What Americans Don’t Know About Our Public Schools

In the Wall Street Journal professor of government Paul Peterson remarks on Americans’ misperceptions about the public schools:

High-school graduation rates are lower today than they were in 1970. The math and reading scores of 17-year-olds have been stagnant for four decades.

You cannot fool all the people all the time, President Lincoln said. And when it comes to student learning, the public seems beyond deceit. When asked how many ninth graders graduate from high school in four years, the public estimated that only 66% of students graduated on time—slightly less than the best available scholarly estimates.

When asked how American 15-year-olds compare in math with students in 29 other industrialized nations, the public did not fool itself into believing that the U.S. is among the top five countries in the world. Those polled ranked the U.S. at No. 17, just a bit higher than the No. 24 spot the country actually holds.

In another sign of declining confidence, the public is less willing to spend more money on public education. In 1990, 70% of taxpayers favored spending “more on education,” according to a University of Chicago poll. In the latest poll, only 46% favored a spending increase. That’s a 15 percentage point drop from just one year ago when it was 61%.

But when it comes to actual dollars spent per pupil, Americans get the numbers wrong. Those polled by Education Next estimated that schools in their own districts spend a little more than $4,000 per pupil, on average. In fact, schools in those districts spend an average of $10,000.

One can understand the public’s confusion on the dollar and cents question. Schools’ money pots are filled with revenue from property taxes, sales taxes, income taxes, gambling revenues, and dozens of other sources. It’s not easy to add up all the numbers, and no one does it for the voter except the federal government, which manages to get the information out two years late. When those surveyed are told how much is actually being spent in their own school district, only 38% say they support higher spending.

The public also dramatically underestimates the amount teachers in their state are being paid. The average guess in 2007 was around $33,000—well below actual average salary of $47,000 across all states. When told the truth about teacher salaries, support for the idea that they should get a salary increase plummeted by 14 percentage points.

Lincoln’s epigram may be popular but Franklin Pierce Adams’s related comment is probably truer:

The trouble with this country is that there are too many politicians who believe, with a conviction based on experience, that you can fool all of the people all of the time.

You don’t actually need to fool all of the people. Fooling 50%+1 will do the trick.

What are the problems with our educational system?

  • Politicians?
  • Teachers’ unions?
  • An uninformed electorate?
  • Bad parents?
  • Bad students?
  • Bad teachers?

It may well be all of these in varying degrees. Given that education’s importance has increased since 1970 if anything how can a lower high school graduation rate today be explained? You can blame it on one or more of the explanations above but I think that a lot of America’s students believe that the promise of the value of education is a lie. A lot of them believe that however hard they work the deck is stacked against them and for a lot of them I think they’re right.

19 comments… add one
  • It doesn’t help that we live in a culture that does not value intellectual achievement, knowledge, or even really education at all. I meet lots of high-achieving college and grad students as a consequence of my teaching job, and virtually all of them are focused on “what I need for my job” and not at all focused on “what can I learn today?” The American tendencies to pragmatism have been taken to an extreme over the past few decades, leaving a culture unwilling to learn because “when am I ever going to use that in real life?”

  • There’s plenty of reinforcement for the view. We’re importing thousands of workers on H1-B visas every year. The complaint about American workers is not that they’re not dedicated to lifelong learning but that they don’t have certainly specialized skills.

    I think much of what you’re pointing out, Alex, is our Calvinist heritage. Money is a sign of God’s favor. Money is virtue.

  • In most occupations we reward credentials, not learning. Even if you want to be an entrepreneur you’re likely to be sidelined by lenders and investors if you can’t whip out an MBA.

    This is a capitalist country. People expect their efforts to yield profit. Lifelong learning yields debt.

  • Michael, for most occupations we don’t reward learning, credentials, hard work, or results but the occupation itself. The credential is just a way of keeping out the riff-raff.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I’ll dispute whether the WSJ is helping us with our numbers. From a recent study on school funding:

    $14,940 per pupil for independent schools,
    $12,149 per pupil for Hebrew schools,
    $8,402 per pupil for public schools
    $7,743 per pupil for Catholic schools, and
    $5,727 per pupil for Christian Association Schools


    Public schools significantly outperform Christian Association Schools and significantly underperform independent schools.

    I’m not suggesting more money is the answer, but I hate these articles that imply that money is irrelevant to what is going on here. But, of course, I do believe money is part of the answer. We need to go to year-round schools. That requires building changes and increased teacher salaries. The less-well-off are most adversely affected by the summer vacation, whereas other parents are able to put their kids in summer programs with some educational value.

  • steve Link

    Some thoughts. 1) IIRC from discussions at both Crooked Timber and The American Scene, our middle class white kids perform as well or better than European middle class white kids. It is our poverty level and minority students that do not perform so well. The Asian kids are going to be hard for us to catch because of their cultural emphasis on education. 2) There are several studies, at least one in either Horton’s book or Leavitt’s, demonstrating that education does not benefit minorities as much. A white person with no degree is more likely to get an interview and get hired than a minority. Once hired, minorities seem to fare better and having a degree does pay off. 3) We do have one state that made it into the world’s top tiers on the recent big international math tests, Massachusetts.


    4)Wasn’t there a recent study where half of Americans did not know that the Old Testament was written before the New Testament? There are lots of those questionnaires documenting how little Americans know. Most of your cited article just reinforces that. 5) How about teen pregnancies going on your list. High divorce rates? Maldistribution of spending? Teacher’s unions? Job insecurity, meaning people spend more frequent periods unemployed (see Douthat and Salaam). Minority values placing family ahead of the individual?


  • It’s impolitic to point it out but poverty in the U. S. is closely related to immigrant status. Also, we don’t usually think of it this way but teen pregnancies are at historic lows. What is high is teen pregnancy out of wedlock.

  • PD Shaw Link

    What about the increase in two income households since 1970?

    I have two children in public grade school, and in many ways, I think the schools are better than when I was growing up in the 70s, at least on the three Rs that are being tested. Part of this is nightly homework. My youngest started Kindergarten last week, and he was so proud this week when he brought home his first homework assignment. My eyes rolled.

    I’ve been told that in Japan, by Americans who have taught there, that the schools are not that much better, it’s just that everybody hires a tutor. I feel like my wife and I are our child’s unpaid tutor.

    Some single mothers don’t have the luxury of seeing their child after school every day. The restaurant dining hours and public transportation schedules don’t bring them home until after bedtime. They rely on family and neighbors to watch the kid for free, but can’t expect much more than that. If we are going to choose who to blame, then it’s the parents, but I don’t find all such parents to be blameworthy.

  • I second year-round schooling, which is probably the single best education reform we could ask for. The first month or two of the school year is often wasted on reviewing last Spring’s lessons. I HATED that when I was a kid.

  • Sam Link

    Some points: (spending = government spending)

    Education spending as a percentage of GDP rank – 37th!

    Education spending as a percentage of GDP is only very recently reaching the same level as it was in 1970 (for primary and secondary).

    Tertiary education spending as a percentage of GDP is the only indicator to have improved steadily since 1970. We rank #2 in the world for adults with post secondary education, and that percentage is steadily increasing for 25 to 64 yr olds.

    85% of 25+ yr olds in the US have high school or higher – 16.1% have IQs below 85. Seems to me at this point you shouldn’t expect 1:1 improvement with spending increases.

  • Sam, a couple of questions. First, what’s the source of your information? Second, why is spending on education as a percentage of GDP a relevant statistic? I would think real spending per student is more relevant.

    I also think you might want to brush up on what the definition of IQ is. Also, IIRC the standard deviation is about 15 pts.

  • steve Link

    If you look through the AIR study I cited, then look at the performance of individual states, there is a rough correlation between spending and outcome, but there are many exceptions. Would be nice to know if Massachusetts is doing anything special or if it is just a product of social stability, low divorce rate maybe.

    On teen pregnancy rates, they have started increasing again. Also, ours is high compared with the rest of the industrialized world. link below shows rates for US vs European countries. Lost the one comparing with Asian countries.



  • PD Shaw Link

    Advocates of David Hackett Fisher’s cultural history of the United States would say that Massachusetts is a product of a puritan culture that strongly favored education.

  • Sam Link

    the % of GDP is from http://www.usgovernmentspending.com – they didn’t have spending per student on there. OECD 2003 for the tertiary stat (Norway was first).
    85% over 25 having a HS degree is from wikipedia.

    The IQ point did not really follow the theme of the other points. I read that the expectation for someone with an IQ under 89 is “some high school”, so 85% with a high school diploma seems about right for people who don’t need a specialized (and probably more expensive) curriculum to graduate.

    Stanford/Binet used SD of 16, but I accumulated rounding errors from the 15 SD curve I saw on Encarta so I’ll eat some crow: 15.9% below 85?

  • Roughly 68% of the population has an IQ from one standard deviation below to one standard deviation above 100. That leaves roughly 16% who are below that level and 16% who are above.

    That’s by definition (Stanford-Binet).

  • Sam Link

    Stanford-Binet IV had a standard deviation of 16, in which case 17.4% would have a an IQ below 85. Revision 5 (current) and every other test now have a standard deviation of 15, so 15.9% would have an IQ below 85. Previous versions of the test had standard deviations ranging from 12 to 16 when they were ratios.
    In ALL cases, adding up the percentages on the picture you find on Encarta are wrong because they add up to 100.2%!

  • Brett Link

    What are the problems with our educational system?

    * Politicians?
    * Teachers’ unions?
    * An uninformed electorate?
    * Bad parents?
    * Bad students?
    * Bad teachers?

    All of the above. Politicians, for coming up with idiotic bills like NCLB and its annual yearly percentage increases and testing (which has effectively led to the gutting of programs other than what’s on the test in districts where funding is already tight and failing scores on NCLB testing will jeopardize their federal funding), and for allowing our education system (whose form, dating back to the turn of the century, was originally more or less to serve to educate workers in the new cities and operated on Taylorian principles) to stagnate in its fundamental structure.

    Teachers’ unions, for making it difficult to fire incompetent teachers while blocking most methods of accountability, and for raising the costs of alternative methods like charter schools. They’re a necessary evil, to some extent – administrators tended to turn into petty tyrants before they came around and force the teachers to work long hours for minimal pay, which worked when most teachers were women with little other job prospects, but not so much when many teachers are degree-holding professionals. However, they are a two-edged instrument to say the least.

    An uninformed electorate, for letting this all slide.

    I’m hesitant to blame parents. A messed-up home environment certainly is problematic for students, but I attribute that more to the fact that the public school system generally depends heavily on the parents to make up for gaps in instruction at school (via homework) and in terms of volunteering.

    Bad students, in the sense that it makes teaching much more difficult. In the past, since having a high school degree wasn’t basically a bare minimum for getting any job and there were alternative vocational options, the bad and bored kids could always drop out (or get kicked out, which is one of the major advantages of private schools) and start working. That’s not really an option anymore, so instead of trying to restore that or change the system, they’ve instead watered-down graduation requirements at public schools to an extremely low level.

    I’m not sure where to lay the blame for teachers.

  • I’m not sure where to lay the blame for teachers.

    It’s a dead-end career in a country that glorifies advancement. Back in the day it was one of about three careers open to women. Now everything is open to women. So why would you be a teacher? Moderate pay, a relatively high level of security, no social status, very little opportunity for creativity. Like working at the DMV. Just at a point in history where we need to take a great, creative leap forward.

    Despite this I’ve come across some great teachers. I mean, great. They should be making 100k a year and looking to earn 150k. Instead they’re never in a world where lower middle class is their limit.

  • never = forever. Yikes.

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