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?
- 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.