SOS--Save Our Schools

Stephen H. Unger
November 25, 2013

The public school has always been a fundamental part of American culture. The "Little Red Schoolhouse", often a one-room affair with pupils of all grades taught by one teacher, has been credited with the high literacy rate enjoyed by the rural population that was a cornerstone of American democracy during the nineteenth century.

Early in the twentieth century, public schools in cities such as New York were instrumental in making Americans out of the children of impoverished immigrants. At least in New York, many such children learned to speak, read and write in English, and received good basic educations. The best products of the public schools were able to acquire first-rate college educations at the tuition-free City College of New York (CCNY). A stellar example, Jonas Salk, conqueror of polio, was a child of low income, uneducated immigrants. He graduated from Townsend Harris, one of New York City's elite public high schools, and continued his education at CCNY.

But, despite its beneficial effects for the great majority of Americans, the public school system has come increasingly under fire over the past several decades. What is the basis for these attacks? To what extent, if any, are they justified? What needs to be done in response?


A major point about American schools that must be clearly acknowledged before any general discussion, is the great variability of schools and school systems. I can testify to this, as, I am sure, can many readers, just on the basis of my own experience, as well as the experience of family members, friends and acquaintances. In NY City, I attended an excellent junior high school in the Bronx for one term, and then, as a result of a family move to Manhattan, had to spend three semesters in a nightmarish junior high school school. I escaped after the eighth grade to go to Brooklyn Tech, another elite NYC high school. (New York City has nine elite high schools, perhaps the best known being The Bronx High School of Science, Stuyvesant, and The High School of Music & Art.) There are other good New York high schools, but, sadly, many others are of poor quality.

Looking elsewhere in the nation, the school systems in Berkeley, CA, and Falls Church, VA (population about 12,500) are excellent. In Bergen County, NJ there are excellent school systems in Ridgewood and Tenafly. The Bergen County Academies, in Hackensack, is a nationally renowned public high school open to all Bergen County students on a competitive basis.

On the other hand, the Paterson, NJ (population about 145,000, mostly low-income people) school system has a very bad reputation. Before considering how good or bad our schools are, and what could be done to make them better, let's consider what factors affect how well students do in school.

What does it take to get low grades?

The quality of a school can be judged from data on how students in that school perform on various standard exams, how many graduate from high school, and how many are admitted to good colleges. But maybe not.

The problem is that many factors other than school quality can affect student performance. Intelligence is obviously one important element, but there are many others. Let's look at a few.

A major factor is parental income [1]. Children in low income families are likely to be handicapped in a number of ways. Their parents, usually poorly educated themselves, are seldom good role models, are unlikely to inspire them to work hard, or to help them with their studies. Very few of these children start their schooling with some initial reading skills, or even the kind of eagerness to learn to read that often comes from having had stories read to them by parents. Many, whose families live in cramped quarters, do not have adequate places at home where they can study and do homework in peace. Bad eating habits and poor nutrition further hinder their ability to concentrate on schoolwork. Alcohol and drug abuse cause further problems.

An important factor undermining motivation is peer pressure. Particularly among boys, there may be a widely shared attitude in some groups that doing well scholastically is not "cool". Good students may be mocked by classmates. This attitude encourages many students to neglect their studies, and to treat exams frivolously, including IQ tests. This can be a problem in all income brackets, but is most serious at the low end.

Problems accumulate. A student who, in the lowest grades, falls behind in reading is going to have increasing trouble in just about every subject. Mathematics is a subject in which each topic is a building block for subsequent topics. So early failures in comprehension are hard to overcome. This also leads to later difficulties in science courses. Some high school students from poor families have part time jobs that reduce the time and energy that they can devote to school work.

The effect of all these factors is that schools with a large proportion of children from poor families are likely to look relatively bad in terms of student academic performance, no matter how good the teachers and administrators are. Some racial or ethnic groups are over-represented in the lowest income brackets.

Note tho that not all students from poor families succumb to the above problems. Some children from the worst family backgrounds overcome all handicaps to excel in school. On the other hand, there are some middle class students with attitudes and behavior problems quite similar to those sketched above. Nevertheless, a school serving a predominantly poor population must cope with a far larger proportion of students handicapped by these problems than a school whose students body is largely drawn from the middle class. And many, if not most, of these problems are not susceptible to solutions confined to schools.

The attack on public schools

There are a number of alternatives to public schools. Parochial schools, and a variety of types of private schools have long served many children. Home schooling is another option.

Each type of schooling, including public schools, comes in a variety of flavors. Some high schools specialize in one or more subjects, such as music, or science, or technology. Teaching philosophies differ. In recent years, much use has been made of computers and the internet in various ways. Financing ranges from conventionally operated public schools to schools funded entirely by tuition fees, to mixtures of government subsidies, tuition, and subsidies by private foundations. In virtually every category quality appears to range from very poor to excellent; often there are differences of opinion as to how good a school is. As indicated above, it is not easy to evaluate schools because student performance is sensitive to so many factors not under the control of the schools.

In my judgment our public elementary schools are generally weak in math, and history is badly handled at all levels. I doubt that non-public schools do any better in these subjects. There is no good evidence of a general deterioration of the quality of American public schools. In general, they seem to compare favorably with schools in most other industrialized countries, when student income categories are taken into account. But, for several decades, American public schools have been harshly criticized, and the idea of privatizing schools has been vigorously promoted.

The attack on schools coincides with a general privatization movement. The US Postal Service was an early target that has been significantly weakened, mainly by allowing private corporations to skim off the most profitable services. Private prisons are now big business [2]. Water systems have been privatized in many areas. Flight Service Stations, providing weather and navigation information services to pilots, previously operated by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), were contracted out to Lockheed Martin in 2005. Perhaps the most dramatic instance of privatization of traditional governmental functions are the companies supplying mercenaries, many, if not most of whom, are not Americans, to the military [3], and the outsourcing of a substantial portion of the functions of various intelligence agencies, including the CIA and NSA [4]. Within the US, there are many more armed guards employed by private security firms than there are police officers [5].

Public school systems vary in quality, because people in some places do a better job than others of electing good school boards and providing adequate funding; and because, as discussed above, it is more difficult to educate the children of the poor. Private schools of various types also vary greatly in quality.

Starting about two decades ago, a major tactic used to attack public schools has been the charter school concept, whereby tax money is diverted from public schools to privately run, often for-profit, charter schools [6]. This is in addition to the more traditional path whereby parents, at their own expense, send their children to private or parochial schools. Identifying a charter school as for-profit is not simple, because many charter schools, while operated by not-for-profit organizations, contract out almost all operational functions to private, for-profit, corporations. Laws pertaining to charter schools differ significantly from state to state.

About 85% of American children attend conventional public schools, Roughly 8% attend private or parochial schools, about 5% attend charter schools, and about 2% are home schooled [7].

Blame the teacher

When children do poorly in school, and particularly when many students in the same school do poorly, obvious targets for criticism are the teachers. There are cases in which this is appropriate. Bad teachers can be found even in top notch schools. But, as described above, especially in schools serving poor communities, there are usually many more plausible explanations for unsatisfactory student performance.

Opponents of public schooling almost invariably attack teachers' unions, charging them with inflating costs of schooling, and with degrading teacher quality. I strongly disagree. In general, school teachers are, in my view, greatly underpaid in light of the importance of their work, and unions often help alleviate this to a modest extent. In a school system without an effective union, salaries and working conditions are often so bad that good teachers are unlikely to apply for positions, or, to stay very long.

Ensuring teacher quality is a complex matter. Leaving it entirely in the hands of a truly excellent school principal would be fine, but is not a generally available option. A common situation today is to have tenure conferred by boards of education on the recommendations of principals. Retention of non-tenured faculty is at the option of principals.

A better approach might be to utilize competent, experienced teachers to mentor new teachers and to evaluate them. An important part of the process would be frequent classroom observations by the mentors. The views of students, particularly in the upper grades, should be considered, tho these must be treated with caution, as they are often biased in favor of teachers who are not demanding, and who are over-generous with high grades. Similarly, parent opinions should be considered. Unions might also get involved, perhaps as advisors and advocates for teachers. It is important that the evaluation process be flexible enough so as not to screen out outstanding teachers with unorthodox styles.

Not surprisingly unions sometimes go too far to protect incompetent teachers. Union members should resist the tendency to reflexively, unconditionally, fight against every effort to discharge teachers clearly not doing the job. They should insist that their unions act responsibly in such cases. Irresponsible behavior in this regard makes unions less effective in defending competent teachers who are unfairly treated.

Charter schools

A big advantage of having all children in a community attend public schools is that all parents in the community are thereby strongly motivated to support the school system. The more students shift to non-public schools, the weaker public support for public schools becomes. This leads to lower school budgets, and hence weaker schools, which motivates more parents to withdraw their children. So we have the possibility of a downward spiral effect that can cripple public school systems.

A number of for-profit corporations operate dozens of charter schools, some more than a hundred. As is the case with public schools, some charter schools do well, some not so well, some very poorly. There are no good ways to obtain clear indications of performance quality, particularly given the variations among student backgrounds. It appears that the for-profit schools tend to be inferior, but there may be exceptions.

Other charter schools are backed by large private foundations apparently devoted to dismantling public school systems [8]. It is significant that very few charter schools have teachers unions, salaries are generally lower than in public schools, and teachers are often less qualified than those in public schools.

Many charter schools look better than they really are because they use a variety of techniques to filter out weak students, even tho they purport to be open to all [9]. They often do lobbying and mount substantial advertising campaigns. It is not surprising that commercializing schools has attracted a number of unsavory operators to exploit the situation [10][11]. In general, it is a bad idea for schools to be run with the idea of making money. Unfortunately, that is the case for many, perhaps most, charter schools.


The idea of using standardized tests to evaluate students, teachers, teaching methods, and schools seems very reasonable. But, in practice, there are serious problems.

A basic issue is that, when student test performance is the basis for evaluating, not only students, but also teachers, administrators, and schools, the principal objective of the system becomes increasing grades on standardized tests. Classroom time is dedicated to such matters as learning the answers to the kinds of questions expected on the exams in each area, and strategies for guessing the answers to multiple choice questions. Subjects not covered by the exams are given short shrift, and in-depth classroom discussions are regarded as a waste of time.

Cheating has always been a serious problem in our schools, but, in the past, the cheaters were the students; teachers and administrators tried to minimize it, tho they often did this poorly. Now, with high grades being important for teachers and administrators, as well as for students, it would be very surprising if cheating were not much more widespread. Apart from deliberate cheating by teachers or administrators, exams may be proctored carelessly. Grading process errors are yet another problem.

Another mode of cheating available to administrators of charter schools is to increase the average test scores of their schools by encouraging the weakest students to be no-shows on exam day, or simply to drop out of school. Reclassifying inept students as mentally retarded is yet another technique for making a school look better.

There is no way that short-answer or multiple-choice questions can properly test a student's writing ability. In general, questions that about half the students can answer correctly are the best, because they do the best job of spreading out student grades. This leads exam creators to avoid both very easy and very difficult questions. One result is that they do not identify the best students.

Exams can provide potentially valuable information about a student's weaknesses that need attention, but the time lag between taking a standardized exam and getting the results is generally so great as to make the information much less useful.

What needs to be done?

Rather than allowing our public school systems to deteriorate, every effort should be made to strengthen them. Instead of whittling away at school budgets, they should be increased. Teachers, including teachers of pre-school children, should be treated with more respect and paid more. This would benefit all Americans as a better educated population would return rich dividends, and reduce many nagging societal problems.

There are already many excellent public schools in the US that specialize in various areas, such as science, technology, and the arts. No reason not to have more such schools. Perhaps some might be designed to accommodate children handicapped in various ways (altho it might be even better to make it easier for such children to attend regular schools.) Some applications of modern technology (e.g., the internet) can be very useful in schools, but care must be taken to avoid serious pitfalls [12].

Market-based reform in the field of education is not an effective approach [13]. The problems faced by public schools cannot all be solved by schools themselves. As pointed out above, impoverished people inevitably produce many children likely to cause all kinds of problems in schools. Pre-school programs for low-income families, along the lines of head start, which include introductions to reading and arithmetic as well as educating parents about nutrition and other health-related matters, should be expanded and improved. Programs for providing food to poor people should be expanded--not cut, as is being done now.

It is disgraceful that a country as well endowed as the USA should have many tens of millions of poor people living under Dickensonian conditions, and even more disgraceful that their number has been growing in recent decades. Improving our schools is just one more motivation for attacking the problem of gross inequality.

Addendum 11/26/13: I am appending an additional reference [14] that was just brought to my attention. This is a lengthy essay, with many interesting observations and ideas; I agree with most, and disagree with a few.


[1] David Sirota, "The Connection Between Poverty and Education", Truthdig, Nov 8, 2013

[2] Suevon Lee, "By the Numbers: The U.S.'s Growing For-Profit Detention Industry" ProPublica, June 20, 2012

[3] Jose L. Gomez del Prado, "The Privatization of War: Mercenaries, Private Military and Security Companies", Global Research, October 11, 2013

[4] Simon Chesterman, "US Intelligence, Inc.", Project Syndicate, June 19, 2013

[5] Leonard G. Cooke, "The Missing Link in Homeland Security", Police Chief Magazine, November 2013

[6] Diane Ravitch, "The charter school mistake", Los Angeles Times, October 1, 2013

[7] USDE, "Enrollment trends", U.S. Department of Education, 2012

[8] Joanne Barkan, "Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule Our Schools", Dissent, Winter 2011

[9] Stephanie Simon, "Special Report: Class Struggle - How charter schools get students they want", Reuters, Feb 15, 2013

[10] David Sirota, "School reformers give a lesson in corruption",, Aug 15, 2013

[11] Valerie Strauss, "Why charter schools need better oversight", The Washington Post, September 5, 2013

[12] Diane Ravitch, "3 Dubious Uses of Technology in Schools: Technology can inspire creativity or dehumanize learning", Scientific American, July 31, 2013

[13] Elaine Weiss, Don Long, "Market-Oriented Reforms' Rhetoric Trumps Reality", Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, April, 2013

[14] Charles E. Corry, "Public School Reform", 1999

Comments are welcomed and can be sent to me at unger(at)cs(dot)columbia(dot)edu

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