The job of the education secretary isn’t to defend public schools. It’s to help kids learn.


But when we cast a cold look at the performance of schools in recent years, it’s hard not to count the very vices alleged by her detractors as the opposite, as virtues sorely needed at the present time.

Last year at a public school in Southern California, my niece’s 12th-grade teacher led the students to the football field one afternoon for a little exercise in social awareness. She lined them up side by side and then pronounced a series of directions. According to their life situation, the students took one step forward or backward. The directions included,

  • “If you come from a single-parent household, take one step back”
  • “If one or both of your parents have a college degree, take one step forward”
  • “If you can show affection for your romantic partner in public without fear of ridicule or violence, take one step forward”
  • “If you constantly feel unsafe walking alone at night, take one step back”

It’s called the Privilege Walk, and it’s not an uncommon activity in high schools and college. You can see a version of it here. The purpose is to highlight disadvantages some have in life through no fault of their own. When my niece talked about it, she rolled her eyes, not because she denies inequities in the world but because the whole setup was so stagy and manipulative and solemn.

I had a different reaction: Why spend precious class time on non-academic social consciousness exercises when the academic results of public schooling in America are so poor?The Obama administration boasted of improving graduation rates, yes, but you can do that by lowering the bar — that is, lowering cut scores for graduation exams and inflating grades. But that won’t help students if they haven’t learned more math, history, science, and literature.

Consider the trends:

  • Since 2005, SAT reading scores have dropped by 14 points. A writing component was added to the SAT in 2006, and scores have dropped every year since then except for two years when they were flat. Math scores for 2015 were the lowest in 20 years. The expanding pool of test takers, a common explanation for the slide, doesn’t fully account for it.
  • On the ACT’s measure of “college readiness” in math, English, reading, and science, slightly more than one-third of test takers met the benchmarks in three subjects, while another one-third did not meet any(!) of the benchmarks. That means that one-third of high school seniors who aim to go to college are unlikely to earn a B in any of those subjects.
  • According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress exams (the “Nation’s Report Card,” administered by the Education Department’s National Center for Educational Statistics), only one-quarter of 12th-graders are proficient in civics, one-fifth in geography, just over one-third (37 percent) in reading, one-fifth (22 percent) in science, and one-eighth (12 percent) in US history. Only one-quarter of them reach proficiency in math.

These outcomes run against the rise in graduation rates as an indication of stronger student learning.

The reason for this: public schools are primarily about socialization and indoctrination. Actually learning something is secondary.