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Don't Blame Schools for the Economy

It's de rigueur to scapegoat schools for the economic ills afflicting the country. But the oft repeated argument simply doesn't stand up to scrutiny. A brief stroll down memory lane reveals the reasons for this skepticism.

The case against schools began in earnest with the seismic "A Nation at Risk" in 1983. The widely publicized study declared that the shortcomings of schools constituted a grave risk for the future of the economy and the country. Then in 1990, "America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages" tried to make the case that failing schools were responsible for bringing productivity to a crawl. Nevertheless, the two reports notwithstanding, the economy boomed.

In 2007, with the recession in full throttle, "Tough Choices or Tough Times" claimed that the U.S. was losing ground globally because its schools at all levels were failing. In case anyone missed the message, in 2008, "21st Century Skills, Education and Competitiveness" was released. Once again, the villain was public schools, which were not preparing graduates to hold their own against those from other countries.

It's important to note that the one constant throughout was the demonization of schools, regardless of the performance of the stock market, or of other related signs of the economy's health. If there was a connection, as argued, it was nowhere to be seen. Yet few voices in the media at the time questioned the obvious.

Critics of schools were dealt an even more embarrassing blow when it became apparent that the real causes of the current meltdown were dishonest capital markets, lack of corporate accountability, and regulatory laxity on an epic scale. For the first time in memory, their favorite whipping boy was not mentioned.

The publication on March 11 of the 2,200-page document prepared by the former federal prosecutor Anton R. Valukas about the demise of Lehman Brothers would seem to be the final nail in the coffin. The report revealed in convincing detail how the venerable firm under its former chief executive Richard S. Fuld Jr. cooked the books, and how its auditor Ernst & Young was asleep at the switch.

The bank's bankruptcy, the largest in American history, set off a worldwide financial panic. So far, no one has tried to implicate schools. But in light of the magnitude of the temblor, it wouldn't be at all surprising if a new report soon attempts to somehow link schools to the debacle. After all, they're such an easy target.

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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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