Fix Public Schools by Not Fixing Them

Over the last century, America has exerted enormous effort and made huge sacrifices to fix the public schools, and we have little to show for it. What if our relentless drive to “fix the public schools” is part of the problem?

In fact, out of all our educational experiments, only one has consistently improved public schools—and it’s the one that doesn’t focus on fixing public schools.

We’ve tried it all over the past hundred years. We’ve tried focusing on vocational education and contemporary skills, and we’ve tried “getting back to basics” and the “three Rs.” We’ve tried focusing on better teachers (which implies fewer teachers and thus larger classes) and we’ve tried smaller classes (which implies more teachers and thus worse teachers). We’ve tried “setting high standards” and “empowering the kids to learn in their own way.” In fact, we’ve tried each of these ideas multiple times. When one fails, we try the opposite idea; when that fails, like amnesiacs we go back and try the first idea again.

The result has been consistent failure. It’s not that we didn’t make big sacrifices — rom 1970 to 2010, even after removing inflation, spending on public schools increased by two and a half times. In 2010 dollars, spending grew from just shy of $250 billion to just over $632 billion. Yet over the same period, academic outcomes and graduation rates for students exiting the system have remained flat.

Wanting something too much can prevent you from getting it. In school, we all knew at least one unpopular kid whose desperate, overbearing desire to have friends and be liked was the main reason nobody wanted to be around that person. Sit down with a loved one and say, “now let’s have a really good talk,” and silence will result. The hypochondriac protects himself from germs so well that his immune system is weakened from disuse, and he gets sick.

C.S. Lewis wrote a brilliant essay on this called “First and Second Things.” The problem is the same in all these cases. If you put second things first, you not only lose the true first things, you also spoil and finally lose the second things.

Education policy needs to return to first things. We have treated “fixing the public schools” as the first thing for a century. As a result, we have spoiled and lost it—all our efforts to fix public schools have turned up empty. More important, we have lost the truly first thing.

What really matters in education is not the schools but the children. The true first thing is not whether the schools are high quality. It’s whether the children get educated.

The difference is monumental. The general pattern in all our efforts to “fix the public schools” is that money and effort are poured into strengthening the institution of the school in one way or another. The reform du jour, whatever it is, is implemented through the creation and/or growth of powerful and lavishly funded positions. These power centers then work primarily to reinforce their own power and privilege.

It’s an insidious trap. The dysfunctions of the system are so bad, we tell ourselves, that we can only fight them if we give money and power to those who will promote the reforms. Once these people have money and power, they set about consolidating their position, working not to improve education but to reinforce their access to money and power. And because they have been anointed as the people whose job is to “fix the public schools,” they tell themselves—sincerely—that they’re building up their own money and power for the sake of improving education. It’s for the children.

Giving an organization strength is not always the same thing as helping it accomplish its mission. When an organization is failing because it is weak, it may need to be made stronger. But organizations can fail because they are too strong. In such cases, what is needed is a dose of vulnerability.

The only education reform that has consistently improved public schools is school choice. There are now 51 private school choice programs in 24 states and Washington, D.C., serving more than 300,000 students. A large body of high-quality research finds that these programs improve educational outcomes at nearby public schools. Out of 23 studies, 22 found that school choice improved academic outcomes in public schools. The remaining study found no visible difference. No empirical study has ever found that school choice harmed public schools. School choice improves public schools precisely because it does not make an idol out of “fixing the public schools.” In fact, it fixes public schools precisely because it establishes that the educational needs of children are more important than the institutional needs of public schools. Instead of taking children for granted as a captive audience, schools must educate children or lose them. Sometimes, school choice advocates focus too much on the financial incentives—schools that don’t improve lose “business” and see their budgets shrink. 
To be sure, human nature is what it is, and that factor can’t be dismissed. But I think the more important point is that school choice creates a social environment in which public schools lose their aura of anointedness. Where people have a choice, humility and the need for real change at last become plausible. Only in such an environment can we reasonably expect public schools to improve.

Self-esteem is a two-edged sword. Yes, there are depressive, self-defeating people who are convinced they can’t do anything right, and to help them means helping them learn to view themselves with dignity. But there are also people who simply need to be taken down off their pedestals and made to see that they are not anointed and infallible. Painful as that process may be, it really is the best thing we can do for them.
NOTE: Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a senior fellow with the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. He is the author of six books, including John Locke’s Politics of Moral Consensus (Cambridge University Press, 2005) and Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It (Crossway Books, 2014). He has written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals as well as in popular publications such as the Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

This essay first appeared in the December 2014 edition of Perspective Magazine, monthly publication of the Oklahoma Council of Public affairs (