Politics, Moderate



Can we fix the schools? (Maybe not.)

Robert J. Samuelson on

WASHINGTON -- You can count on one familiar refrain in the 2020 presidential campaign: Fix the schools. Faith in education is one of the nation's bedrock values. Better schools would (we think) narrow economic inequalities and help people reach their personal potential. Promises to revitalize schools are inevitable.

There's a magical quality to these proposals. The message seems to be that, if we can find the right combination of ideas, we can unleash education's uplifting power. Be skeptical.

Already, at least two Democratic presidential candidates are pitching major educational proposals. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., would give most teachers a huge pay raise, reportedly averaging about $13,500. Teachers, it's argued, are underpaid. This makes good ones hard to recruit and retain. Meanwhile, ex-San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro advocates universal pre-K classes to prepare children for school.

Both ideas sound sensible. But aside from the sizable costs, history suggests that creating gains in achievement and academic skills for the poor is extraordinarily difficult.

That's the finding of a major new study. It reviewed test scores for Americans born between 1954 and 2001 to see how much the achievement gap had closed between students with low and high socioeconomic status.

The startling result: hardly at all.


"The achievement gap fails to close," headlined an article in Education Next. "Half century of testing shows [a] persistent divide between haves and have-nots."

The explanation is not that public policy wasn't trying. The discouraging conclusion occurred despite the federal government's decision to provide extra funding for poor schools under Title 1 of the Education and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Previously, public schools were funded mainly by localities and states. Corrected for inflation, overall spending per student nearly quadrupled from 1960 to 2015.

Still, there was little effect on the achievement gap. The study was conducted by Eric Hanushek and Laura Talpey of Stanford University, Paul Peterson of Harvard University and Ludger Woessmann of the University of Munich. Tests were given at two ages -- 14 and 17. Here are highlights:

-- The central problem seems to occur in high schools. Tests administered at age 14 actually showed improving student performance. But most of the gains reversed by age 17, just when students were preparing for college or work.


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