in her home state of Michigan and across the country have focused little on existing public schools, and almost entirely on establishing newer, more entrepreneurial models to compete with traditional schools for students and money. Her donations and advocacy go almost entirely toward groups seeking to move students and money away from what Mr. Trump calls “failing government schools.”
Before we consider the wisdom of radically changing our country’s public education system, maybe we should be sure they have correctly diagnosed the problem.
Dick Startz, writing for the Brookings Institution, suggests that concluding that public schools are failing overstates the case. Consider high school graduation rates, the gateway to even low-wage employment and necessary to move toward the additional education or training needed for more skilled and lucrative careers. Startz, citing data from the National Center for Educational Statistics, notes that graduation rates have been increasing for the past 15 years—not just for white students, but for children of color as well. While the achievement gap between these two cohorts stubbornly remains, it has narrowed.
In our increasingly tech-centered world, what happens post-high-school provides a better measure of effectiveness. Startz points out, “There’s a tendency to focus on degree completion at the high school and college level. Community colleges and associate degrees matter too, and they are also up. […] Over the last fifteen years, a noticeably increased portion of the adult population has earned a college degree.”
Despite screaming headlines to the contrary, on the whole, schoolchildren are safer than ever in our schools. For children 12–18, the rates of reported acts of violence in schools peaked in the early 1990s at over 90 per 1000 students. In 2014, the last year data is available, that number had declined to less than 20. And students feel safer, too, with the rate of students reporting themselves as being afraid of the violence in their schools falling by one-half since 1995.
Parents also see improvement in their schools.
Perhaps the most telling good news comes from the upward trend in the EdNext/PEPG poll in which the public is asked to grade schools. For their own local schools, presumably the ones the public knows best, a majority now assign a grade of A or B. We can’t pin down what exactly is making the public more satisfied, but things appear to be moving in the right direction.
This is not a picture of failure, but of a public education system that has been consistently improving. Nevertheless, its remaining problems are real. The achievement gap is important, particularly as we recognize other evidence of the power and pervasiveness of implicit bias, and we must fund these schools properly and equitably.
It may be that the improvements we have seen come from the reform agenda our new administration wishes to push more aggressively, the transf