What Happened To America’s Public Schools?


At one point in his 1988 book The Thirteenth Man , the former Secretary of Education Terrel Bell speaks of the decline of secondary education in America. “If we are frank with our selves,” he writes, “we must acknowledge that for most Americans . . . neither diligence in learning nor rigorous standards of performance prevail. . . . How do we once again become a nation of learners, in which attitudes towards intellectual pursuit and quality of work have excellence as their core?”

With these words Bell echoes two qualities common to educational reformers since World War II: nostalgia and amnesia. They look back through a haze to some imagined golden era of American education when we were “a nation of learners,” forgetting that a century ago the high school graduation rate was about 3 percent, and it didn’t exceed 50 percent until mid-century, whereas today it is 83 percent (if you include those who receive equivalency diplomas or who drop out but then return for diplomas). They forget, too, that until after World War II it was assumed that no more than 20 percent of American youth could handle a college curriculum at all; now 62 percent of all high school graduates enroll in college the following fall.

Yet our schools have been assailed decade after decade—in the 1950s for letting America fall behind in the space and weapons races; in the 1960s for not bringing about integration fast enough; and in the 1980s for letting the country down in the global marketplace—as well as coming under fire from national leaders who have had a strong ideological interest in changing the system.

Not that politicians have been the only tough critics of the schools. Many educators have also attacked their performance with an intensity not directed at any other institution in public affairs. Consider these three comments: “The achievement of U.S. students in grades K-12 is very poor”; “American students are performing at much lower levels than students in other industrialized nations”; and “International examinations designed to compare students from all over the world usually show American students at or near the bottom.” These are powerful indictments. As it happens, none of them are true. Yet they are the opening sentences from three consecutive 1993 weekly columns in The New York Times by the late Albert Shanker, president of the nine-hundred-thousand-member American Federation of Teachers.


While Shanker might have been more abrasive than most, many within the field of education have shown minimal support for public schools. It is impossible to imagine a Secretary of Defense lambasting the Navy or a Secretary of Commerce chastising American industry for its shortcomings the way Secretaries of Education have demeaned the performance of American public schools. How and why did people in the field arrive at such a view?

The story begins in 1893 with the Committee of Ten on Secondary School Studies, better known simply as the Committee of Ten, which comprised five college presidents and other public school officials. The Committee of Ten was the first in a long line of blue-ribbon commissions set up to examine American education. When it began its work, there was little enough to examine, and indeed its main goal was just to bring some coherence to a system that had hardly any organization or clarity of purpose.

A 1932 study noted that secondary education “did not have a clear purpose . . . did not prepare students adequately” and “seldom challenged tne student.”

In 1890 we were a nation of 63,056,000, but only 203,000 of some 3,000,000 age-eligible children attended secondary school. This was certainly no nation of learners. In fact the committee’s report makes it hard to imagine what the few children enrolled in schools did all day. “As things are now,” it states, “the high school teacher finds in the pupils fresh from the grammar schools no foundation of elementary mathematical conceptions outside of arithmetic. . . . When college professors endeavor to teach chemistry, physics, botany, zoology, meteorology, or geology to persons of eighteen or twenty years of age, they discover that in most instances new habits of observing, reflecting, and recording have to be painfully acquired—habits which they should have acquired in early childhood. The college teacher of history finds in like manner that his subject has never taken any serious hold . . .”

Why were the children’s heads so empty? The educator Ralph Tyler, one of the most prolific writers and innovators the field has known—he directed the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University for a number of years—looked back in 1974, when he was seventy-two, at what schools had been like in his youth: “What I remember . . . are the strictness of discipline, the catechismic type of recitation, the dullness of the textbooks, and the complete absence of any obvious connection between our classwork and the activities we carried on outside of school. . . . The view held by most teachers and parents was that . . . [the school’s] tasks should be sufficiently distasteful to the pupils to require strong discipline to undertake them and carry them through.” One might wonder how any scholars at all emerged from such an environment.