A recently released survey of America’s eighth graders offers the latest round of sobering news about the state of our nation’s education system.  The scores, by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), found that only 18 percent of U.S. students – less than one in five - had a solid understanding of U.S. history.  Less than quarter, 23 percent, were proficient in civics and only 27 percent of students scored satisfactorily in geography. In other words we are raising a generation of children who do not understand how our country was formed, what basic values we cherish, and even where on the planet we are actually located.

Unfortunately, as alarming as this is, it is not new.  Two years ago, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) released worldwide results that found the U.S. ranked 23rd in math, 21st in science, and 17th in reading. Similar to NAEP, the PISA scores, found that in nearly a decade, scores were largely unchanged, prompting U.S. Secretary of Education Arne DuncanArne Starkey DuncanFox News to air online learning town hall with former Obama, Reagan Education secretaries America's religion of anti-racism reaches peak absurdity What the next Education secretary must do MORE to describe the U.S. as “a picture of educational stagnation.”


Here is the problem:  Everyone in America calls themselves an education reformer, but most reforms merely tinker around the edges of the existing status quo and the status quo has flat-lined.

Some trace the beginning of the education reform movement to 1955 when Milton Friedman introduced the concept of school vouchers, while many point to the release of 1983’s Nation at Risk which outlined the immense challenges in our K-12 education system. In either case, there have been thousands if not tens of thousands of reports, conferences, white papers, evaluations and legislative policies enacted since which have all said the same thing in some form: our K-12 system fails too many of our students and does not prepare them to reach their full potential.

Even the National Education Association (the nation’s largest teachers’ union) has a tag line with the same messaging parental choice supporters have been using for 20 years: “Every child needs equal access to a quality education, regardless of their ZIP code.”

As the old saying goes, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” But imitation is no substitute for the bold reforms necessary to ensure every child has access to a quality education.

We are heartened by many of the reforms that have taken hold over the years, especially the rise of parental choice and innovation, which are catalysts for systemic change and improvement.  But the reforms over the last decade are a floor, they should not be a ceiling.  

The fact is that the changes we need are far greater and more systemic. 

Our K-12 system is still largely based on a 19th century Prussian assembly line model. It’s antiquated.  One of the most popular cars when Nation at Risk came out in 1983 was the Chevrolet Caprice Classic. Does anyone really believe automobile quality, choice, and innovation peaked with the Caprice Classic?  

If we’re serious about ensuring every child in America has access to a quality education and fully preparing our children to lead this nation in a highly competitive 21st century global economy, we need an “Education Revolution.” We can’t be satisfied with incremental change that leaves only low-income families without quality choices or with mediocrity where we fail to challenge our students to reach higher. Our K-12 system needs to be infused with greater parental choice – choice that is agnostic about public, private, charter, blended, or virtual education – and innovation that harnesses the strengths and focuses on the unique needs of every child.

In the private school choice movement, we’ve made steady progress over the last five years: the number of states with publicly funded private school choice programs, the number of programs, the number of children enrolled, and the number of programs with academic accountability has doubled.

While we are progressing, we need to aim higher. Why should we limit private school choice only to children in “failing schools” rather than helping all income-eligible families in desperate need of another option?

In creating and strengthening private school choice programs, we should have scholarship amounts that sufficiently fund an eligible child’s education and encourages high quality school expansion and new supply. And, we should keep pushing for transparency that illustrates for parents and policymakers whether children are making academic progress.

All of this is possible and more, but the only way to reach these goals, the only way to innovate upward is to break down barriers and empower each parent to choose the best environment for their child to thrive and learn.  Let’s transform K-12 education into a revolutionary 21st century model that puts students first and is the envy of the world.

DeVos is the chairman and founding board member of the American Federation for Children, the nations voice for educational choice.