“Intellectually and morally,America’s educational system is failing far too many people.”
—Signatories of “A Nation Still at Risk,” 1998
In 1983, the U.S. Department of Education released a report, A Nation at Risk, that proclaimed that the quality of public education had deteriorated since the 1950s. The average SAT scores of college-bound seniors had fallen sixteen points, students were scoring much lower on standardized tests than their counterparts in other industrialized nations, and the dropout rate had risen. Fifteen years later, in April 1998, a group of educators, policymakers, and business leaders representing various points on the political spectrum gathered at a conference sponsored by the Heritage Foundation and several other organizations to discuss what had happened with American education since A Nation at Risk had been printed. Their conclusions were announced in an education reform manifesto entitled “A Nation Still at Risk,” published in the July/August 1998 issue of the conservative journal Policy Review.
According to “A Nation Still at Risk,” the quality of U.S. public education remains poor. Moreover, Americans have become complacent about educational issues because the nation’s economy has been flourishing. But recent data indicate that American students are often woefully unprepared for college and for the workforce. The results of the Third International Math and Science Study, for example, show U.S. twelfth-graders placing ninteenth out of twenty-one industrialized nations in math and sixteenth out of twenty-one in science. Since 1983, more than 10 million students have reached their senior year with no basic reading skills, and 20 million have been promoted to the twelfth grade without having learned math fundamentals. During this same period, more than 6 million students dropped out of school—a number that includes from 10 to 20 percent of school-age African Americans and first-generation Hispanics. Although some educational gains have occurred since 1983—such as a rise in college attendance and an increasing willingness among high school students to take more challenging classes— academic achievement continues to lag. “The risk posed to tomorrow’s well-being by the sea of educational mediocrity that still engulfs us is acute,” contend the writers of the 1998 education report. “Large numbers of students remain at risk.”
Parents, educators, and policymakers have responded in myriad ways to these dire reports on the state of American education. Many have pushed for reforms—such as the use of state-funded tuition vouchers and the development of charter schools—that would allow parents to choose which school their children attend. Such reforms would enable poor parents to use state funds to send their children to high-quality private schools and allow nongovernmental groups to use public money to operate their own schools. Some education scholars, however, have charged that the “education crisis” is largely a myth concocted by conservatives. According to David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle, authors of The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools, conservative critics of public schools have used distorted data on student achievement with the intent of winning approval and taxpayer support for private schools. These misguided schemes for education reform could drain needed funds away from public institutions and “seriously damage American schools,” contend Berliner and Biddle.
Whether or not they agree that American education has reached a crisis state, most educators believe that the public school system needs improvement. One reform measure that has received wide support among conservatives and liberals is the push for national academic standards. Currently, because public schools are administered at the state and local levels, academic standards vary widely from region to region. National standards, however, would clearly identify what concepts and skills all U.S. students should master at certain grade levels. The signatories of “A Nation Still at Risk” maintain that “America needs solid national academic standards and . . . standards-based assessments, shielded from government control, and independent of partisan politics, interest groups, and fads.” These standards would give educators distinct guidelines in tracking student progress and in deciding on curricula and teaching techniques. Proponents contend that national standards would, in the end, increase academic achievement and ensure that all U.S. students receive roughly the same education.
Critics of national standards, on the other hand, fear that their implementation could lead to increased governmental intrusion in local school board decisions. Despite policymakers’ assurances to the contrary, these critics argue that national standards will create politically motivated controversies over what kind of information should be taught in schools. Conservative groups such as the Christian Coalition, for example, contend that national standards could eventually impose an overly liberal and secular curriculum on those who hold traditional Christian beliefs. They support local control of academic standards, arguing that local communities know best what kind of knowledge their students should learn. Conservative commentator Phyllis Schlafly agrees, adding that standards-based national testing would further undermine public education: “The new mission of the public schools would be to coach children on how to pass the test. In the end, all children will get a passing score (so as not to damage their self-esteem) and none will be permitted to excel.”
Some liberals, too, oppose national standards.They often contend that such standards would prove to be frustrating for lowincome school districts that cannot afford to hire better teachers, revise curricula, or renovate crumbling classrooms. Marian Wright Edelman, head of the Children’s Defense Fund, maintains that it is wrong to “hold all children to the same standards without providing all children with equal [educational] resources.” In fact, Edelman and others argue, setting higher academic standards for students in poor districts will damage morale and raise dropout rates when these students fail to meet these standards. Policymakers must first address the problem of educational funding inequities before setting tough national standards, these critics assert.
This broad range of concerns and suggestions for education reform reveals that there is no quick solution to the nation’s educational problems. Education: Opposing Viewpoints examines the state of public schools and explores how education can be improved for the current and future generations of America’s youth. The authors debate some of the most discussed issues in education: What Is the State of Public Education? Should Parents Be Allowed to Choose Their Children’s Schools? Are Multicultural Approaches Good for Education? What Role Should Religious and Moral Values Play in Public Education? How Could Public Education Be Improved? The viewpoints presented in this volume will give readers insight into the complexity of the national debates on education and education reform.