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Public Schools: Are They Making the Grade?

As with all of the NIF issues guides, three or more approaches are offered for discussion, each of which represents a different point of view.

Problem statement: The way most Americans see it, far too many students in public schools are not learning enough. As they move up from grade to grade, studies suggest that the majority fall farther behind their peers abroad in academics. They also lag behind their peers at local private schools on many measures, including enthusiasm for learning and the discipline to work hard. More than one in five drop out of high school, taking the classic route to low-wage, low-skill jobs.

Concern about public schools is growing, as Americans realize that their children’s jobs and financial future depend heavily on the quality of their schooling. At the same time, today’s strong economy has made it easier for the nation to consider overhauling an educational system that costs $300 billion a year. Many now believe, with fresh optimism, that there are practical ways to improve student achievement.

Approach 1:  Give Parents a Choice of Schools. Parents are captive consumers of a failing education monopoly, one lacking competitive pressure to improve or hold costs down. No single system of education can meet the needs of 53 million schoolchildren - many systems are needed. We can improve public education by giving parents the widest possible choice among public schools, publicly chartered schools, private schools, religious schools, and for- profit schools.

Approach 2: Raise Standards, Stress the Basics. The public school system isn’t a monopoly run amok; it’s a preeminent democratic institution that is no longer in sync with the needs of our economy and society. Public schools must be maintained and repaired because they teach democratic values, assimilate immigrants, and help children learn to live in a diverse society. We must set and enforce high standards for core academics and behavior - clear, uniform standards provide a blueprint for remodeling public education, from training teachers to holding schools accountable for student achievement.

Approach 3. Make Education a Community Effort. Public schools aren’t national melting pots. Instead, successful schools serve each community’s needs, reflecting local educational priorities. Education is a community activity, and efforts to improve education must start in the community and draw on the community’s strengths and resources. Inadequate citizen involvement in the schools helps explain why such a variety of ideas for improving schools has produced unsatisfactory results around the nation for many years. In order for schools to succeed, they must become responsive to the community’s goals and plans for itself.

Resources for the Forum:

Forum Agenda (Microsoft Word document)

Issue Book: Public Schools: Are They Making the Grade? Available from NIF.

Issue Topics
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