Commentary: Donald Trump went to private schools. Should we blame them for the mess America’s in?

Schools simply don’t have a powerful effect like that; research shows that family attitudes do.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, welcome each other at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, Monday, July 16, 2018 prior to Trump's and Putin's one-on-one meeting in the Finnish capital. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

It's been called the "Sputnik effect" (which, at the moment, has new resonance).

It refers to the tendency to blame America's public schools for many of the major problems the nation has faced since the Soviet Union became the first nation to send a satellite into orbit, in 1957.

How could the Soviet Union beat the technologically superior United States into space? A national debate over that question landed on this answer: Soviet schools must be better than American public schools. The Soviets must educate more scientists, engineers and mathematicians, the thinking went, and so this country began a push to beef up education in those areas. There was no evidence that Soviet schools were "better," but that became the established answer.

This was described by the late educational psychologist Gerald Bracey (who was for years the country's most trenchant critic of education policy) in this 2007 Education Week piece titled "The Sputnik Effect":

"The schools never recovered from Sputnik. Sputnik wounded their reputation and, as the scab formed, something else always came along to reopen the lesion: In the 1960s, schools were blamed for the urban riots (but were not credited for putting a man on the moon). In the 1970s, they were seen as 'grim and joyless,' Charles Silberman's characterization in 'Crisis in the Classroom.' In the 1980s, 'A Nation at Risk' blamed them for allowing the Germans, the South Koreans, and the Japanese to race ahead of us competitively (yet did not credit them for the longest sustained economic expansion in the nation's history).

"And today? 'Tough Choices or Tough Times,' the report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, warns of oncoming economic disaster. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce report 'Leaders and Laggards'? Ditto. And the philanthropists Eli Broad and Bill Gates have ponied up $60 million to 'wake up the American people' to the dangerous state of U.S. schooling. (Broad is 73 years old. Has he been asleep all this time?)"

In recent years, there has been a common lament that a decline in civics education has turned generations of Americans into dopes who don't vote or pay much attention to the civic life of the country, and that is the reason for the lamentable state of U.S. politics.

President Donald Trump did not attend public schools. He attended the private Kew-Forest School in the Queens neighborhood of Forest Hills, where his father, Frederick, a wealthy real estate developer, was on the governing board. He left at the age of 13 because of behavior problems and enrolled at the New York Military Academy. He graduated and went to Fordham University, a Jesuit school in the Bronx, for two years before transferring to the University of Pennsylvania, a private Ivy League school where he studied economics for two years, graduating in 1968 with a bachelor's degree. He took undergraduate classes at Penn's famed Wharton School of business.

Since becoming president, Trump has shown remarkable ignorance of U.S. history and how the government he heads actually works. So, if the public schools were responsible for the Sputnik debacle, are the private schools responsible for Trump's ignorance? Or for his Helsinki debacle, when on Monday he stood next to Vladimir Putin, the authoritarian leader of Russia, and sided with him over U.S. intelligence services about Russian hacking of U.S. elections?

If the question seems hyberolic, so too does the notion that public schools are to blame for Sputnik, or race riots, or a poor economy. Schools simply don't have a powerful effect like that; research shows that family attitudes do.

Yes, it is true that too many Americans don't know the first or second thing about their country's history or the workings of their government, and that civics education should be improved. But there is no evidence that boosting civics education - a virtue for its own sake - would solve the problems for which schools are blamed. Jay Mathews, a longtime education writer at The Washington Post, wrote a column earlier this year saying that it would not:

"Ignorance of American government and history is part of our culture. Our average scores on civics have always been low. It is not a popular course. The outrages of gerrymandering rarely come up in daily conversation. We are free to ignore elections, and more than 40 percent of us did in 2016. We'll always be more interested in getting our bills paid and finding time for fun than studying candidates' position papers."

Mathews mentioned a survey showing that the portion of young Americans saying democracy was a bad system jumped from 16 percent in 1995 to 24 percent in 2011, saying:

"History suggests even the best teaching won't fix that. Many Americans are under the impression that schools used to teach social studies better than they do now. Not so. A 1917 U.S. history test of 1,500 students in Texas yielded only 33 percent correct answers in high schools and 49 percent in universities. In 1943, only 6 percent of a national sample of 7,000 college freshmen could name the 13 colonies, and only 13 percent knew James Madison was president during the War of 1812. In 1976, a national sample of about 2,000 college freshmen on average got only half of 42 multiple-choice questions right."

This hasn't stopped repeated warnings from policymakers and others that the country is in decline in all sorts of ways because the public schools - which educate the vast majority of America's children - are failing. And these warnings are repeated every time there is a release of international test scores that show U.S. kids to be average in math and reading. (That U.S. kids have never scored well on international tests, or that there are real questions about whether country comparisons make sense, doesn't ever factor into the warnings.)

Robert Pianta is dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, professor of education and psychology, and the founding director of the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning at U-Va.

“On nearly every single outcome that we can assess,” he said, “public schools have a marginal impact that is really small relative to the impact of families. The things that we worry about in terms of the state of the country are far more a function of the families the kids are growing up in than the school they go to.”

Valerie Strauss | The Washington Post

Valerie Strauss is an education writer who authors The Answer Sheet blog. She came to The Washington Post as an assistant foreign editor for Asia in 1987 and weekend foreign desk editor after working for Reuters as national security editor and a military/foreign affairs reporter on Capitol Hill. She also previously worked at UPI and the LA Times.