Restoring American educational exceptionalism

Justin Paulette Fellow, Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs
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Q: What do South Korea, Finland, Hong Kong and Singapore all have in common?

A: They — along with a dozen other countries — put America to shame in a global evaluation of student performance.

Despite decades of highly creative efforts by America’s education establishment to improve public education, the world’s sole superpower deserves a dunce cap rather than valedictorian cords. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a global test comparing academic performance among nations, graded America as “average” in reading literacy, “average” in science and “significantly below average” in mathematics.

The only breaking news accompanying the PISA report was the professed shock of those ostensibly supervising education in America. “For me,” responded Education Secretary Arne Duncan, “it’s a massive wake-up call.” Of course, Secretary Duncan was being disingenuous. Dismal K-12 scholastic performance is not a shocking revelation, but the appalling, half-century legacy of public education in America. Decades of similar results expose the U.S. as a mediocre, “C-” nation in the international hierarchy — lagging well behind European and Asian nations.

This trend of scholastic failure has a precise beginning which was preceded by a long history of educational prosperity. In the radicalism of the 1960s, the American left came to dominate a newly emergent education bureaucracy (culminating in the Department of Education), leveraged teachers as collective-bargaining-chips (forming the nation’s largest labor union) and commenced upon a nationwide social-engineering experiment (intent on redefining human nature). This consolidation of progressive authority over education precipitated an immediate and disastrous decline in America’s academic competitiveness.

The remedy to America’s scholastic failure is a rediscovery of the principle of subsidiarity responsible for early American educational exceptionalism.

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The history of education in America is not the story of a nation rising out of provinciality only to stall at mediocrity a half century ago. Rather, America led the world in education and innovation for two centuries before falling from grace. Early America enjoyed a flourishing of educational freedom which relied upon parents and churches educating children through local, cooperative efforts consistent with their social and religious traditions. As observed in the early 19th century by that famed French observer of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville:

Proportionately, there was a greater mass of enlightenment spread among those men [who came to settle on the shores of New England] than within any European nation of our day. All, perhaps without a single exception, had received a quite advanced education, and several among them had made themselves known in Europe by their talents and their science.

The progressive theories which shattered America’s academic dominance rejected the millennia-old wisdom that knowledge stimulates understanding, which reciprocally enables the absorption of further knowledge and stimulates further understanding. The paradigm of progressive education is not the ethical transmission of accumulated knowledge from one generation to the next, but an abstract and subjective exercise in revolutionizing how students learn and think in a politically correct environment unpolluted by institutional trivia and socio-historic debris.

Naturally, not every rural American school adopted wholesale the progressive lesson-plan. But the pseudo-social-psychologists constituting state and federal education bureaucracies ensured that all public schools were influenced through federal guidelines, textbook revisions and a leftward lurch in scholastic literature, evaluation standards and political climate. The liberal coup of university faculties and the rise of quasi-substantive degrees in “education” further ensured that all future teachers would be subjected to the crucible of progressive indoctrination.

This centralized education bureaucracy and its misguided reform policies resulted in a gradual replacement of traditional educational values — such as discipline, competition and ethics — with a creed of self-esteem, diversity and relativism. Gifted programs have been abandoned as “elitist,” whereas (in an academic version of blaming the victim) one out of every eight students is now labeled “disabled” and remanded to “special education.” SAT scores had declined so sharply by the mid-1990s that examiners were forced to “re-center” the grading scale by adding 100 points to test scores in order to maintain the 800-point average — blatant grade inflation perversely hailed by educators as proof of student improvement and teacher accomplishment.

But if bureaucracies installed in departments of education are the brains behind progressive policies, teachers’ unions are the brawn. The National Education Association was only slightly egregiously labeled “a terrorist organization” by former Education Secretary Rod Paige. Union-backed laws require school districts to collect forced union dues totaling hundreds of millions of dollars through compulsory deductions from teacher paychecks. Union “tenure” provisions ensure that firing a public teacher averages one-and-a-half years and $150,000-$350,000. And unions fiercely oppose “school choice,” having quashed popular voucher, tax credit and privatization initiatives across the nation (although half of America’s public teachers enroll their own children in private schools). Recognizing that educational freedom and market competition would collapse their political and financially lucrative monopoly, unions desperately resist any change in the status quo.

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The solitary hope for American education resides in the private marketplace of ideas. Private schools educate 10% of America’s students, the vast majority of whom attend religiously affiliated schools (fully half of privately educated students attend Catholic schools). Parochial schools staunchly resisted the waves of reforms crippling public schools — the Catholic Church issued an encyclical, Gravissimum Educationis, reaffirming traditional theories, methods and goals of education in the midst of the progressive revolution.

Standardized tests and the Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress consistently confirm the superior academic quality of students enjoying a private education. Parochial high schools typically have more demanding graduation requirements, boast a greater proportion of students completing advanced-level courses and report fewer disciplinary and behavioral problems. And they perform these wonders in inner cities, with poverty-level minority students, at one-third the financial expenditure per pupil.

Advocates for public education routinely muster popular support by chanting a refrain of “save our schools” or pleading that Americans not give up on public education. Yet private education, in its rejection of progressive reforms and legacy of parochial subsidiarity, claims a genuine link to America’s tradition of educational excellence. The early American view of education was codified in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787:

Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.

Religion, morality and knowledge were the goal of education. As to the means, Adam Smith’s monumental The Wealth of Nations in 1776 articulated the prevailing preference that governments provide parents with vouchers, thereby funding education and preventing a monopoly over educational services. Concurring with this judgment, the Virginia Assembly twice rejected Thomas Jefferson’s proposals to create a free public school system funded by general tax revenues and free from sectarian influence.

Reliance upon private schooling richly rewarded America. By the mid-1800s, New York reported nearly universal, voluntary attendance at tuition-charging schools (destitute students being admitted free of charge). The Virginia Assembly established a “Literary Fund” in 1810 to publically support religiously affiliated education, and — coupled with support on the county level — Sunday schools nearly eliminated illiteracy through Bible study. America achieved an unparalleled 90% national literacy rate.

The enduring skepticism toward public education was succinctly reiterated by John Stuart Mill in 1859:

A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation; in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body. An education established and controlled by the State should only exist, if it exists at all, as one among many competing experiments.

America’s eventual foray into public education arose not from a rejection of subsidiarity, but rather in shameful acquiescence to an overriding contemporary intolerance grounded in nativist bigotry. Seeking to assimilate waves of Irish and Italian immigrants, “native” Anglo-Saxon Protestants were obliged to suppress Catholic education. Long-established Protestant schools were thus converted (in name only) into secular public schools under the ostensible auspices of the state. This sham (reading from the King James Bible was still mandatory) permitted states to deny funds to Catholics while subsidizing public-Protestant schools. A half-century later, the Supreme Court declined to countenance the wink-wink, nudge-nudge “secularism” of overtly Protestant curricula and public schooling began to slide toward actual secularism — laying the foundation for an ideological siege by radical progressives in the 20th century.

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Noble laureate Milton Friedman — foreseeing the rise of a public monopoly in education and recognizing that it would produce inefficiency and stagnation — advocated for subsidiarity through public funding for private education. The proper role of government, Friedman proposed, was to finance a competitive market of educational options, ensure transparency and maintain non-intrusive, minimum standards of safety and accountability. This decentralized model would facilitate a fluid market responsive to local demands and expand the success of private education.

Teachers’ unions — and progressive politicians beholden to their interests — have continuously opposed and defeated such privatization initiatives. Yet international assessments such as PISA consistently conclude that the “most successful school systems grant greater autonomy to individual schools to design curricula and establish assessment policies,” and that “combining local autonomy and effective accountability seems to produce the best results.”

Democrats, unwilling to oppose their unions and aware of the futility of alternative options, abdicated the issue of education and accept the dismal state of public schools as an inconvenient truth. Republicans foolishly enacted the No Child Left Behind Act under George W. Bush, a wrong-headed compromise perpetuating the flawed structure of centralized, top-down, government-controlled education.

The optimal scenario would expose public schools to open competition with their private counterparts for taxpayer dollars. If the former perform well in academic, extracurricular and behavioral education, they will prosper; if they fail, they will justly recede in preference of superior private schools. Parents have an inherent interest in their children’s prosperity. Simple market analysis (achieved through transparent comparisons of local schools’ curricula and performance) will lead to student enrolment in superior schools.

Fears that private schools would adopt inefficient or inappropriate curricula would be prevented by the same forces of subsidiarity and market competition. Empowered parents would not long suffer a scholastic program adverse to the moral and intellectual cultivation of their children. And so long as public authorities are limited to unobtrusive oversight, private schools would not devolve into public school clones infected with the same vices crippling the present system.

America can sustain a limited duration of academic drift by leaning upon the prestige of U.S. universities and the power of the U.S. economy to draw the best and brightest foreigners to our shores. America’s premier colleges presently award half of all PhDs in the “hard sciences” to foreigners — who often remain in the U.S. to occupy high-level positions in high-tech fields. Yet this “brain drain” is sustainable only so long as America maintains economic superiority to the rest of the world — an assumption recently become subject to debate.

Subsidiarity and the capitalistic promotion of free-market competition among diverse, locally controlled schools will end the tyranny of education bureaucrats, teachers’ unions and progressive ideology. Breaking the public education monopoly will herald an academic renaissance capable of restoring, at last, American educational exceptionalism.

Justin Paulette is an attorney and professor in international and constitutional law. He is a fellow of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs and covers politics at No Left Turns.