Schoolboy crying in the yard of the school
Schoolboy crying in the yard of the school

Our Public School System Is Set Up To Fail — and It’s Succeeding

The recent national assessment is devastating, finding no educational progress in more than 30 years. Crossposted at The Bottom Line

The recent report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, sometimes referred to as the nation’s report card, is a devastating assessment of the condition of our nation’s schools. In short, there has been virtually no educational progress with our nation’s children in more than 30 years – and urban districts are the worst performers. 

The report ranked the Detroit Public Schools as the worst performing of all 26 large city districts, with just 5 percent of their eighth-grade students rated proficient in reading and only 3 percent in math. What is surprising is the Detroit Public Schools Community District rated 99 percent of Detroit’s teachers as “highly effective” or “effective,” the two highest ratings given to teachers. An added conundrum is that Detroit public high schools received an “F” on student proficiency and yet received an “A” on graduation rates. 

Detroit is far from alone in this education crisis. New York City spends a whopping $38,000 per student per year, and student learning results are mediocre. Instead of correcting its low levels of student proficiency, New York plans to lower the standard in both math and English language arts, with the hope that more students will reach “proficient.” The same thing is happening elsewhere, notably California, where there is an effort to eliminate Algebra in the eighth grade so more disadvantaged children can compete. 

The results nationwide are dismal, according to the Nation’s Report Card. Virtually every major city shows declining proficiency for their students, even as school spending continues to increase. For years, we have been told that more money is what is needed to improve student learning. Yet more money has not worked for one simple reason: money is not the problem. The problem is the system. 

In public education, we reward mediocrity and discourage excellence. It’s no wonder our students fail to learn. A teacher cannot be fired for poor performance. Consequently, evaluations have little or no meaning. Not only can teachers not be fired, but incompetent teachers will actually make more money next year as they gain another year of seniority and an automatic raise. In other words, mediocrity is rewarded, and excellence is not. 

Rewarding mediocrity also extends to the principal level, where promotion is done by self-selection. A truly incompetent teacher can unilaterally decide to become a principal because the only prerequisite for this important position is 2-3 years of teaching experience and the ability to pay the tuition for principal training in any one of more than a thousand education schools. And once admitted, the graduation of the principal candidate is virtually guaranteed – no one fails a principal training program. 

In short, in public education, we obtain leadership by accident rather than by design, which may help explain how principals could possibly rate 99 percent of their teachers as effective when 95 percent of the students fail to reach proficiency. This is just another example of mediocre leadership coupled with a lack of accountability. Sadly, a similar scenario also plays out at the superintendent level.

This lack of accountability is not limited to personnel but applies also to the expenditure of education funds. Virtually all public school systems are measured on whether money is spent as specified by the state or federal government funding agency rather than on whether the money was spent effectively to actually enhance educational achievement. 

To make matters worse, public schools receive funding regardless of performance. Every year, more money is demanded, with no corresponding demands that student learning performance improve. In other words, just as educators receive an annual pay raise regardless of their performance, K-12 public schools continue to cost taxpayers more, with little to show for the ever-increasing spending. At best, the status quo is maintained. Yet often the result is worse. 

Our K-12 public education system is not designed to be effective in student learning, educator performance, or the effective utilization of money. Devoid of accountability, it will never effectively educate our children. It would be more accurate to describe our public education system as our country’s largest adult employment program.

It’s time to address the major flaws of the system and demand competence and accountability for performance. If we fail to do that, our children’s education will continue to languish as costs continue to escalate. Neither should be acceptable. Both our children and our country need us to demand better.

Donald Nielsen

Senior Fellow and Chairman, American Center for Transforming Education
Donald P. Nielsen is a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute and Chairman of the Institute's program on public education reform. For nearly 30 years, he has devoted his life work to transforming public education. For two years, he traveled the country studying America's public education system and authored, Every School: One Citizen’s Guide to Transforming Education. Mr. Nielsen was awarded the Harvard Business School's 2004 Alumni Achievement Award. In 2009, he received the Leadership Award from the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington.