What Is the Purpose of the Public School System?

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in which he puts his support behind charter schools on the grounds that the public school system is broken and can’t be fixed:

American public education is broken. Since the pandemic began, students have experienced severe learning loss because schools remained closed in 2020—and even in 2021 when vaccinations were available to teachers and it was clear schools could reopen safely. Many schools also failed to administer remote learning adequately.

Before the pandemic, about two-thirds of U.S. students weren’t reading at grade level, and the trend has been getting worse. Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly known as the nation’s report card, show that in 2019, eighth-grade math scores had already fallen significantly.

Teachers understand the severity of the problem, and many are doing heroic work, yet some of their union representatives are denying reality. “There is no such thing as learning loss,” said Cecily Myart-Cruz, head of the Los Angeles teachers union, in an interview with Los Angeles Magazine this past summer. “Our kids didn’t lose anything. It’s OK that our babies may not have learned all their times tables. They learned resilience.”

What nonsense. How about reading, writing and arithmetic, the critical skills we are funding schools to teach?

Instead of giving students the skills they need to succeed in college or in a trade, the public education system is handing them diplomas that say more about their attendance record than their academic achievement. This harms students, especially those from low-income families. When and if they graduate, they will try to find work in an economy that values knowledge and skills above all else, and their old schools will say to them: “Good luck!”

Other nations are rising to this challenge and racing ahead, but we are moving backward, creating an economic and national-security crisis that will worsen over time. Unless we have the courage to rebuild public education from the bottom up, we will continue to doom our most vulnerable to a life of poverty and, in too many cases, incarceration.

Sadly, diplomas saying “more about their attendance record than their academic achievement” is a best case outcome, as NPR learned when examining a high school from which all of its students went on to college:

An investigation by WAMU and NPR has found that Ballou High School’s administration graduated dozens of students despite high rates of unexcused absences. We reviewed hundreds of pages of Ballou’s attendance records, class rosters and emails after a district employee shared the private documents. Half of the graduates missed more than three months of school last year, unexcused. One in five students was absent more than present — missing more than 90 days of school.

According to district policy, if a student misses a class 30 times, he should fail that course. Research shows that missing 10 percent of school, about two days per month, can negatively affect test scores, reduce academic growth and increase the chances a student will drop out.

Teachers say when many of these students did attend school, they struggled academically, often needing intense remediation.

“I’ve never seen kids in the 12th grade that couldn’t read and write,” says Butcher about his two decades teaching in low-performing schools from New York City to Florida. But he saw this at Ballou, and it wasn’t just one or two students.

An internal email obtained by WAMU and NPR from April shows two months before graduation, only 57 students were on track to graduate, with dozens of students missing graduation or community service requirements or failing classes needed to graduate. In June, 164 students received diplomas.

“It was smoke and mirrors. That is what it was,” says Butcher.

Let me offer an alternative explanation. The system is succeeding admirably at its purpose. Its purpose, however, is not educating children but employing adults at wages they could not realize in the private sector and providing them a comfortable pension after retirement beyond what anyone in the private sector might expect.

11 comments… add one
  • bob sykes Link

    So cynical. But the problem is not the schools themselves, nor even the teachers, although there are plenty or lazy, stupid, corrupt teachers and administrators.

    Inner city schools generally enroll the black, Hispanic and White underclasses. Many of these children have IQ’s in the 70’s, and are only marginally educable. But most can learn to read and write and do simple arithmetic at a rudimentary level. None of them is going to college, and their jobs, if any, will be menial, hand labor.

    It would help if the savagery of the ghettos could be suppressed. After all, probably only 1% or so commit all the violent crimes. The other poor are the victims. But, high intensity policing is against the ideology of our times.

    One notes the epidemic of organized looting hitting cities from coast to coast. It appears these gangs are organized to provide loot to other businesses. The theft is not for personal use (whiskey, TV’s…), and the looters are not gangbangers. Most of them aren’t even black. This is organized crime taking advantage of lax or no law enforcement, no bail releases, light sentencing, refusal to prosecute… Like the bootlegging of the 20’s and 30’s, it is the predictable product of delusional ideologues.

    Our underclass, black, brown, red, White is the main problem facing the US, and they threaten the survival of the country. Democrat politicians exacerbate the problem.

  • Drew Link

    “Many of these children have IQ’s in the 70’s, and are only marginally educable.”

    I have a daughter who teaches kids at a charter school in a poor neighborhood in Washington, DC. Her kids are 100% black. She would disagree with you strenuously. While acknowledging the natural distribution of intellectual capabilities in her classrooms, she observes that their basic skills (and behavioral) performance is nearly 100% predictable and confirmed – when she meets them – by parental attitudes and involvement. She finds very, very few simply incapable.

    Your observation about attributes of a social class may still pertain, but its not genetic.

    I think Dave’s observation is largely correct with respect to the public sector union teachers. Perhaps too broad a brush. But we all understand the unholy alliance between the Democrat Party and public sector unions.

  • In any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. In all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.

    That’s true of all bureaucracies everywhere.

    BTW that also explains why Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal won’t work in the long run. It will, however, work for a while. The solution is to continually upset the bureaucracies.

  • steve Link

    1) If public school teachers are much worse than private school teachers or charter school teachers then, accounting for student body make up, they must uniformly have better outcomes. Probably 4-5 years since I looked into this but that data did not exist then. So you should broaden it out, since results are the same, and claim all teachers are just in it for the money, or something, unless there is compelling new data otherwise. To be clear I dont really believe that.

    2) Is it really true students everywhere else in the world are rocketing ahead of ours? Looked at the last PISA and on reading there are only 4 countries significantly better than the US. We are in the middle with math and there are about 8 countries significantly better in science.


    3) Last time I looked and it was broken down by income groups our top 20% did as well or better than everyone else’s top 20%. What we are bad at is educating kids in the bottom 20% of income.

    4) Would it be wrong to note that when Bloomberg was mayor his first chancellor was an antitrust lawyer and his second a magazine publisher?


  • bob sykes Link

    Dear Drew,

    Your sister teaches at a school in which there has been a heavy screening for black children who can learn. Her experience is irrelevant to what is happening in ghetto schools, where everyone gets in.

    Social class has a very heavy genetic component. IQ itself is 80% heretable, and economic success runs in families. The blank slate theory of people is pernicious as well as false, and leads to all sorts of systemic failures, our public schools being one.

  • you should broaden it out

    which is precisely what I did. Mr. Bloomberg points the finger at teachers and unions; I think the problem is bureaucracy.

  • Drew Link

    “In all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.”

    That does seem to be the case.

  • Grey Shambler Link

    Teachers organize and plan around textbooks, it’s expected, and it’s easier.
    Textbooks are chosen by committees, subject to all of the current social fashions, such as excising the history and wisdom of “Dead White Men”.

  • Drew Link

    “Your sister teaches at a school in which there has been a heavy screening for black children who can learn. Her experience is irrelevant to what is happening in ghetto schools, where everyone gets in.”

    My daughter. That’s the theory, but its not the truth. They pull from the neighborhood, with all its family pathologies. Her most problematic student is at least a grade behind. He has no father. He has expressly proclaimed no interest in involvement. The mother appears glassy eyed when they speak, and the child reports “mommy isn’t ever home at night.” My daughter tells me the kid shows no inherent deficiencies. But he’s a discipline problem who flips over desks, goes to sleep in class and gets in fights. The student who she is frustrated isn’t being advanced a grade has model parents. Her experience is actually the most relevant.

    Genetics are genetics. Environment is environment. The environment of low classes is certainly an issue. Crucial, actually. But its not genetics.

    As fate would have it she is meeting with her principal today. The teachers need to indicate their intention to stay for the next year by Christmas break. The school has not been supportive of her desire to control her classroom for the benefit of all the students, and to not let the disruptors pull everyone down. The poor dears come from troubled homes you see. She is going to inform them that if it is school policy to cater to the lowest common denominator she will not be returning.

    This is the central problem in the schools and so many left leaning institutions. Mediocrity over meritocrasy.

  • Grey Shambler Link

    I believe selection of textbook committee members is where the rubber meets the road as far as curriculum is concerned.

  • steve Link

    The problem is that no one has ever really known what to do with discipline/behavior problem kids at schools. Charter schools resolve this by getting rid of them and then they go back to public schools. Public schools have expelled them when old enough or sometimes found ways to warehouse them until old enough to expel. Now I think it is just cheaper to let them stay in the calls and disrupt everyone else.

    Some individual schools and teachers are able to reach the kids who are not yet hardcore. Some kids have behavioral issues that can be handled especially when the parents are supportive, but setting aside that population the kids with issues plus crappy parents is a problem no one wants to address. Even if we did not sure we especially know how. Some people just shouldn’t have kids.


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