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What Happened To America’s Public Schools?

June 2024
20min read

Not what you may think

At one point in his 1988 book The Thirteenth Man , the former Secretary of Education Terrel Bell speaks of the decline of secondary education in America. “If we are frank with our selves,” he writes, “we must acknowledge that for most Americans . . . neither diligence in learning nor rigorous standards of performance prevail. . . . How do we once again become a nation of learners, in which attitudes towards intellectual pursuit and quality of work have excellence as their core?”

With these words Bell echoes two qualities common to educational reformers since World War II: nostalgia and amnesia. They look back through a haze to some imagined golden era of American education when we were “a nation of learners,” forgetting that a century ago the high school graduation rate was about 3 percent, and it didn’t exceed 50 percent until mid-century, whereas today it is 83 percent (if you include those who receive equivalency diplomas or who drop out but then return for diplomas). They forget, too, that until after World War II it was assumed that no more than 20 percent of American youth could handle a college curriculum at all; now 62 percent of all high school graduates enroll in college the following fall.

Yet our schools have been assailed decade after decade—in the 1950s for letting America fall behind in the space and weapons races; in the 1960s for not bringing about integration fast enough; and in the 1980s for letting the country down in the global marketplace—as well as coming under fire from national leaders who have had a strong ideological interest in changing the system.

Not that politicians have been the only tough critics of the schools. Many educators have also attacked their performance with an intensity not directed at any other institution in public affairs. Consider these three comments: “The achievement of U.S. students in grades K-12 is very poor”; “American students are performing at much lower levels than students in other industrialized nations”; and “International examinations designed to compare students from all over the world usually show American students at or near the bottom.” These are powerful indictments. As it happens, none of them are true. Yet they are the opening sentences from three consecutive 1993 weekly columns in The New York Times by the late Albert Shanker, president of the nine-hundred-thousand-member American Federation of Teachers.


While Shanker might have been more abrasive than most, many within the field of education have shown minimal support for public schools. It is impossible to imagine a Secretary of Defense lambasting the Navy or a Secretary of Commerce chastising American industry for its shortcomings the way Secretaries of Education have demeaned the performance of American public schools. How and why did people in the field arrive at such a view?

The story begins in 1893 with the Committee of Ten on Secondary School Studies, better known simply as the Committee of Ten, which comprised five college presidents and other public school officials. The Committee of Ten was the first in a long line of blue-ribbon commissions set up to examine American education. When it began its work, there was little enough to examine, and indeed its main goal was just to bring some coherence to a system that had hardly any organization or clarity of purpose.

A 1932 study noted that secondary education “did not have a clear purpose . . . did not prepare students adequately” and “seldom challenged tne student.”

In 1890 we were a nation of 63,056,000, but only 203,000 of some 3,000,000 age-eligible children attended secondary school. This was certainly no nation of learners. In fact the committee’s report makes it hard to imagine what the few children enrolled in schools did all day. “As things are now,” it states, “the high school teacher finds in the pupils fresh from the grammar schools no foundation of elementary mathematical conceptions outside of arithmetic. . . . When college professors endeavor to teach chemistry, physics, botany, zoology, meteorology, or geology to persons of eighteen or twenty years of age, they discover that in most instances new habits of observing, reflecting, and recording have to be painfully acquired—habits which they should have acquired in early childhood. The college teacher of history finds in like manner that his subject has never taken any serious hold . . .”

Why were the children’s heads so empty? The educator Ralph Tyler, one of the most prolific writers and innovators the field has known—he directed the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University for a number of years—looked back in 1974, when he was seventy-two, at what schools had been like in his youth: “What I remember . . . are the strictness of discipline, the catechismic type of recitation, the dullness of the textbooks, and the complete absence of any obvious connection between our classwork and the activities we carried on outside of school. . . . The view held by most teachers and parents was that . . . [the school’s] tasks should be sufficiently distasteful to the pupils to require strong discipline to undertake them and carry them through.” One might wonder how any scholars at all emerged from such an environment.

After the Committee of Ten’s 1893 report, secondary education expanded rapidly, but it remained in disarray as educators debated what the curriculum should look like. The School Review , the principal journal of secondary education at the time, was filled with titles cast as questions: “What Should the Modern Secondary School Aim to Accomplish?"; “What Studies Should Predominate in Secondary School?”

As educators attempted to find answers, they didn’t even consider an issue that dominates current discussions: the ultimate goal of secondary education and its connection to career. Few students graduated from high school then, and far fewer went on to college, yet the secondary curriculum’s main aim was to provide courses acceptable to institutions of higher education. The Committee of Ten backed a high school curriculum aimed solely at preparing students for college.

To make matters worse, pedagogy at the time was dominated by “faculty psychology,” which contended that the mind consisted of “faculties.” Like muscles, faculties grew and were strengthened with exercise. The principal way they got their exercise was through the study of mathematics, Greek, and Latin. No one, of course, had developed any way to measure these faculties or determine how well the schools nourished them.

Furthermore, there was no thought at the time of any vocational role for schools. They had been recognized as ladders up the scale of individual economic well-being, but no one seems to have thought of them as important to the broader well-being of the nation. Too few people attended them for that.

Between 1910 and 1945 secondary schools expanded rapidly, the graduation rate rising from 10 percent to 45 percent. Their growth did not, however, mean any greater coherence. In 1932 the Progressive Education Association noted that secondary education “did not have a clear purpose . . . it did not prepare students adequately for the responsibilities of community life. . . . The high school seldom challenged the student of first-rate ability, . . .” and “the relation of school and college was unsatisfactory to both institutions.”

Criticism of the schools was always abundant during this period, but nobody was yet saying that they had gotten worse; more than anything else, people complained about inefficiency. Around 1912 Frederick Winslow Taylor had appeared on the national scene advocating what he called “scientific management,” and his ideas had become immensely popular. In the schools scientific management had little to do with learning; it was about saving money. In Education and the Cult of Efficiency , Raymond Callahan refers to this period as “The Descent into Trivia.” It produced books like Economy in Education , in which the U.S. Commissioner of Education, William J. Cooper, noted that one superintendent in Kansas had reported that through co-operative buying, “he was able to save over 40% on paper fasteners. ... If one makes ink from ink powder, he will usually have an article which is good enough for school work.” And so on.

The few studies that actually looked at academic results found them wanting, but their authors did not seem inclined to blame the schools. In 1943 The New York Times , with the help of the history department of Columbia University, investigated students’ knowledge of American history and geography. It found the results appalling: “A large majority of the students showed that they had virtually no knowledge of elementary aspects of American history. They could not identify such names as Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson or Theodore Roosevelt. . . . Most of our students do not have the faintest notion of what this country looks like. . . . Hundreds of students listed Walt Whitman as being an orchestra leader.”

The Times didn’t see the implication of what surely was the most damning aspect of its findings: The study had been conducted on college freshmen. At the time, about 45 percent of students graduated from high school, and about 15 percent of those graduates went on to college. Thus the survey had uncovered not just ignoramuses but an elite of ignoramuses.

The Times put the story on page one, next to its major headline of the day, PATTON ATTACKS EAST OF EL GUETTAR . It described the study as an effort to learn how much material absorbed in secondary school was retained in college, apparently assuming that the students had once known the material and simply forgotten it.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

In 1993 former Secretary of Education William Bennett released numbers purporting to show that there is no relationship between states’ SAT scores and the money those states spend on education. This report was widely disseminated by the Heritage Foundation, and the table summarizing its results was reproduced in The Wall Street Journal . Yet people have known for years that the principal source of differences among states lies in the proportion of seniors taking the SAT. In Utah and Mississippi only 4 percent of the seniors take the test, and this tiny elite does well. In Connecticut, which spends far more per pupil on education, 81 percent of the senior class huddles in angst on Saturday mornings to fill in the answer sheets. With the vast majority of its seniors taking the test, Connecticut is digging much deeper into its talent pool, and that excavation shows up in lower scores.

Today most educational statistics continue to show what Charles Silberman found twenty-five years ago: Now is better than then.

Whether elements of free-market competition would improve schools is not a question for this article, but it seems clear that those who support the notion have sometimes been overzealous in their search for evidence that the current system does not work. The resulting stream of negativity has created a climate in which the media accentuate the negative, sometimes inaccurately. For instance, in 1993 the usually reliable Education Week conducted a ten-year retrospective on what had happened since A Nation at Risk appeared. The answer, essentially, was not much: The “proportion of American youngsters performing at high levels remains infinitesimally small. In the past ten years for instance the number and proportion of students scoring at or above 650 on the verbal or math section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test has actually declined.” But the numbers that confirmed the fall were for scores between 650 and 800 in 1982 but only for scores between 650 and 690 in 1992. When the higher scores were added in for the later year, they showed clearly that, in fact, more students were doing well than ever.

In the three years since, the proportion of high scorers has continued to rise. Denis Doyle, a Heritage Foundation visiting fellow, voiced a popular belief in Issues ’96: The Candidate’s Briefing Book, 1996 , when he ascribed the rise in scores to Asian-American students. It is true that Asian-American students score much higher on the math SAT than do other ethnic groups, but they cannot account for most of the growth. In fact, there has been a 74 percent rise in the proportion of students scoring above 650 since 1981. Omit Asian students, and you still see a 57 percent increase.

Today most statistics continue to show what Silberman found twenty-five years ago: Now is better than then. Achievement-test scores are at record levels, and the number of students taking advanced-placement exams continues to rise even though the number of students has declined since the peak of the baby boom. Seven of the nine trends in reading, mathematics, and science tracked by the National Assessment of Educational Progress are at all-time highs. Factor out demographic changes in who takes the SAT, and there remains a small decline in verbal scores and none at all in math. And as noted earlier, the proportion of students scoring above 650 on the SATs is at an all-time high, and U.S. students are near the top in reading. The Third International Mathematics and Science Study of 1997, the largest and most sophisticated of the international studies in mathematics and science—our allegedly weakest areas—has found that among forty-one nations, American students are average to above average. Students in suburban schools measured alone ranked anywhere from first to fifth among nations, depending on age and subject.


The biggest threat to the American educational system may come not from within our schools but from the depth of our divisions over what exactly they should accomplish and how best to get them to accomplish it. And our divisions will not be healed as long as we ignore the history of the accomplishments that have already been made. We should begin improving our schools by appreciating how well they have, in most places and at most times, done so far.

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