In 1983, the National Commission on
Excellence in Education issued the landmark A Nation at Risk
report highlighting the crisis in American education.  The
commission reported that American students were at risk of falling
behind students from around the world and that this imperiled our
national security and future prosperity. "If an unfriendly foreign
power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational
performance that exists today," the commissioners wrote, "we
might well have viewed it as an act of war."
Twenty-five years later, the
American education system remains in a state of crisis. Each year,
the United States spends more than $550 billion on K-12 public
schools-more than 4 percent of the nation's gross domestic
product. A student attending public school in 2008
can expect taxpayers to spend an average of $9,266 on his or her
behalf-a real increase of 69 percent over the average per-pupil
expenditure in 1980.
Regrettably, millions of American
students continue to pass through the nation's public schools
without receiving a quality education. On the 2007 National
Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test, 33 percent of
fourth-grade students scored "below basic" in reading. Among
economically disadvantaged children, 50 percent scored "below
basic." In many of the nation's largest cities,
high school graduation rates are below 50 percent.
Widespread failure in America's
public schools imposes great personal and societal costs. Many
Americans' lives are affected by their lack of a quality
education. Moreover, taxpayers must shoulder the burden of
costs caused by the uneducated population. This widespread failure
may imperil our nation's prosperity and security.
Federal and state policymakers must
recognize this persistent crisis and implement policies that will
lead to systemic education reform. At the federal level, Congress
should reform federal education policies to protect academic
transparency, eliminate bureaucracy and inefficiency, and
encourage innovation at the state and local levels. Policymakers
should embrace policies that give all families the freedom to
choose their children's schools, free school leaders to innovate
and develop successful school models and improve teacher quality,
and allow parents and the public to hold public schools and
students accountable for results.
The State of
Public Education in America
This year, American taxpayers will
spend more than $9,200 on the average public school student
entering the first grade. This means that if the student remains in
school through 12th grade, he can expect to have roughly $100,000
invested in his education by taxpayers. This considerable
investment, however, often does not purchase a quality
Academic Achievement. The
National Assessment of Educational Progress is the best
nationally representative sample of American students'
academic achievement, but the NAEP exam consistently
shows that a significant percentage of American students fail to
meet a basic standard of learning. In 2007:
- 33 percent of fourth graders and 26 percent of eighth graders
scored "below basic" in reading,
- 18 percent of fourth graders and 29 percent of eighth graders
scored "below basic" in mathematics,
- Students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds scored lower than
their peers, and
- Among students who were eligible for the free and reduced-price
school lunch program, 50 percent of fourth graders and 42 percent
of eighth graders scored "below basic" in reading.
High School Graduation
Rates.National estimates of high school graduation rates also
highlight the crisis in America's elementary and secondary schools.
According to government and independent reports, the estimated
average high school graduation rate is between 71 percent and
74 percent. Among ethnic-minority children, the
graduation rate is significantly lower. In 2002, only 56 percent of
black and 52 percent of Hispanic students graduated, compared
to 78 percent of white students.
There is reason to believe that the
graduation rates are considerably lower in some of the nation's
largest cities. A 2008 study published by the Education Research
Center found that the high school graduation rate was below 50
percent in 17 of the nation's 50 largest cities. The cities with
the lowest graduation rates were Baltimore (35 percent), Cleveland
(34 percent), Indianapolis (31 percent), and Detroit (25
Adult Literacy. Another
indicator of the poor performance in the nation's education system
is the high rate of adult illiteracy. The U.S. Department of
Education's 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy found that
14 percent of American adults scored "below basic" in literacy,
meaning that they could not perform simple, everyday tasks that
required reading or writing. The report projected that
an estimated 30 million American adults possessed no more than
the most rudimentary literacy skills.
The Costs of Low
The poor performance in America's
schools also imposes greater costs, such as lower lifetime
earnings and life expectancy for students, and societal costs
such as higher social welfare payments imposed on our communities.
Overall, the systemic failure of our public schools threatens our
nation's future prosperity and security.
The Personal Costs. Failing
to attain a quality education to prepare for adulthood imposes
significant personal costs, ranging from reduced lifetime
earnings to lower life expectancy. In 2002, the U.S. Census Bureau
issued a report projecting the relationship between lifetime
earnings and educational attainment: A full-time worker with a
college degree can expect to earn more than $2.1 million over the
course of his or her lifetime, compared to a high school graduate,
who can expect to earn only about half that amount for a lifetime
of full-time work. (See Chart 1).
Another government study reported
the link between educational attainment and life expectancy. A
2002 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study reported
that, "For the total population, and for males and females
separately, mortality is inversely associated with educational
attainment; that is, the average risk of death decreased markedly
with increasing educational attainment." An independent study found
that high school dropouts live an average of nine years less than
high school graduates.
Lifetime earnings and life
expectancy are only crude measures of life outcomes. The full
benefit of knowledge and a quality education is impossible to
Societal Costs. Low
educational attainment in American schools also affects society as
a whole. Poorly educated adults are less likely to make a
positive contribution to society and are more likely to be
dependent on government services. Professor Cecilia Rouse of
Princeton University found that the lower wages of high school
dropouts result in $158 billion in lost earnings and $36 billion in
reduced federal and state income tax revenue. Rouse also found
that high school dropouts were more likely to be unemployed: Only
half held regular jobs compared to 69 percent of high school
Adults who drop out of high school
also have higher health care bills: $35,000 per year compared to
$15,000 for college graduates. These health care costs
impose a significant burden on taxpayers. Brian Gottlob, a senior
fellow at the Friedman Foundation, analyzed the fiscal effects of
high school dropouts on federal and state governments and reported
that if every high school dropout had instead earned a college
degree, the number of uninsured working adults would drop by almost
Likewise, the number of Medicaid
beneficiaries would drop by 3.5 million, saving taxpayers $7
billion every year. Low levels of education among adults also
correlate with increased criminal activity.
A Threat to Our
Future Prosperity and National Security
The poor performance of American
students may also endanger our future prosperity and even our
national security. In the 20th century, the United States was able
to claim a position of global strength in large part because of its
economic strength. In World War II, America's military power was
made possible by U.S. economic strength. The United States won the
war in the Atlantic and Pacific in large part because of its
technical might and ability to field a superior military. During
the Cold War, the strength of the American economy was one of our
greatest assets in opposing the expansionism of the Soviet
The relationship between economic
strength and national power will continue in the 21st century, but
the United States is facing new challenges in the increasingly
competitive global economy. Bestselling author Thomas Friedman
makes this point in his book The World Is Flat, which
focuses on the challenges presented by an era of increased
globalization and international competitiveness. In an
ever-"flattening" world, many jobs can easily be outsourced to
skilled, lower-cost workers in other countries. This means that,
both today and in the future, American workers will have to compete
for jobs against workers from around the world.
Sadly, there is reason to believe
that many Americans may be unprepared for this challenge.
Comparisons between American students and adults on
international tests highlight the need to improve the performance
of our nation's schools.
In 2006, the National Center for
Education Statistics reviewed the performance of American
adults and students on international tests. The review found
that American students were not excelling compared to international
students and that, in some subjects, they were performing below
average compared to other developed nations. American students
scored below average on math and science tests administered to
students in developed countries. In math, American
15-year-olds ranked 21st of 29 countries. In science, they ranked
16th. On reading exams, American students fared somewhat
better-they were average. But is average good enough?
If the nation's public schools
continue to underperform, a growing number of American workers
will enter the workforce unprepared to hold their own in the
increasingly competitive global economy-threatening not only
their, but the country's, future prosperity as well as national
Visions for Reform: Parental Choice vs. Government Command
A Nation at Risk was a
catalyst for numerous education reform efforts. Since 1983,
many observers have sought to solve the problems in America's
schools by increasing federal funding for-and intervention in-the
But President Ronald Reagan had a
different vision. When the report was released, he argued that the
way to solve the crisis in American education was to increase
parental choice and strengthen state and local control:
I believe that parents, not
government, have the primary responsibility for the education of
their children. Parental authority is not a right conveyed by the
state; rather, parents delegate to their elected school board
representatives and State legislators the responsibility
for their children's schooling….
So, we'll continue to work in the
months ahead for passage of tuition tax credits, vouchers,
educational savings accounts, voluntary school prayer, and
abolishing the Department of Education. Our agenda is to restore
quality to education by increasing competition and by strengthening
parental choice and local control. I'd like to ask all of you, as
well as every citizen who considers this report's recommendations,
to work together to restore excellence in America's schools.
Regrettably, this agenda was not
achieved during President Reagan's tenure, and subsequent
attempts to curtail federal power and promote parental choice in
education have achieved only limited success. For the most part,
the decades that followed his presidency instead have witnessed the
gradual increase in federal authority over the nation's schools-and
the continuing decline of American education.
Lessons from 25
Years of Education Reforms
To address the persistent crisis in
America's schools, parents, taxpayers, and policymakers should
review the recent decades of reforms. The following are four
important lessons that can be drawn from a quarter-century of
LESSON 1: Simply
increasing government funding for public education is
Simply increasing government
spending on public education is not the solution to the
problems in the nation's public schools. Since 1970, average
per-student spending in American public schools has increased by
128 percent-from $4,060 in 1970 to $9,266 in 2005 (after adjusting
for inflation). Chart 2 presents the growth in real per-student
spending since 1970.
Regrettably, American students'
performance on long-term measures of academic achievement has not
risen correspondingly. Chart 2 also presents the test scores of
American students (ages 9, 13, and 17) on the National Assessment
of Educational Progress reading exam. American 17-year-olds
attained the same average score of 285 in 2004 as in 1971. The
average scores of 13- and 9-year-old students were modestly higher
(4 points and 9 points, respectively) in 2004 than in
These modest gains appear trivial
when compared to the dramatic increase in per-student
funding that occurred over the same period. As Dr. Jay Greene
writes in Education Myths, "It is clear from the evidence of
our national experience that simply adding more money to the public
school system produces no significant improvements…. This
evidence is strongly confirmed by the existing body of
Federal intervention needs to be limited.
When President Lyndon Johnson
signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act into law in
1965, he declared that "all of those of both parties of Congress
who supported the enactment of this legislation will be
remembered in history as men and women who began a new day of
greatness in American Society." But after more than four
decades, widespread greatness in America's public schools continues
to prove elusive.
The most recent federal
intervention in K-12 education-the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act
of 2001-has demonstrated the limits and potential dangers of
federal intervention. This 1,100-page law established new
regulations and requirements for states to receive federal funding
for education. Most important, the law requires the states to test
students annually from grades three to eight and once in high
school and to report student performance (including
disaggregated scores for student subgroups) and progress toward
proficiency, known as adequate yearly progress (AYP).
Schools that fail to meet AYP goals are subject to remedies,
including school choice, after-school tutoring, and school
These new requirements came with
increases in both federal funding and regulation. The Bush
Administration, for instance, requested $24.5 billion for NCLB
programs for fiscal year 2009-an increase of 41 percent over 2001
levels. But the new funding has come with added
costs for states and localities, including significant increases in
the amount of resources that must be devoted to complying with
the federal requirements.
After six years, NCLB has
demonstrated the limits and potential dangers of expanding
federal authority in education. A central purpose of NCLB was to
require states to adopt high academic standards and provide
other options-the possibility to attend another school-to children
enrolled in persistently low-performing schools, but there is
reason to believe that NCLB is failing to meet either of these
First, a number of
researchers have highlighted how NCLB's requirement that states
demonstrate students' proficiency on state examinations has
created an incentive for states to weaken standards to make
tests easier to pass. A 2006 study by University of
California researchers found that the gap between state and NAEP
proficiency scores had widened in 10 of 12 states examined since
NCLB was enacted.
Second, few children are
benefiting from NCLB's limited school choice options. The
Department of Education reported that only 1 percent of eligible
students took advantage of the federally mandated
public-school-transfer option between 2004 and 2005.
Only 17 percent took advantage of the "supplemental services"
(tutoring) option. A Department of Education survey of
parents in eight urban school districts found that 27 percent of
those who were eligible had been notified about the school-transfer
options. This suggests that many public school
districts are failing to comply with the federal policy.
The Title I program-a centerpiece
of federal K-12 education policy since 1965-demonstrates the limits
and problems associated with federal intervention. Currently
funded at $14 billion for 2008, the purpose of Title I has been to
provide greater opportunities and resources for disadvantaged
children. But Title I has grown increasingly complex and
bureaucratic over time. A 2007 evaluation found that the current
Title I funding formula was overly complex and bureaucratic:
Rather than delivering effectively
on good intentions for helping poor children, congressional
action over eight reauthorizations has led to a convoluted,
bureaucratic system that is less student-centered, less
transparent, and therefore less accountable to the public.
Realize the promise of expanding parental choice.
Over the past 25 years, progress
has been made by expanding school choice and by making public
schools accountable to parents and the public. In the 1980s, there
was little school choice in America. Today, a growing number of
American families are benefiting from the freedom to choose among
As of this writing, 13 states and
Washington, D.C., support private school choice. This year, as many
as 150,000 children will use publicly fundedscholarships to attend
private school. Millions more will benefit from
opportunities to choose schools within the public education system
thanks to public school choice and the proliferation of charter
schools (independently run public schools).
Research evidence with respect to
existing programs suggests that school choice is having a
positive impact. Surveys of families participating in
school choice programs have found that parents are more satisfied
with their children's education when they can choose their schools.
Researchers studying the effect of private school choice on
academic achievement have reported positive effects, both for
participating students and for public schools faced with
competition from other schools.
Moreover, expanding choice within
the public school setting is yielding positive results. The
growing charter school movement, for example, has led to the
creation of innovative schools like the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power
Program) Academy schools, which have demonstrated superior results
teaching often disadvantaged student populations. A 2004 study by
Harvard University economist Caroline Hoxby found that students in
charter schools were more likely to be proficient in reading and
math than were students in the nearest comparable public school.
Widespread public-school choice also has been reported to have
State-level reforms can lead to improvement.
Improving academic achievement
across the nation has proven difficult, but there is good reason to
believe that comprehensive state-level education reforms can lead
to dramatic improvement in the classroom.
Florida represents a promising
model of a state that has implemented aggressive education reforms
that have led to improvements in academic achievement.
Over the past decade, Florida policymakers have established a
rigorous accountability system and innovative testing model; have
increased the focus on reading, reducing social promotion,
providing new pathways for hiring, and rewarding quality
teachers; and have expanded public and private school
After ten years, Florida's
assertive approach to education reform seems to be working. The
state's public-school students have demonstrated significant
improvement on NAEP reading and math exams compared to students
nationally. Black and Hispanic students have been improving at a
faster rate than their white peers-evidence that the state is
succeeding in reducing the ethnic achievement gap. The Sunshine
State's experience demonstrates that systemic education reform is
Policymakers Should Do
Although the word "education" is
not mentioned in the Constitution, the federal government has
played a growing role in the funding and regulation of elementary
and secondary education since the 1960s. This interventionist
policy has hindered rather than advanced the progress of
educational improvement in America. The following principles should
form the basis for full reform in American education.
- Resist increasing federal authority. Decades of
increased federal intervention have failed to deliver significantly
improved student performance in long-term measures of academic
achievement. No Child Left Behind has once again demonstrated the
limited and potential unintended consequences of increased federal
The federal government provides 9.2 percent of the funding for
public education. Members of Congress should recognize the
limits of federal authority in education and resist increasing
federal power even more.
- Streamline federal programs and bureaucracy. The federal
government currently spends more than $71 billion on elementary and
secondary education through more than a hundred programs run
by more than a dozen agencies. In 2008, the Bush
Administration proposed the termination of 47 Department of
Education programs (funded at $3.3 billion in 2008), which had
achieved their purpose, are duplicated by other programs, are
focused too narrowly, or are unable to demonstrate effectiveness.
Each year, Congress also appropriates hundreds of millions of
dollars for education earmarks targeted for specific purposes
chosen by Members of Congress. Federal education reform
should consolidate or eliminate federal programs, cut down severely
on bureaucracy, and provide funding directly to state and local
governments-and let them determine how to allocate resources
to best assist students.
- Reform NCLB to protect transparency and restore state
authority. Congress should reform No Child Left Behind to
liberate states from excessive federal regulations and bureaucracy
and give state and local authorities the opportunity to
implement reforms designed to meet local students' needs most
effectively. This approach was proposed by Senators Jim DeMint
(R-SC) and John Cornyn (R-TX) in their Academic Partnerships Lead
Us to Success (A-PLUS) Act.
This policy would restore federalism and greater state and local
control in education, moving decisions affecting students and
schools closer to parents and taxpayers and encouraging state-led
innovation. A participating state would be allowed to receive its
share of funding for NCLB programs free of federal requirements and
regulations if the state meets basic requirements that include
(1) maintaining academic standards and continued annual testing,
(2) reporting test performance of specific groups of students
by disaggregating data and reporting information to parents
and the public, and (3) continuing to use federal funding to assist
disadvantaged students. The Secretary of Education would have
the power to review and terminate the performance agreement if
these terms are not met. This approach would protect state-level
academic transparency by removing incentives for states to
reduce standards to make tests easier to pass.
- Expand school choice in Washington, D.C. Since the
federal government has oversight over the District of Columbia's
school system, Congress should work with local policymakers to
reform the District's education policies to allow parents greater
autonomy to choose their child's school and encourage schools to
create quality learning environments to attract students.
Specifically, Congress should expand the D.C. Opportunity
Scholarship program both to allow more children to participate and
to create new school choice options for families in the nation's
What State and
Local Policymakers Should Do
State and local policymakers should
implement comprehensive education reforms. Specifically, they
should implement policies to give all families the opportunity to
send their children to safe and effective schools, hold schools and
students accountable for results, and implement policies designed
to promote school-level leadership and improve teacher quality.
- Expand educational freedom.
State and local policymakers should implement policies that include
school vouchers, tuition scholarships, and education tax credits.
They should also expand parental choice within the public
education system by enacting strong public-school choice,
promote charter school options, and offer innovative alternatives
such as distance learning. States should also create legal
protections for home schooling and expand education savings
options for families, such as state-level tax deductions or credits
for contributions to Coverdell Education Savings Accounts.
- Hold schools and students
accountable for results. States should continue to hold public
schools accountable for results by establishing academic
standards and testing students annually to ensure that children are
learning. States should move forward with innovative testing
systems that allow teachers and parents to determine more
accurately whether individual children are making progress each
year. In addition, state policymakers should eliminate social
promotion once and for all and develop policies to provide
remediation to children who are at risk of falling behind.
- Encourage effective school
leadership and teacher quality. State and local policymakers
should promote innovation and competition within the public school
system by encouraging greater school leadership and should pursue
strategies for improving teacher quality such as merit-pay
systems and alternative-teaching certification.
Twenty-five years after the seminal
report A Nation at Risk, American education remains in a
state of crisis. Millions of students continue to pass through the
public schools without mastering basic skills and knowledge.
Policymakers and the public must recognize both this
persistent failure and the attendant need for systemic reform in
At the federal level, Congress
should reform federal education policies to protect academic
transparency, eliminate inefficient bureaucracy, and encourage
innovation at the state and local levels. Policymakers should
embrace policies that give more families the freedom to choose
their children's school; allow school leaders to innovate and
develop successful school models and improve teacher quality; and
allow parents, lawmakers, and the general public to hold public
schools and students accountable for results.
Dan Lips is Education Analyst
in the Domestic Policy Studies Department at The Heritage
Author's calculations; National Center
for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics:
, Table 174.
Christopher B. Swanson, "Cities in
Crisis: A Special Analytic Report on High School Graduation,"
Education Research Center, April 1, 2008.
The average per-pupil expenditure in U.S.
public schools (based on fall enrollment) in 2004-2005 was $8,701.
National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education
, Table 174.
U.S. Department of Education, Institute
of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics,
National Assessment of Educational Progress, Mathematics Report
, at http://nationsreportcard.gov/math_2007
National Assessment of Educational
Progress, Reading Report Card
The Manhattan Institute estimated the
national high school graduation rate to be 71 percent. See Jay
Greene and Marcus Winters, "Public High School Graduation and
College-Readiness Rates: 1991-2002," Manhattan Institute, February
2005, at www.manhattan-institute.org/html/ewp_08.htm
(November 2, 2007). The National Center for Education
Statistics estimates the graduation rate to be 74 percent. See
National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education
, Table 101, at
(November 2, 2007).
Greene and Winters, "Public High School
Graduation and College-Readiness Rates: 1991-2002."
Swanson, "Cities in Crisis: A Special
Analytic Report on High School Graduation."
National Center for Education
Statistics, "2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy," U.S.
Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, at http://nces.ed.gov/naal/index.asp
(March 28, 2008).
Kenneth D. Kochanek et al.
"Deaths: Final Data for 2002," U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services, National Vital Statistics Reports, October 12,
Henry M. Levin, ed., "The Social Costs
of Inadequate Education," Teachers College, Columbia University,
Brian Gottlob, "Testimony Before the
Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support of the House
Committee on Ways and Means," November 14, 2007.
Author's calculations; National Center
for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics:
, Table 174.
For a thorough discussion of the
relationship between education spending and achievement, see Jay
Greene et al.
, Education Myths
(New York: Rowman
& Littlefield, 2005), pp. 7-20.
According to the Office of Management
and Budget, NCLB increased state and local governments' annual
paperwork burden by 6,680,334 hours per year. Submission for OMB
Review, 71 Fed. Reg. 61,730 (Department of Education, Oct. 19,
See Eugene Hickok and Matthew Ladner,
"Reauthorization of No Child Left Behind: Federal Management or
Citizen Ownership of K-12 Education?" Heritage Foundation
No. 2047, June 27, 2007.
See Bruce Fuller, Kathryn Gesicki, Erin
Kang, and Joseph Wright, "Is the No Child Left Behind Act Working?
The Reliability of How States Track Achievement," Policy
Analysis for California Education
, University of California,
Berkeley, 2006, at /static/reportimages/2B796B2B42C453DFEBC3C90567EAA452.pdf.
U.S. Department of Education,
"Department Releases Interim Report on School Choice and
Supplemental Education Services," April 3, 2008.
Susan Aud, "A Closer Look at Title I:
Making Education for the Disadvantaged More Student-Centered,"
Heritage Foundation Special Report
No. 15, June 28,
Dan Lips, "School Choice: Policy
Developments and National Participation Rates: 2007-2008," Heritage
No. 2102, January 31, 2008.
For more information, see
Caroline Hoxby, "Achievement in Charter
Schools and Regular Public Schools in the United States:
Understanding the Differences," Harvard University Program on
Education Policy and Governance working paper, December 2004.
Lisa Snell, "The Agony of American
, April 2006, at www.reason.com/news/show/33293.html
(March 28, 2008). For more information, see William G. Ouchi,
Making Schools Work
(New York: Simon & Schuster,
For more information, see Paul
Peterson, ed., "Reforming Education in Florida," Hoover
Institution, Koret Task Force on K-12 Education, 2006.
National Center for Education
Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics: 2007
For more information, see Dan Lips,
"Reforming No Child Left Behind by Allowing States to Opt Out,"
Heritage Foundation Backgrounder
No. 2044, June 19,