American School Reform

“The spirit of enterprise, which characterizes the commercial part of America, has left no occasion of displaying itself unimproved.”

-Federalist 7

“In a state of disunion…that unequaled spirit of enterprise, which signalizes the genius of the American merchants and navigators, and which is in itself an inexhaustible mine of national wealth, would be stifled and lost, and poverty and disgrace would overspread a country which, with wisdom, might make herself the admiration and envy of the world.”

– Federalist 11

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Jay, Rick Hess and Paul Peterson have all recently made really impressive scholarly contributions that all point to the same conclusion: “It’s not all about poor kids,” so it’s time to overcome “our achievement-gap mania” and get our “globally challenged” total population of kids – including the middle-class suburban white ones – “ready to compete.” Because it’s clear that they’re not, and it’s clear that they need to be, more than ever before.

This is a really encouraging development and a badly needed message for school reformers. There is no law of nature that says America will always be a flourishing and successful nation, and it will not in fact remain so unless we overcome our myopia and confront the mediocre performance of all our schools.

Raising the “floor” is important. But it’s much more important to get rid of the “ceiling” – the sense that in most schools we’re already good enough, the sense that we don’t need improvement. In fact, removing the ceiling will do more to raise the floor than any of our direct efforts to raise the floor.

Here’s my concern. As we move to confront the middle-class white suburbanites with the inadequacy of their schools, it’s important that the message not be “your school sucks and I can prove it.” Not that I hear Jay, Rick or Paul saying that; they’re not. But that will be the cariacature our enemies will deploy against us. We have to take proactive steps to preempt that tactic.

I think we can improve our message by grounding it in an affirmation of what’s best about America. America is an enterprise society; always has been. America was founded as the country that looked at Europe, clinging (bitterly) to the last remaining remnants of a thousand years of feudalism on the assumption that the basic ways of the world could never be changed, and said: “The old ways aren’t good enough. We can do better. We will plant our roots in the past, but our branches must grow upward.”

We can draw on that as we speak into suburban complacency. A tree that isn’t growing is dying; for nations as for forests, there is no comfortable plateau. Nations that seek comfortable plateaus, like those in Europe today, wither. Americans have never wanted a comfortable plateau; we want every generation to be more blessed than the last. However, the data in our schools show that our national future is clearly not being prepared for growth. But this is America. We don’t accept complacency. We don’t shrug our shoulders and accept decline. We know we can do better. And there are models of reform that can unlock our potential.

Grounding this new direction for school reform in the American culture as an enterprise society will keep us from descending into squabbling over whether we’re “anti-public schools” and keep everyone’s eye on the ball: the flourishing of our national future.

6 Responses to American School Reform

  1. […] to recognize that we need to raise the bar for middle class, suburban students, too — a point more ably made by Greg Forster on Jay Greene’s blog, of all […]

  2. Doug says:

    The middle class has no interest in reform and fights new charter schools moving in to MC areas.

  3. Ayn Marie Samuelson says:


    Stakeholders in the education system have too often benefited from the positioning of “subgroups” of students against each other for funding and programs.

    NCLB is one colossal example, as there have been myriad opportunists who threw their hats into the ring to take advantage of lucrative contracts.

    As a business owner and resident of Florida, I am mandated to pay 50% of my property taxes to fund education – without a voice as to how it is spent. Can education be called “enterprise” if it is funded by mandatory taxes and managed by government? Are corporate-run “schools of choice” the kind of choice communities want?

    As you have indicated here, kids are being left behind. And I would add that “choice” is in limited supply out here in the real world.

    • Greg Forster says:

      “Are corporate-run ‘schools of choice’ the kind of choice communities want?”

      There’s only one way to find out!

      • Ayn Marie Samuelson says:


        You state that, “America is an enterprise society,” even as more and more people are employed by government at local, state and federal levels. Are the features that characterize government positively correlated with those required for entrepreneurial activities and innovation?

        And let’s not leave out the ways that corporate-government cronyism is the antithesis of what many Americans consider as the definition of the word enterprise. That sordid alliance often inhibits small businesses – our strong local and regional job creators – from growing and expanding into those realms where the powerful and connected have already staked their claims.

        What about decentralizing the delivery of educational services and empowering parents, teachers and communities to take their proper roles in educational decision-making? Revitalizing and empowering communities can unleash innovation in teaching, leadership and collaboration – all for the purpose of educating individual students. A flourishing future depends on real, grassroots enterprise.

  4. George Mitchell says:


    I just returned from a vacation to find the annual bulletin trumpeting the “excellence” of the suburban Milwaukee district where I live. The district indeed ranks high by all traditional measures. 91% of high school seniors take the ACT; for 12 straight years district students have scored above 25, compared to the national average of 21. The list goes on.

    My hunch is that this district indeed does quite well in comparison to non-urban districts. (How and whether its students might do vis a vis NAEP or on international assessment tools I do not know. I surmise that district-by-district comparisons are not feasible given the sampling methods used to administer the NAEP.)

    My neighbors are very satisfied with the local schools. They likely would regard the findings of Greene, Peterson, and others with very casual interest. Ditto with parents in other (relatively) high-performing suburbs in Milwaukee. Most would not think these findings have much relevance to them and their children.

    The suburban Milwaukee experience surely is similar to that in other metro areas. Parents in these communities are politically engaged. By and large, they direct their state and federal energy to issues other than education. How to change that is the challenge. As important as Greene’s and Peterson’s work is, it has made virtually no dent in terms of traditional media. Education reporters are not likely to validate the issue; doing so would highlight a story they have missed.

    What Greene and Peterson and Hess have done represents a crucial first step. When one considers how much a single legislator — Paul Ryan — has changed the entitlement debate, I suggest that we need some legislative champions. People such as Scott Walker, Mitch Daniels, and Chris Christie come to mind. One or more Democratic governors would be helpful. Andrew Cuomo or Jerry Brown might have the temperament and spine to get involved.


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