- Historic Sites
The Public Schools And The Public Mood
Since the birth of the nation, the public’s perception of the quality of public schools has swung from approval to dismay and back again. Here an eminent historian traces the course of school reform and finds that neither conservative nor liberal movements ever fully achieve their aims—which may be just as well.
February 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 1
In a historic meeting at Charlottesville, Virginia, last September, President George Bush and the nation’s governors promised to revitalize America’s public schools by establishing “clear national performance goals, goals that will make us internationally competitive.” Their language recalled the document that had inspired school reforms earlier in the 1980s, A Nation at Risk . President Reagan’s first Secretary of Education, Terrel Bell, a quiet educator from Utah, had been appointed in 1981 under the cloud of a Reagan promise to abolish the department. Insecure in his cabinet position and never the public figure his successor, William J. Bennett, proved to be, Bell was nonetheless determined to do something about the mounting evidence of poor performance in the nation’s public schools. He appointed a National Commission on Excellence in Education, whose 1983 report resonated deeply with the public mood.
“Our nation is at risk,” the commission warned. “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. … We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.” This message reverberated through the rest of the Reagan years. It was cited again and again as the nation entered a period of major educational stocktaking, hand wringing, and reform. Within a year several new commissions had echoed its theme. A Twentieth Century Fund task force worried that “by almost every measure—the commitment and competency of teachers, student test scores, truancy and dropout rates, crimes of violence—the performance of our schools falls far short of expectations.” The Education Commission of the States said the schools were “adrift,” and a report by the Carnegie Foundation said that a “deep erosion of confidence in our schools” was coupled with “disturbing evidence that at least some of the skepticism is justified.” Reformers called for higher graduation standards, tougher course content, more homework, better teacher training, and merit pay for teachers. The mass media took up the cry, and television networks ran prime-time documentaries on the school crisis.
Students ranged in age from three to eighteen—all in one room—and teachers struggled to keep order, some by love, most by applying the birch.
This crisis did not come out of the blue. Publicity about declining standardized test scores in the late 1970s strengthened a backlash against open education, open campuses, and easy elective courses—things that people associated with the permissive sixties. Problems like racial segregation and illiteracy had proved difficult to solve, and people were disillusioned with the liberal reforms of a previous generation. Complex and coercive federal and state programs designed to correct discrimination had multiplied in the 1970s, and they taxed the bureaucratic capacity of local schools. Principals’ and teachers’ decisions about where a given child should be at a given moment were beset by contradictory rules about compensatory education, bilingual education, mainstreaming of the handicapped, and desegregation. Many critics and parents became convinced that traditional academic programs were suffering from neglect.
Respect for American public schools declined. In 1974 Gallup pollsters began asking people to grade the public schools. By 1981 the percentage of people who gave the schools an A or a B had declined from 48 percent to 36 percent while the percentage of people who gave the schools an F or a D nearly doubled, from 11 percent to 20 percent. The combination of a disillusioned public and a powerful group of critics had a dramatic effect. Legislatures in many states passed major education-reform bills: graduation requirements were beefed up, teacher salaries were increased, and a flurry of experimental programs were implemented. Although Secretary Bennett left office in 1988 warning that the schools were “still at risk,” and reformers are now busy advocating newer programs for teacher training and for inner-city children, there is no doubt that many states took the first wave of criticism seriously and implemented several of the suggested reforms of the mid-1980s.
This was not the first time in American history that critics aroused an anxious public about the quality and content of public schooling. The schools always have had plenty of critics, but widespread reform has succeeded only when there has been a general crisis of confidence in the schools and reformers have solidified public consensus about what changes are needed. Some efforts to mobilize public opinion have worked; others have not.