Thursday, May 24, 2012

Could Our Schools Be a Threat to Our National Security?

Diane Ravitch has provided a review, in the New York Review of Books, of the following study:
US Education Reform and National Security
by Joel I. Klein, Condoleezza Rice, and others
Council on Foreign Relations, 103 pp., available at

In the past, Ravitch has been hard on those who would suggest certain types of reforms of our public education systems—perhaps too hard. In this particular case, her invective is both delightful and deserved.

Clearly, the Council on Foreign Relations would not sponsor a study of the impact of our educational system on national security if they did suspect there was a good story to tell. They selected a team that dutifully returned the tale they expected and wanted.

Ravitch begins by disarming—if not devastating—the principal authors.

"Now comes the latest jeremiad, this one from a task force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations and led by Joel I. Klein, former chancellor of the New York City public schools (now employed by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation to sell technology to schools and to advise Murdoch on his corporation’s hacking scandals)...."

Condoleezza Rice is similarly relegated to the trash bin of history with this comment:

"....and Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state during the administration of President George W. Bush."

These luminaries arrive at appropriately alarmist conclusions.

"....our nation’s public schools are so dreadful that they are a threat to our national security. Once again, statistics are marshaled to prove that our schools are failing, our economy is at risk, our national security is compromised, and everything we prize is about to disappear because of our low-performing public schools. Make no mistake, the task force warns: ‘Educational failure puts the United States’ future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety at risk’."

Ravitch responds with a point that is too often overlooked.

"While the task force points out the problems of concentrated poverty in segregated schools, exacerbated by unequal school funding, it offers no recommendations to reduce poverty, racial segregation, income gaps, or funding inequities. It dwells on the mediocre standing of American schools on international tests, but does not acknowledge that American schools with a low level of poverty rank first in the world on international tests of literacy."

It is absurd to make blanket statements about our educational system when we have states with schools that compete with the best in the world, and we have states that compete with the worst in the world. On average, we are average—but what does that mean or prove? This vast disparity in results can be explained by social, economic, and cultural differences—as Ravitch suggests. In How Your State’s Students compare with Those from Other Countries we provided references to data that ranked each of our states’ schools (including Washington D.C.) against those of other countries on a standardized international test. Our best performer was Massachusetts. It fell between Japan and Switzerland in math proficiency; and between Singapore and Hong Kong in reading proficiency. Our worst performer was Washington D.C. It landed between Thailand and Mexico in math; and between Bulgaria and Trinidad & Tobago in reading proficiency.

The report focuses on standard conservative interpretations of reality including the intent to provide privatized alternatives to public education through vouchers and charter schools. This is red meat for Ravitch. She provides a comment from Linda Darling-Hammond, an author of the report with dissenting views. With regard to high-performing schools, such as those of Finland, Singapore and South Korea, they

"....have invested in strong public education systems that serve virtually all students, while nations that have aggressively pursued privatization, such as Chile, have a huge and growing divide between rich and poor that has led to dangerous levels of social unrest."

Indeed, Chile is the perfect example of how not to do things (Chile, the United States, and Income Inequality provides some insight). Chile, with its privatized system, has managed to fall below Washington D.C. in reading proficiency, landing between Trinidad & Tobago and Uruguay. Its voucher system effectively places a ceiling on what a poor student can receive in terms of education, and provides a subsidy for the wealthy who can afford to send their children to the more expensive schools.

What elevates the report that Ravitch is reviewing to the loftiest heights of inanity is its conclusions with regard to national security.

"The task force has many complaints: American students don’t study foreign languages; American employers can’t find enough skilled workers. Too many young people do not qualify for military service because of criminal records, lack of physical fitness, or inadequate educational skills. Not enough scientists and engineers are trained "to staff the military, intelligence agencies, and other government-run national security offices, as well as the aerospace and defense industries." Thus, the public schools are failing to prepare the soldiers, intelligence agents, diplomats, and engineers for the defense industry that the report assumes are needed. This failure is the primary rationale for viewing the schools as a national security risk."

The suggested response to this issue involves:

"....the United States should have ‘a national security readiness audit’ to determine whether students are learning the necessary skills "to safeguard America’s future security and prosperity," and ‘to hold schools and policymakers accountable for results’."

Now what exactly might that mean? Ravitch provides one possibility.

"Certainly the task force is right to insist upon the importance of foreign-language study, but it is wrong to blame the nation’s public schools for a shortage of specialists in Chinese, Dari, Korean, Russian, and Turkish. Although some American high schools teach Chinese, these languages are usually taught by universities or specialized language programs. It is peculiar to criticize public elementary and secondary schools for the lack of trained linguists in Afghanistan and other international hotspots."

And as to the perceived national security threat, Ravitch provides this:

"If the international tests are indicators of our national security weakness, should we worry that we might be invaded by Finland or South Korea or Japan or Singapore or Canada or New Zealand or Australia? Obviously not. The nations with higher test scores than ours are not a threat to our national security. They are our friends and allies."

She concludes with this apt summary:

"If future historians want to see a definition of the status quo in American education in 2012, they may revisit this report by a task force of the Council on Foreign Relations. It offers no new directions, no new ideas, just a stale endorsement of the federal, state, and corporate policies of the past decade that have proven so counterproductive to the genuine improvement of American education."

Nothing need be added to that statement.

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