What Happened To America’s Public Schools?


The findings should have been challenged by educational organizations, but they had their own reason to accept them: Often their policies are influenced by how an event will affect the availability of funds. Since A Nation at Risk depicted grave problems, it seemed likely to generate money to fix those problems. Educational organizations accepted the report enthusiastically.

Risk embraced a new and powerful assumption: that the schools are tightly linked to the performance of the U.S. economy and our ability to compete in the global marketplace. In fact, competition in the global marketplace became the goad for the eighties that the Cold War had been three decades earlier. When a recession arrived late in 1990, this putative link allowed people to blame the schools.

Starting three years ago, however, newspaper headlines began heralding a recovery, and the Geneva-based World Economic Forum pronounced the U.S. economy the most competitive of any among twenty-five developed nations in both 1994 and 1995. In 1996 the forum changed its formula and the United States fell to fourth place; the International Institute for Management and Development retained a formula similar to the forum’s old one and found the country still number one.

Larry Cuban, a professor at Stanford University, has pointed out that though people blamed schools for the recession of the late eighties, they gave them no credit for the recovery of the nineties, and he dismisses the idea of a strong direct link between educational and economic performance in advanced nations. He points out, for example, that critics of American public education generally argue that Germany and Japan have superior schools. Yet in recent years those two countries have been mired in long-term recessions, their worst since World War II.

Both those who want to provide more resources for the schools and those who want to introduce privatization have appeared to welcome only bad news.

Meanwhile the debate over schools and their relationship to the economy has been accompanied by a shift in talk about the purposes of schooling. The goals of building citizens or broadly educated or well-rounded adults have been left behind in favor of the need to prepare students to get jobs and to provide skilled workers for business.

People have never agreed about the purpose of education in this country—or anywhere else. Aristotle already knew why when he observed that education dealt with “the good life” and people would always differ on what the good life was. To see it principally in terms of getting and keeping a job, though, is rather new to America.

One of our pre-eminent educational influences, Thomas Jefferson, saw education as having two purposes. On one hand, it would act as a great sorting machine with which “the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually” to form an “aristocracy of worth and genius,” as opposed to the aristocracies of blood that afflicted Europe. On the other hand, Jefferson thought, all citizens’ “minds must be improved to a certain degree” so they could protect the nation from the “germ of corruption.”

Even Jefferson’s more practical peer Benjamin Franklin did not support vocational training. He realized that people building a new nation would need many skills, but he believed a school’s job was to leave them “fitted for learning any business calling or profession.” In this he sounds surprisingly like former Secretary of Eabor Robert Reich contending that the most valuable skill to learn in school today is “flexibility.” In any case, specific vocational goals entered educational discussions early in this century, as secondary schooling began its rapid expansion. When A Nation at Risk appeared, it emphasized the preparation of a skilled work force as no one had before.

A Nation at Risk has served the purposes of both those who want to provide more resources for the schools and those who want to overhaul the system and introduce privatization. Both sides have appeared to welcome only bad news about the schools. Thus, when a large, federally funded report concluded that there was no crisis in American education, the Bush administration suppressed it; it was ultimately published by the Clinton administration under the title Perspectives on Education in America . And the Bush Department of Education held a press conference to publicize an international study that found American students ranking low in math and science (the distinction between “ranks” and “performance” is critical; the eighth-fastest human being on the planet ranks dead last in the finals of the hundred-meter dash at the Olympics) but made no attempt to tell anyone when another study found American students’ reading skills the second best of any of thirty-one countries. That study was eventually discovered by Education Week ; when USA Today subsequently reported it, the paper also quoted a deputy Assistant Secretary of Education dismissing the finding.