What Happened To America’s Public Schools?

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But improvements in schools, Silberman concluded, did not mean there was no crisis: “The test of a society, as of an institution, is not whether it is improving, although certainly such a test is relevant, but whether it is adequate to the needs of the present and of the foreseeable future. Our educating institutions fail that test.” Thus he rejected nostalgia but saw a crisis nonetheless in the appalling quality of life in schools.

“Because adults take the schools so much for granted,” he wrote, “they fail to appreciate what grim, joyless places most American schools are, how oppressive and petty are the rules by which they are governed, how intellectually sterile and aesthetically barren the atmosphere, what an appalling lack of civility obtains on the part of teachers and principals, what contempt they consciously display for children as children.”

However accurate Silberman’s characterization may have been, it fitted well with the descriptions found in many of the other books of the time. Silberman offered as a cure the same prescription that the journalist Joseph Featherstone had suggested three years earlier in a series of articles that ran in The New Republic: open education, a British import that involved making the classroom more informal and that was originally intended only for five- to seven-year-olds.

Whatever currency Silberman’s message had was lost seven years later when the College Board called attention to what was then a little-attended fact: SAT scores had been falling for fourteen years. The board formed a panel, headed by former Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz, to study the decline, and the panel attributed most of it to changes in who was taking the test: more women, more minorities, more students with low high school grades. Noting that the decline stemmed largely from easier access to college, the vice-chair of the panel, former U.S. Commissioner of Education Harold Howe II, wrote an article titled “Let’s Have Another SAT Decline.” He contended that the civil rights agenda of equal access to education was unfinished, that the doors needed to be opened wider, and if this caused the scores to drop further, so be it.

The Wirtz panel emphasized the complexity of the decline. One of its background papers simply listed the number of hypotheses brought forward to explain the fall: There were eighty-seven of them, not including one from a physicist blaming the radioactive fallout from nuclear testing programs in the fifties. The media and the public had a simpler interpretation. While the developers of the SAT still called their test a “mere supplement,” the public now saw it as the platinum rod for measuring school performance. And that performance was getting worse.

Beginning in 1980 a new diagnosis of what was wrong with American schools appeared, and a new prescription was produced for curing the ailment. Policy papers written for the presidential candidate Ronald Reagan concluded that American schools were declining at the hands of a force heretofore seen as positive in public education: the federal government. Building on arguments made by Milton Friedman in his 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom , Reagan’s advisers recommended abolishing the U.S. Department of Education, which only recently had been elevated to cabinet status. In addition, tuition tax credits and vouchers should be provided to parents to permit them to choose where to send their children to school. In the free-market environment that would then develop, good schools would flourish and bad schools would go out of business. Previous perceptions of educational decline had led to increased federal involvement. That involvement, the new view contended, had been part of the problem.

In his book about life with a boss who is trying to do away with your job, Reagan’s Secretary of Education, Terrel Bell, reports that he heard constant criticisms about the state of American education and began to long for an event that, like Sputnik , would shake the nation out of its complacency. No such event was forthcoming, and Bell fell back on establishing yet another blue-ribbon panel, the National Commission on Excellence in Education.

The commission’s report, A Nation at Risk , may well rank as one of the most selective uses of data in the history of education. After its opening statement about the “rising tide of mediocrity” and how if an unfriendly foreign power had foisted our schools on us we might have considered it an act of war, the document goes on to list thirteen indicators of dangerous trouble. These indicators seem to have been carefully picked to give as negative a view as possible.

For instance, one of them is: “There was a steady decline in science achievement scores of U.S. 17-year-olds as measured by national assessments of science in 1969, 1973 and 1977.” This statement, as far as it goes, is true. But why seventeen-year-olds? Why science? Because only the trend of science scores for seventeen-year-olds supports the crisis rhetoric. The science scores of the other two age groups measured, nine- and thirteen-year-olds, do not. The reading and math scores of nine-, thirteen-, and seventeen-year-olds do not; they were either steady or rising. Of nine trend lines, only one supported the crisis rhetoric. That was the one the commission reported.