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Crying Wolf About the School-Economy Connection

At the risk of sounding like a Pollyanna, I have to take issue with the latest alarmist depiction of public education in this country. On Dec. 30, the New York Times published a news story about the Program for International Student Achievement. The article said that the rankings augured ill for America's competitiveness in the new global economy ("Shanghai Schools' Approach Pushes Students to Top of Tests"). Or as Arne Duncan said: the PISA rankings are a "wake-up call."

The trouble with this assessment is that it is hardly new. Taxpayers were exposed to similar hyperbole before in, of all places, Life magazine. The March 24, 1958 cover story showed side-by-side photos of two high school juniors. One was a dour Alexei Kutzkov in Moscow and the other was a beaming Stephen Lapekas in Chicago. Their contrasting faces were used as a springboard to lure readers into the full feature. The Russian was shown involved in complicated physics experiments and reading aloud from Sister Carrie , while the American was shown rehearsing for the school play and walking his girlfriend home after school. The International Herald Tribune published my op-ed about this issue on Jan. 14, 2008 ("The 'crisis' of U.S. education").

As simplistic as the artifice seems, the Life feature achieved its objective of creating widespread anxiety. This angst was subsequently compounded by the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983. Its most famous line is familiar: "If an unfriendly power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."

The alleged proof were scores on tests of international competition. But as I pointed out in my op-ed, the thesis was discredited by subsequent events. Japan, whose students ranked high on such tests, saw its economy tank in 1990. In contrast, the U.S. entered the longest period of economic prosperity in its history starting in 1991.

So I'll ask the question again: If public schools are as wretched as critics contend, then why did the U.S. prosper? Conversely, if Japan's schools were as exemplary as critics maintained at the time, then why did the country's economy implode?

The truth is that the economic health of the U.S. is far more the result of policies that schools have nothing to do with at all. Public schools run the range from excellent to execrable. But none of them caused the Great Recession. It occurred because of laxity in enforcing regulations, fraudulent accounting practices and abandonment of prudent rules for mortgages.

In light of the evidence available, I wonder why so many taxpayers continue to believe what they are fed by those whose prior cries of doom have not come true?

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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