A large education study has reviewed test scores for Americans born between 1954 and 2001 to see whether the achievement gap between wealthier and poorer students has narrowed. The results were disappointing.
Despite 47 years of effort costing billions of dollars, the sad answer is that the difference has hardly changed at all. Or, as a headline in an education publication put it, “Half century of testing shows persistent divide between haves and have-nots.”
This is in spite of tons of extra federal money for schools with low-income students. According to Robert J. Samuelson, an economics columnist for The Washington Post, spending per student, even when adjusted for inflation, nearly quadrupled from 1960 to 2015.
The study says the problem appears to be centered in high schools, as tests of 14-year-olds (freshmen) show improved performance. But tests of 17-year-olds (juniors and seniors) shows that those gains have been erased — right as these kids are getting ready for college or the workforce.
The study discounted demographic changes as an explanation. In 1980, 75 percent of children aged 5 to 17 were white, 15 percent were black and 9 percent Hispanic. In 2011, those figures were 54 percent white, 14 percent black and 23 percent Hispanic. The study noted that white achievement didn’t change much, either.
OK, so what’s the problem? One of the study authors has an idea, and Samuelson has a suggestion on what to do about it.
The co-author, Paul E. Peterson of Harvard University, said, “The high school is a broken institution.” He said high schools need to be remade to provide more learning opportunities.
Samuelson went a lot further than that:
“We should not ignore history,” he wrote. “The national strategy of controlling the country’s schools — through subsidies and regulatory requirements — has prevailed for half a century. It has failed.
“The federal government should exit the business of overseeing K-12 education. Federal aid would halt, and the financial loss would be offset by having the national government assume all the states’ Medicaid costs.
“We should let states and localities see whether they can make schools work better. The grandiose fix-it national plans are mostly exercises in political marketing. We need solutions, not slogans.”
This is revolutionary stuff that is sure to set off alarm bells. Samuelson certainly is right that national control of education has failed to improve the achievement of enough have-nots. But there is no guarantee that states would replace all the federal dollars that would be removed from school budgets.
Still, if this study is accurate, it means that in more than half a century, education differences between the well-off and the lesser-off have not narrowed. We’ve been wasting time and money. This is similar to the war on drugs, which has failed abysmally despite billions of dollars and the best efforts of law enforcement.
At the very least, it seems as though some experimentation with greater state and local oversight of education would be in order.