Thirty-five years ago, in April of 1983, Ronald Reagan appeared before the press to publicize a government report warning of “a rising tide of mediocrity” that had begun to erode America’s education system. Were such conditions imposed by an unfriendly foreign power, the authors declared, “we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”
Despite its grave tone, the report, titled “A Nation at Risk,” had little direct impact on policy. It did, however, establish a new way of talking about public education in the United States, a master narrative that has endured—and even subtly changed American education policy for the worse—over the past several decades.
Across that stretch of time, politicians and policymakers have spoken often of the inadequacy of “America’s schools.” In fact, this trope is one of the few things that Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s regulation-averse secretary of education, has in common with her predecessors; she and previous education secretaries have regularly discussed the nation’s schools as a cohesive whole. This phrasing is useful shorthand for a national official, but it obscures the fact that the United States does not actually have a national education system. Many countries do. In France, for example, a centralized ministry of education governs schools directly. But in the U.S., all 50 states maintain authority over public education. And across those 50 states, roughly 13,000 districts shape much, possibly even most, of what happens in local schools.
The abstraction of “America’s schools” may be convenient for rousing the collective conscience, but it is not particularly useful for the purpose of understanding (or improving) American education. Consider the issue of funding. On average, federal money accounts for less than 10 percent of education budgets across the country, and the rest of the financial responsibility falls to states and local schools. If local schools are unable to raise what they need, the state is usually well positioned to make up the difference, but states differ dramatically in their approaches. On average, states spend roughly $13,000 per student on public education—but looking at the average alone is misleading. Only about half of states spend anything close to that figure: A dozen spend 25 percent more than the national average, and 10 states spend 25 percent less. The result is significant disparities, and some striking incongruities. New York’s schools, for instance, spend roughly three times as much per student as Utah’s schools—a huge difference, even after accounting for New York’s higher cost of living.
Additionally, some states do much more than others to ensure that each district is properly funded. Local property taxes help fund schools nationwide, but in some places, like Massachusetts, the state steps in to provide additional resources for lower-income areas. In other places, like Illinois, property taxes are simply the primary sources of school funding, which means less money for poor districts than for wealthy ones.
Though states often take similar approaches on curricula and teacher licensure, they tend to differ considerably in policy and practice. Things like early childhood education, charter-school regulation, sex education, arts programs, teacher pay, and teacher evaluation are anything but uniform across the 50 states. To say that America’s schools are failing students on any of these issues would be a gross generalization—it would obscure all the national variety, like the fact that in Massachusetts, charter schools are tightly regulated, while in Arizona, they’re hardly regulated at all.
It’s longstanding American practice for cities and towns to have a significant amount of power over education. But local control also persists because of the importance of context. What schools need in order to succeed depends significantly on the needs and concerns of the local community, and policy tends to reflect that. Teacher hiring, for instance, is usually done at the local level, and is often shaped only indirectly by state policy. As a result, the process looks quite different from place to place depending on the approaches districts take to recruiting teachers, screening applicants, and making job offers. Further, while curriculum standards are shaped by states, districts determine what they actually look like and which books students carry around.
Districts also decide how to structure “attendance zones,” which determine where students enroll. As with congressional districts, a lot rides on how a district chooses to draw these boundaries, with gerrymandering exacerbating demographic differences between neighborhoods and towns. Many districts, however, allow families to attend any school within the district—a policy that can promote integration if coupled with mechanisms for promoting school diversity. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, for instance, the district uses a “controlled choice” system designed to maintain a balanced mix of students at all schools; in essence, parents can choose any school in the district, with enrollment preferences given to families who help bring the school’s demographics closer in line with the city’s.
Public schools in the United States differ so much from state to state and from district to district that it hardly makes sense to talk about “America’s schools.” In fact, a focus on large-scale national reform can actually do harm, insofar as it must emphasize generic one-size-fits-all solutions that ignore state- and local-level needs. The nationwide push to evaluate teachers using student standardized test scores is a classic example. Strongly backed by former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, so-called “value added” models of assessing teachers were adopted across the nation despite the concerns of education scholars. Worse, the models have undermined trust in the process of teacher evaluation and driven some successful educators out of the profession.
This is not to say that taking the national perspective can’t be valuable. Troubling patterns do exist across the U.S., and discussions about them can play an important role in shaping both public understanding and education policy. Achievement gaps across race and class, for instance, are an important reminder of broader social and economic inequalities, and advocates have used evidence about those patterns to make the case for universal early-childhood education. Similarly, a national dialogue about the disproportionate punishment of black and brown children in schools has drawn attention to an issue that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. These kinds of broad conversations can generate both political will and policy responses.
But more-abstract national-reform rhetoric has little to redeem it. In a system that affords significant authority to schools, districts, and states, it is ill suited for identifying the actual strengths and weaknesses of schools. And when used to drive policy, such rhetoric can generate support for policies that are at best distracting and at worst detrimental. One major example of this is No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the piece of Bush-era legislation that pushed schools to improve students’ standardized test scores each year. But because the federal government has limited power over schools, it offered little other than punishments, such as staff reassignments or school closures, to induce those gains. States and school districts focused their energies on avoiding such punishments, often ignoring critical issues like school culture and student engagement.
The authors of “A Nation at Risk” concluded their report with a simple claim: “Education should be at the top of the Nation’s agenda.” And in creating a new kind of school-reform rhetoric, they seem to have achieved their aim. The question is, has it done more harm than good?