Skip to main content

Our Public Schools Then And Now

April 2024
1min read

As Gerald Bracey states at the opening of his article, the author’s findings contradict those of other scholars who have assessed the state of U.S. public education. His account of its history was engaging, particularly his perspective on how public education’s purposes have changed over the years. However, the article’s contents are somewhat selective, which is curious, given that Bracey leveled this very criticism at other educational status reports. A useful comparison across decades of the numbers of students with given SAT scores, forinstance, requires consideration of how that test and its scoring processes have been modified during that time. An increase in the number of students scoring higher than 650 over the years does not fairly constitute evidence of greater student accomplishment if the same score meant different things at different times. It’s unlikely that Bracey is unaware of the controversies surrounding the SAT, one of which focuses on precisely this issue. In a similar vein, citing higher rates of high school graduation in contemporary versus earlier generations may make people feel better, but it does not faithfully reflect the essence of a system wherein the requirements to be graduated from many 1990s-vintage colleges are less demanding than those necessary to be admitted to a 1920s-vintage university.

Mr. Bracey’s conclusion, that American schools have done well in most places and at most times, appears to be at least as subjective as those produced by political administrations that have come down on either side of the debate. So, what are Americans supposed to think?

Over the course of his teaching career, this American noted an obvious decline in students’ abilities to comprehend what they read, to make reasonable inferences from it, and to develop a cogent argument for or against it.

Politics has become thoroughly interwoven with the teaching process, on the parts of both school administrators and students. The consequences are detrimental to teaching institutions and to the larger society. Teachers in higher education spend much of their time making sure that they conform to legal and political dictates, which comes at the expense of their freedom, passion, and availability to teach. When competent teaching does occur, it happens in spite of such governmental and regulatory meddling, not because of it. That’s the real story behind the status of American public education, and the sooner it’s recognized, the lower will be the costs we incur in addressing it. Ambiguity surrounding the purpose of public education is but a symptom of the greater problem.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.

Donate