Tucson Progressive

Pamela Powers, a progressive voice for Arizona

Is public education ‘mission critical’ to national defense?

Honk if you can read. (Photo credit: Pamela Powers)

Is public education “mission critical” to national defense?

This is a question we as a nation should consider as we watch our leaders perform during the looming budget battles. Arizona’s twin embarrassments in the US Senate– Jon Kyl and John McCain– will fight for defense spending and trickle-down economics at the expense of public education, while on the home front, Governor Jan Brewer and the Arizona Legislature will fight for business tax cuts at the expense of public education and healthcare.

Two recent studies reveal the US is a country in decline– despite the GIANT Christmas present the President and Congress will be giving us in 2011.

A new study by The Education Trust shows that nearly a quarter of high school graduates cannot pass the Army entrance exam. Thirty-nine percent of black high school graduates; 29 percent of Latinos; and 16 percent of whites failed the test of basic questions. How bad is it when you’re not educated enough to be blown up? [Sarcasm warning.] From today’s Arizona Daily Star (emphasis added)…

The report by The Education Trust bolsters a growing worry among military and education leaders that the pool of young people qualified for military service will grow too small.

“Too many of our high school students are not graduating ready to begin college or a career – and many are not eligible to serve in our armed forces,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the AP. “I am deeply troubled by the national security burden created by America’s underperforming education system.”…

“If you can’t get the people that you need, there’s a potential for a decline in your readiness,” said Barnett, who is part of the group Mission: Readiness, a coalition of retired military leaders working to bring awareness to the high ineligibility rates…

The military exam results are also worrisome because the test is given to a limited pool of people: Pentagon data shows that 75 percent of those ages 17 to 24 don’t even qualify to take the test because they are physically unfit, have a criminal record or didn’t graduate high school.

A second study also released recently shows that US students are mediocre performers when test scores are compared with students from 65 other economies around the world. In reading, US students are average; in math, they are below-average; and in science, they have improved and are now average. From the ED.gov website…

“The hard truth,” [US] Secretary [of Education] Duncan said at Tuesday’s PISA announcement, “is that other high-performing nations have passed us by during the last two decades…In a highly competitive knowledge economy, maintaining the educational status quo means America’s students are effectively losing ground.”

According to Duncan, the US is in the process of reforming our educational system to mirror high-performing systems worldwide. Here are some of the other findings from OECD, the group that conducted the study. (Emphasis added.)

The OECD studied differing results between girls and boys, as well as the influence of class size, teacher pay and the degree of autonomy schools have in allocating resources. Findings include:

  • Girls read better than boys in every country, by an average of 39 points, the equivalent to one year of schooling. The gender gap has not improved in any country since 2000, and widened in France, Israel, Korea, Portugal and Sweden. This is mirrored in a decline of boy’s enjoyment of reading and their engagement with reading in their leisure time.
  • The best school systems were the most equitable – students do well regardless of their socio-economic background. But schools that select students based on ability early show the greatest differences in performance by socio-economic background.
  • High performing school systems tend to prioritise teacher pay over smaller class sizes.
  • Countries where students repeat grades more often tend to have worse results overall, with the widest gaps between children from poor and better-off families. Making students repeat years is most common in Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain.
  • High performing systems allow schools to design curricula and establish assessment policies but don’t necessarily allow competition for students.
  • Schools with good discipline and better student-teacher relations achieve better reading results.
  • Public and private schools achieve similar results, after taking account of their home backgrounds.
  • Combining local autonomy and effective accountability seems to produce the best results.
  • The percentage of students who said they read for pleasure dropped from 69% in 2000 to 64% in 2009.

So, where do we go from here? I believe that state and federal government officials should look long and hard at the data from both of these studies. There are some clear take-home messages in my opinion:

1- Funding Arizona’s educational system in 2011 below 1986 levels is an abomination (1, 2).

2- Given that locally-designed curricula, equity in education, and student-teacher relationships are all supported by the data, Arizona should stop its vendetta against Raza Studies at Tucson High School.

3- Teachers, students, and the public education system should be valued and not vilified by ideologues.

4- Basing the attack on public education solely on student test scores– like the AIMS test– is bunk because it doesn’t take equity in education, poverty, and parental involvement into account.

5- The future of public education is the future of our country.

6- Yes, public education is “mission critical” to national defense and our future.

7 comments on “Is public education ‘mission critical’ to national defense?

  1. Pingback: Is public education ‘mission critical’ to national defense? – Tucson Citizen – BIGJUNCTION.INFO

  2. M Coz
    December 22, 2010

    Seeing as how there is no correlation between per pupil spending and results, thank Jesus Arizona is dead last in public education funding. Now if we can only get it to zero, burn everything that’s left and start over, then we may have a chance.


    • Pamela Powers
      December 22, 2010

      I am going to take a wild guess here that you don’t have any children or grandchildren– or at least none in school in Arizona.

      I think there is probably an absolute minimum level of per-pupil funding that is necessary to achieve any results. Funding schools in 2009 at 1986 levels– as Arizona did before the 2010 and 2011 education cuts is a disgrace.

      Also, your comment ignores the fact that they did find that teacher pay and equity in education– not Arizona’s strong points– are positively correlated with student performance. As long as Arizona Republicans continue to gang-rape our public education system, Arizona will not be competitive for good jobs– regardless of how many trickle-down tax breaks they offer.


    • Mikey
      December 24, 2010

      Yeah, once you burn it down, you can set up schools with a REAL Arizona curriculum. Classes like “rationalizing racism,”  “Meth-cooking 101,” “genetics of incest”and “the trailer-park lifestyle.”


  3. JoeS
    December 23, 2010

    Thank goodness we are not 57th


  4. Mikey
    December 24, 2010

    Moot question. We don’t really do “national defense.”
    Is public education “mission critical” to US military aggression?  Kind of. Teach ’em to shoot and do various tasks but fer cryin’ out loud don’t teach them actual world history or for that matter critical thinking. They won’t be obedient killer robots if you do.


  5. Shella Mcmeans
    December 25, 2010

    I really enjoyed reading this post. Thank you so much for sharing this information and publishing it.


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The Tucson Progressive: Pamela J. Powers

I stand on the side of Love. I believe in kindness to all creatures on Earth and the inherent self-worth of all individuals–not just people who agree with me or look like me.

Widespread economic and social injustice prompted me to become a candidate for the Arizona House, representing Legislative District 9 in the 2016 election.

My platform focused on economic reforms to grow Arizona’s economy, establish a state-based public bank, fix our infrastructure, fully fund public education, grow local small businesses and community banks, and put people back to work at good-paying jobs.

In the Arizona House, I was a strong voice for fiscal responsibility a moratorium on corporate tax breaks until the schools were fully funded, increased cash assistance to the poor, expansion of maternal healthcare benefits, equal rights, choice, unions, education at all levels and protecting our water supply.

After three terms, I retired from the Arizona Legislature in January 2023 but will continue to blog and produce my podcast “A View from the Left Side.”

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