What Happened To America’s Public Schools?


When the Russians launched Sputnik , the first man-made satellite to circle the globe, the schools’ critics took the event as proof that they had been right. The schools were failing. Sputnik went up in October 1957; by the following spring Life magazine had readied a five-part series, Crisis in Education . The cover of the March 24, 1958, edition showed two students: a stern-looking Alexei Kutzkov in Moscow and a relaxed, smiling Stephen Lapekas in Chicago. Inside, photographs showed Kutzkov conducting complex experiments in physics and chemistry and reading Sister Carrie out loud in English class. Lapekas was depicted walking hand in hand with his girlfriend and rehearsing for a musical. In the one American classroom picture, Lapekas retreats from a math problem on the blackboard, laughing along with his classmates. The caption explains that “Stephen amused the class with wisecracks about his ineptitude.”


Life engaged Sloan Wilson, author of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit , a successful novel that had become known as something of a social critique, for a two-page essay titled “It’s Time to Close Our Carnival.” Like Bestor, Wilson saw only decline and failure. “The facts of the school crisis are all out and in plain sight and pretty dreadful to look at,” he wrote. “A surprisingly small percentage of high school students is studying what used to be considered basic subjects. . . . People are complaining that the diploma has been devaluated to the point of meaninglessness. . . . It is hard to deny that America’s schools, which were supposed to reflect one of history’s noblest dreams and to cultivate the nation’s youthful minds, have degenerated into a system for coddling and entertaining the mediocre.”

In 1983 the government study A Nation at Risk would discover a “rising tide of mediocrity.” Wilson had found the same swelling current almost precisely twenty-five years earlier. But when Wilson was writing, precious little data existed about school performance, and what there was contradicted the novelist’s message. Although the number of people taking the SATs had increased from 10,654 in 1941 to 376,800 in 1957, their scores had remained at the same levels as in 1941, the year SAT standards had been set. And scores on achievement tests had been steadily rising.

American schools have often been faulted for not solving social problems, and in the sixties they were condemned for failing to achieve racial integration soon enough. While they were taking the blame for continued segregation, the verdict arrived on the grand curriculum reforms that had followed Sputnik: They had failed.

Reformers held out great hopes for the new math and its attendant innovations in other fields. That the new curricula were being developed by some of the finest minds at some of our finest universities was initially thought to be their greatest strength. Later it was recognized as their great- est weakness. Although eminent in their fields, the scholars had no sense of how a classroom works. They tried to create materials that “would permit scholars to speak directly to the child” and be “teacher-proof,” observed Robert J. Schaefer, dean of Teachers College, Columbia University. This in itself guaranteed failure.

While the schools were taking the blame for segregation in the 1960s, the verdict arrived on the post- Sputnik curriculum reforms: They had failed.

At about the same time as the new curricula were being pronounced dead, a spate of books was appearing with titles like Death at an Early Age, 36 Children , and The Way It Spozed to Be . Most described how schools were failing to serve minority students, but some, like How Children Fail , contained more general indictments of public schools, contributing to a growing feeling that they were simply not good places for children to be. “Free schools” and “alternative schools” began to spring up around the country. The antischool feeling was summed up in Charles Silberman’s authoritative book Crisis in the Classroom .

Crisis in the Classroom appeared in 1970. The red menace still hung over our heads. Domestic events—assassi nations, Vietnam, urban uprisings, Chicago, Kent State—had created the sense that nothing was secure. In this milieu Silberman observed the malaise that pervaded our schools and wondered why. He pointed out that in a review of 186 then-and-now studies (which compare achievement at two points in time) devoted to education, all but 10 had favored now. He asked, “Why, then, the pervasive sense of crisis? How to explain the fact that an educational system that appears to be superbly successful from one standpoint appears to be in grave trouble from another?” He clearly had the social unrest of both urban blacks and suburban whites in mind when he suggested that “the question cannot be answered with regard to education alone; it is in fact the central paradox of American life. In almost every area, improvements beyond what anyone thought possible fifty or twenty-five or even ten years ago have produced anger and anxiety rather than satisfaction.”