Is the U.S. School System a National Security Threat?

Why Condoleezza Rice, Joel Klein and the Council of Foreign Relations are wrong about common core and national standards

The big education news this week is a report by the Council on Foreign Relations co-chaired by Condoleezza Rice and Joel Klein that finds that “the United States must improve its education system or risk imperiling national security and the economy.”

The report included three strong recommendations for education reform:

  • Students, especially those in poor schools, should have more choices in where they go to school.
  • Governors, working with the federal government, should develop a national security readiness audit, to judge whether schools are meeting targets.
  • Common Core standards should be adopted and expanded to include science, technology and foreign languages.

The school choice recommendation is good news for parents and kids and shows the inroads that school choice and competition have made into the school reform discourse when an establishment organization such as the Council on Foreign Relations recommends that kids have more options. As the Wall Street Journal correctly acknowledges:

The Council on Foreign Relations is the clubhouse of America’s establishment, a land of pinstripe suits and typically polite, status-quo thinking. Yet today CFR will publish a report that examines the national-security impact of America’s broken education system-and prescribes school choice as a primary antidote. Do you believe in miracles?

Not surprisingly all of the commission members who dissent from the recommendations object strongly to the school choice recommendation. For example, from the dissent written by Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond: “One shortcoming is that this report accepts, uncritically and despite significant evidence to the contrary, that competition and privatization are essential – indeed perhaps the most important – strategies for improving public educational systems.”

Linda Darling Hammond’s claims are refuted by the gold standard of empirical research on the issue. Greg Forster’s March 2011 analysis, “A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Vouchers,” finds that vouchers improve outcomes for both participants and public schools. Nineteen empirical studies have examined how vouchers affect outcomes in public schools. Of these, 18 find that vouchers improved public schools; only one finds no visible impact. There is simply no empirical evidence find that vouchers harm public schools.

A study released in February 2012 at The University of Arkansas analysing the Milwaukee school voucher program confirms these findings. The study looked at students enrolled in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), the nation’s oldest private school choice program currently in operation, and compared them to students enrolled in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). It found that seven per cent more MPCP students graduate from high school on time compared with MPS students. It also found that MPCP students are more likely to enrol in a four-year college program and to persist in college. Tracking of both MPCP and MPS students over a four-year period reveals significantly higher achievement growth in reading for MPCP students, as well as higher levels of science achievement in upper grades.

Also noteworthy is the effect that the continued growth and strengthening of the voucher program is having on Milwaukee Public Schools. Competitive pressure from the MPCP has raised public school achievement, and the study reported savings of nearly $52 million to the state during the last fiscal year.

In the Council on Foreign Relations report there is also some criticism in the dissenting views of the need for a national security readiness audit. Stephen M. Walt, Harvard University professor, questions the evidence that the US education system presents a national security threat: “The report exaggerates the national security rationale for reforming U.S. K-12 education. It says a troubled public education system is a “very grave national security threat facing the country,” but it offers only anecdotal evidence to support this unconvincing claim.” Professor Walt goes on to question the need for a national security audit and is skeptical that it would actually measure national security readiness.

However, there appears to be little or no dissent among the 30 member commission over the ability of common core and national standards to improve student achievement or guarantee national security. Was not someone available from the Brookings Institute to make the well-documented point that states have had state standards within their own borders for many years (many of them higher than common core) and the quality of state standards is not related to state achievement? State standards are also unrelated to the ability to stop the variability in achievement from one school to another. Perhaps former assistant secretary for education William Evers or any of the more than 350 signers of the anti-common core manifesto “Closing the Door on Innovation: Why One National Curriculum is Bad for America,” which argues that that current U.S. Department of Education efforts to nationalize curriculum will stifle innovation and freeze into place an unacceptable status quo; end local and state control of schooling; lack a legitimate legal basis; and impose a one-size-fits-all model on America’s students and that “transferring power to Washington, D.C., will only further subordinate educational decisions to political imperatives,” were also unavailable to participate in the commission or the dissenting views.

While the embrace of school choice by the commission is encouraging, adopting common core and national standards is actually counterproductive to competitive education efforts. Why embrace competition and then set an arbitrary national ceiling for academic standards that is sure to stifle or slow at least some of the academic innovation that would arise out of more competition in K-12 schools.

To understand this let’s use a real example from the variation in current state standards in the United States. California requires every 8th grader to take Algebra. Consequently, 8th graders have many opportunities in California to take higher level math courses because Algebra is standard. The California standard is a tougher requirement than the proposed common core math standards.

In a San Francisco Chronicle piece “National standards would harm math curriculum,” Ze’ev Wurman and Bill Evers explain the real gains California students have made because of the states tougher math standards:

Over the past decade and a half, California’s Latino student population has almost doubled from 30 percent to over 50 percent, many of them facing special learning challenges. Yet the number of students taking algebra by eighth grade has jumped from 16 percent to 60 percent, while the success rate has jumped from 39 percent to 48 percent since 2002. In 2002, only a third of high school students took Algebra 2 by grade 11; now more than half take it, and with increasing success rates.

More importantly, between 2003 and 2009 the number of African American students successfully taking Algebra 1 by grade 8 more than tripled from 1,700 to 5,400; the jump among Hispanic students was from 10,000 to 45,000; and for students from low-income households, from 12,000 to 49,000. Algebra 2 in high school shows similar results. Finally, since 1997, California State University freshman enrollment has doubled from 25,000 to 50,000, while remediation rates in mathematics have dropped from 54 percent to 37 percent.

Rather than setting arbitrary ceilings for national achievement, we should strive to make K-12 function more like higher education in America where we leave it up to the institutions to find what their strong academic pursuits will be and let parents and students choose the best institutions based on those pursuits. Why is asking California to lower their math standard by accepting common core any more ridiculous than imposing some arbitrary “common core” standard on MIT’s math program in higher education? Embracing national standards will only limit the potential for improvement from offering parents more choice in education.

Lisa Snell is the director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation.