Nationalize Public Schools

By Sean Carroll | April 6, 2008 11:54 pm

One of the most bizarre aspects of the United States is how we organize public education at the elementary and secondary levels. For mysterious historical reasons, we leave all of the important decisions — from curriculum and testing to financing and bus routes — in the hands of local school boards. 130,000 of them, all told. The result, predictably enough, is screaming chaos. Not only do we have haphazard ideas about what to teach and how to judge how well it’s been taught, but the dispersal of resources makes economies of scale impossible, so we don’t put anything like the appropriate amount of effort into developing new techniques and training our teachers.

And it shows. Matt Miller has written a compelling article in The Atlantic, documenting how our screwy system — unique, apparently, in the developed world — has utterly failed to give our children the educations they deserve.

The United States spends more than nearly every other nation on schools, but out of 29 developed countries in a 2003 assessment, we ranked 24th in math and in problem-solving, 18th in science, and 15th in reading. Half of all black and Latino students in the U.S. don’t graduate on time (or ever) from high school. As of 2005, about 70 percent of eighth-graders were not proficient in reading. By the end of eighth grade, what passes for a math curriculum in America is two years behind that of other countries.

This dismal failure might at least be explicable if it served some misguided egalitarian impulse, but it doesn’t. This map, from Miller’s article, shows the spending per pupil on a county-by-county basis; the poorest counties spend less than $7,500 per student, while the rich ones are over $17,500. (Click for larger version.)

US school district spending

Is there any theory behind the idea that students should getter significantly better or worse educations based on the county in which they are born? This isn’t an issue of private vs. public; it’s a public service, paid for by taxes, just like Medicare or national defense. But we finance public education by combination of state and local revenues, rather than through the national government.

Faced with such a patently misguided system, the most common calls for reform involve the imposition of some sort of national standards, such as those featured in the No Child Left Behind Act that has lately been foisted on our schools. In principle, national standards are a great idea; in a sensible system, however, they be the last of a series of necessary reforms. It’s like a team that hires a new football coach, who addresses the team on the first day of practice by saying “Here’s the system: we’re going to win all of our games!” Without an actual playbook, appropriate equipment, and some strategy, exhortations to do better aren’t going to achieve any tangible results.

It’s obvious what is needed: a basic national curriculum that is shared by all schools, with a set of requirements that leave room for creativity and innovation by individual districts within the overall framework. (There is no reason why American math classes should be two grade levels behind European math classes.) Plus, crucially, an overhaul of the financing system so that resources are distributed fairly. Those are just the minimal reforms that every sensible person should be able to agree on; after those are implemented, we can return to our regularly scheduled debates about school choice and bilingual education. Apparently the problem is that conservatives hate “national” and liberals hate “standards,” and both are afraid of the teachers’ unions. So we should all be able to compromise and do the right thing! As Miller says, “We started down this road on schooling a long time ago. Time now to finish the journey.”


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


See More

Collapse bottom bar