What Happened To America’s Public Schools?


But after World War II the educational failings of students began increasingly to be blamed on the schools, and the first declarations that things had once been better were sounded. The criticism eventually grew so chronic and intense that in 1989 the eminent education historian Lawrence Cremin looked back in perplexity: “The popularization of American schools and colleges since the end of World War II has been nothing short of phenomenal, involving an unprecedented broadening of access, an unprecedented diversification of curricula, and an unprecedented extension of public control. In 1950, 34% of the American population twenty-five years of age or older had completed at least four years of high school, while 6 percent of that population had completed at least four years of college. By 1985, 74% of the American population twenty-five years or older had completed at least four years of high school, while 19% had completed at least four years of college. During the same 35 year period, school and college curricula broadened and diversified tremendously. . . . Yet this [expansion of schooling] seemed to bring with it a pervasive sense of failure. The question would have to be ‘Why?’”

The answer lies in part in the very success schools have had at providing nearly universal secondary education. By the end of the war, secondary school enrollments approached 90 percent. A conference was held in 1945 to discuss how to cope with this expanding clientele. At the time, educators were strongly influenced by the emerging field of psychometrics—aptitude, achievement, and intelligence testing. Many test makers believed that intellectual ability was inherited and was distributed throughout the population in a normal curve. On the basis of this assumption, the conference decided that no more than 20 percent of high school students would ever go to college. Another 20 percent could be served by the recently developed vocational programs. That left 60 percent of students with no appropriate curriculum.

The conference decided to build a curriculum for this “forgotten 60 percent” around the “needs of students,” and this led to the development of what was called Life Adjustment Education. Life Adjustment Education was a genuine attempt to make schools serve an increasingly diverse population, but it assumed that the students couldn’t be challenged academically. It was intellectually weak and open to easy ridicule. How would the “needs of students” be determined? In many instances, by questionnaires filled out by the students themselves. But teenagers were as likely then as ever to see their needs in terms of making friends, getting along with the opposite sex, and so on.

Liberal arts universities had already looked down on schools of education. When these schools now started promoting Life Adjustment Education, the liberal arts professors exploded in derision. Foremost among these critics was Arthur Bestor, a professor of history at the University of Illinois, who in 1953 wrote a popular book titled Educational Wastelands: The Retreat From Learning in Our Public Schools . Note the word retreat . This appears to be the first time a critique of the schools harked back to a previous time when things were better.

Arthur Bestor’s 1953 book appears to be the first time a critique of the schools harked back to a previous era when things were supposedly better.

Bestor loaded Wastelands with statistics to demonstrate the schools’ decline. He observed, for instance, that “fifty years ago, half of all students in public schools were studying Latin; today less than a quarter . . . are enrolled in courses in all foreign languages put together.” He failed to add that fifty years before, only 50 percent of students had been enrolled in any school and only 7 percent of all students graduated from high school. A quarter of the current crop of students was actually far more of them.

Thus the sense of failure actually reflected the f success of the schools in reaching out to what were called “new learners.” But, perhaps more important, it also reflected America’s changed role in the world. The Cold War and the space and weapons races were heating up. According to the Committee on the Present Danger, a group of thirty-three powerful leaders from business, industry, the military, and universities, in 1951, “We need both a reservoir of trained men and a continuing advance on every scientific and technical front.”

The most vocal advocate of an educated work force as the front line in the Cold War was Adm. Hyman G. Rickover, the father of America’s nuclear navy. “Let us never forget,” Rickover said, “that there can be no second place in a contest with Russia and that there will be no second chance if we lose.” Armed with statistics from the Director of Central Intelligence, Alien Dulles, Rickover stumped the country and harangued members of Congress on the need for more scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. The Russians, Dulles said his statistics showed, were outstripping us in these vital areas.

Where would we get the manpower we needed? Where else but from the schools? For the first time, schools were expected to play a role in national security. And they weren’t good enough at it.