A reader who signs in as “democracy” posted this comment:

Education in a democratic republic has a special place and purpose. At least it’s supposed to, and public education’s purpose is most certainly NOT to make a society “more competitive.” Aristotle argued for a system of public education in ancient Athens, noting that “each government has a peculiar character…the character of democracy creates democracy, and the character of oligarch creates oligarchy, and always the better the character, the better the government.”

Democratic governance is supposed to be “of the people, by the people, for the people.” By contrast, oligarchy is government by a relatively small – usually wealthy – group that “exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes.” Considering who funds the Common Core, and who supports it (think the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce), and the process by which it was brought to fruition, is there really any question as to the purpose behind it?

Early state constitutions in the U.S., like those of Massachusetts (1780) and New Hampshire (1784), set up and stressed the importance of a system of public education. The Land Ordinance of 1785 provided for public school financing in new territories. In Virginia, Thomas Jefferson sought a publicly-funded system of schools, believing that an educated citizenry was critical to the well-being of a democratic society. In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1794), Jefferson wrote “The influence over government must be shared among all men.” The earliest advocates for public schools –– Jefferson, George Washington, Horace Mann, for example –– agreed that democratic citizenship was a primary function of education.

There are those who don’t believe in the fundamental purpose of public education. They are not interested in the developing the “democratic citizen,” one who understands and is committed to the core values and principles of democratic governance; one who is imbued with the “character of democracy.” There are certain people and groups and special interests who’ve felt threatened by education for “the masses,” especially Mann’s view of public education as “the balance-wheel of the social machinery” in a democratic society. And this begs the question, is the Business Roundtable committed to the core values and principles of democracy? The Chamber of Commerce? Bill Gates? Jeb Bush? And what about Arne Duncan?

All of these people and groups make two false claims about public education in the United States. First, they say that public schools are in “crisis.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

As I’ve noted repeatedly, the data (which these folks claim to care about) have shown and continue to show that there is no general “crisis” in public education in the United States.

The Sandia Report (Journal of Educational Research, May/June, 1993), published in the wake of A Nation at Risk, concluded that:

* “..on nearly every measure we found steady or slightly improving trends.”

* “youth today [the 1980s] are choosing natural science and engineering degrees at a higher rate than their peers of the 1960s.”

* “business leaders surveyed are generally satisfied with the skill levels of their employees, and the problems that do exist do not appear to point to the k-12 education system as a root cause.”

* “The student performance data clearly indicate that today’s youth are achieving levels of education at least as high as any previous generation.”

The critics like to cherry-pick international test data to buttress their call for “reform.” I suppose if –– like the Roundtable and the Chamber – you’re willing game the economy for profit at the expense of the nation, while calling for more top-end tax cuts and the axing of social safety net and public programs, then you’re also quite willing to lie about a set of numbers.

Reading is considered to be a key to learning and school achievement. Below are PISA reading scores (disaggregated for the U.S., which has an incredibly large, diverse, and increasingly poor student population:

Average score, reading literacy, PISA, 2009:
[United States, Asian students 541]
Korea 539
Finland 536
[United States, white students 525]
Canada 524
New Zealand 521
Japan 520
Australia 515
Netherlands 508
Belgium 506
Norway 503
Estonia 501
Switzerland 501
Poland 500
Iceland 500
United States (overall) 500
Sweden 497
Germany 497
Ireland 496
France 496
Denmark 495
United Kingdom 494
Hungary 494
OECD average 493
Portugal 489
Italy 486
Slovenia 483
Greece 483
Spain 481
Czech Republic 478
Slovak Republic 477
Israel 474
Luxembourg 472
Austria 470
[United States, Hispanic students 466]
Turkey 464
Chile 449
[United States, black students 441]
Mexico 425

[Note: data can be gleaned at http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/pisa/pisa2009highlights.asp ]

The common refrain among the current crop of “reformers” is that their brand of “reform” is necessary to “make America more competitive” in the global economy. Bill Gates says it. Jeb Bush says it. The U.S. Chamber says that ““Common core academic standards among the states are essential” U.S. competitiveness. The Business Roundtable resurrects the “rising tide of mediocrity” myth of A Nation at Risk, saying (falsely) that ““Since the release of A Nation at Risk in 1983, it has been increasingly clear that…academic expectations for American students have not been high enough.” And Arne Duncan parrots what they say.

However, as I continue to point out, the U.S. already IS internationally competitive.

The World Economic Forum ranks nations each year on competitiveness. It uses “a highly comprehensive index” of the “many factors” that enable “national economies to achieve sustained economic growth and long-term prosperity.”

The U.S. is usually in the top five (if not 1 or 2). When it drops, the WEF doesn’t cite education, but stupid economic decisions and policies.

For example, when the U.S. dropped from 2nd to 4th in 2010-11, four factors were cited by the WEF for the decline: (1) weak corporate auditing and reporting standards, (2) suspect corporate ethics, (3) big deficits (brought on by Wall Street’s financial implosion) and (4) unsustainable levels of debt.

Last year (2011-12), major factors cited by the WEF are a “business community” and business leaders who are “critical toward public and private institutions,” a lack of trust in politicians and the political process with a lack of transparency in policy-making, and “a lack of macroeconomic stability” caused by decades of fiscal deficits especially deficits and debt accrued over the last decade that “are likely to weigh heavily on the country’s future growth.” The WEF did NOT cite public schools as being problematic to innovation and competitiveness.

And this year (2012-13) the WEF dropped the U.S. to 7th place, citing problems like “increasing inequality and youth unemployment” and, environmentally, “the United States is among the countries that have ratified the fewest environmental treaties.“ The WEF noted that in the U.S.,”the business community continues to be critical toward public and private institutions” and “trust in politicians is not strong.” Political dysfunction has led to “a lack of macroeconomic stability” that “continues to be the country’s greatest area of weakness.”

[Note: data on 2009, from the 2010-1011 competitiveness report can be found here: http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GlobalCompetitivenessReport_2010-11.pdf ]

The critics continue to point the finger of blame and responsibility, though, at public schools and teachers. Seriously, you’d almost have to be a moron to buy into this stuff. And yet……

The problem in American public education is largely one of poverty. The data show it. Indeed, PISA scores (the scores usually cited by public education critics) are quite sensitive to income level. If one disaggregates U.S. scores the problem becomes clearer: the more poverty a school has, the lower its scores. The presumed do-gooders seem to think that more “competition” and ambitiousness will cause the schools to fix the effects of poverty. Those effects are pernicious.

A technical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics on the damaging effects of toxic stress in children – the kind of stress found in high-poverty urban areas – finds that such stress involves “activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis and the sympathetic-adrenomedullary system, which results in increased levels of stress hormones, such as corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline. These changes co-occur with a network of other mediators that include elevated inflammatory cytokines and the response of the parasympathetic nervous system, which counterbalances both sympathetic activation and inflammatory responses.”

The result is that “toxic stress in young children can lead to less outwardly visible yet permanent changes in brain structure and function….chronic stress is associated with hypertrophy and overactivity in the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex, whereas comparable levels of adversity can lead to loss of neurons and neural connections in the hippocampus and medial PFC. The functional consequences of these structural changes include more anxiety related to both hyperactivation of the amygdala and less top-down control as a result of PFC atrophy as well as impaired memory and mood control as a consequence of hippocampal reduction.”

See: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/129/1/e232.full.pdf

In plain speak, alleviating poverty and its pernicious effects, and providing children with high quality environments before they get to school, and following up with health and academic and social policy programs while they are in school, results not only in high-quality education but also in a high-quality citizenry….and in promoting the general welfare of the nation. This is surely not what the “reformers” want. It might – will – require a cessation to the gaming of the “markets” and the tax system.

The public education system in a democratic republic is supposed to develop and nurture democratic character and citizenship. That’s the kind of reform we need.

And it’s exactly the kind of reform the “reformers” detest.