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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. The New York Times published a news story about the Program for International Student Achievement. The article said that the rankings of American students posed a direct threat to this country's competitiveness in the new global economy ("Shanghai Schools' Approach Pushes Students to Top of the Rankings"). Arne Duncan called the results 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 place, a feature story in Life magazine. The 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 conducting physics experiments and reading Sister Carrie, while the American was shown rehearsing for the school play and walking his girlfriend home. My op-ed about this was published in the International Herald Tribune on Jan. 14, 2008 ("The 'crisis' of U.S. education").

As simplistic as the article seems, it achieved its objective of creating widespread anxiety. This state was then exacerbated 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, Japan, whose students ranked high on such tests, saw its economy tank in 1990. In contrast, the U.S. entered into 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 how do critics explain what happened economically? 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. Our public schools range from excellent to execrable. But none of them caused the Great Recession. It occurred because of laxity in enforcing regulation and fraudulent accounting practices.

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