Chapter 1 Preface
According to a 1996 poll conducted by the Washington Post, 62 percent of Americans believe that the quality of the U.S. educational system has declined and that public schools “will get worse instead of better.” Falling test scores, startling gaps in general knowledge among high school students, and an increasing need for remedial coursework in English and math are evidence of this educational decline, critics contend. Between the mid- 1960s and the mid-1990s, for example, the average Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) score dropped fifty-five points on the verbal section and twenty-three points on the math section. According to another standardized test conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, half of all seventeen-yearolds cannot calculate the area of a rectangle, and only 20 percent are able to write a one-paragraph letter to apply for a supermarket job. Education critics blame a variety of factors—including family decline, lowered academic standards, poorly trained teachers, and school mismanagement—for this apparent deterioration of American education.
Some observers, however, argue that such claims of a publiceducation crisis are exaggerated. They point out that the drop in the average SAT score is not an accurate indicator of student progress because school populations have changed since the mid-1960s, when most students who took the test were wealthy and educationally privileged. “When America democratized...
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The Quality of Public Education has Declined
Celebration, Florida . . . is a town being developed near Orlando by the Walt Disney Company. Because it has been carefully conceived to be a livable and practical community, with vast resources and talent being poured into it, the town promises to exert great influence over the design of future communities around the United States.
At its heart, Celebration is based on the idea that American communities prior to World War II were more livable than most modern suburbs or cities, and that new communities ought therefore be designed much more like those traditional towns. But one important community institution in Celebration is being built along lines that are anything but traditional. And that is the community school. . . .
The Celebration school will feature “the latest in educational thinking”: No grades (too competitive, not “meaningful”). No set grade levels (students of various ages and skills will be mixed in “neighborhoods”). Few desks (they discourage cooperation and impose hierarchy). And so forth.
Unstructured “open school” reforms of these sorts are very trendy right now. The director of a federally funded education laboratory told a national “education summit” a few years ago that “we are no longer teaching facts to children,” because “none of us can guess what information they will need in the future.”
American Enterprise contributing editor Phil...
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The Quality of Public Education has Not Declined
It seems that every generation condemns the schools its children attend. Many of today’s school critics are nostalgic for a past that certainly was not nearly as nice as they remember it. In 1959, an “education crisis” was declared by Adm. Hyman Rickover, who insisted that America’s schools were failures, and that unless things changed radically, it was inevitable that the United States would lose in economic and military competition with the better-educated Russians. Reader’s Digest and other popular magazines of the fifties reported that students could not identify major cities in the United States, write literate essays or solve simple math problems. America was said to be pursuing affective goals, not paying attention to basic academics, failing to set common educational standards and, even worse, ignoring religion in the schools.
If these criticisms from 40 to 50 years ago sound familiar, it’s because the same ones are trotted out every few years by an older generation unhappy with its youth. After all, criticism of our public schools is as American as apple pie and has been going on since they were founded. Playwright Jane Wagner had it right when she observed that humans developed language because of their deep inner need to complain! Today, however, complaints about the public schools are so widespread that most Americans are beginning to believe the schools actually have failed.That is not so. Let us look at the facts....
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Poor Commitment to Academic Achievement Hampers Public Education
President Bill Clinton’s proposal in June 1996 to widen access to postsecondary education by granting tax credits to help finance the first two years of college may be good politics in an election year. But if we don’t do something to improve the quality of the students who will be entering our nation’s colleges and universities, the plan will be disastrous policy. The last thing this country needs is a rising tide of mediocre students riding the educational people-mover for 14 rather than 12 years.
What we need instead is an open and candid discussion of why our high school graduates are entering college so illprepared for higher education.
AN UNMITIGATED FAILURE
By any credible measure, the past two decades of tinkering with America’s schools have been an unmitigated failure. Although there are occasional success stories about a school here or a district there that has turned students’ performance around, the competence of American students overall has not improved in 25 years. The proportions of high school juniors scoring in the top categories on the math, science, reading and writing portions of national achievement tests have not changed in any meaningful way in two decades. Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) scores have not risen since the early 1980s, and they even dropped somewhat in recent years; today they remain lower than they were in the early 1970s. A recent study of the California State University system...
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Low Expectations Hamper Public Education
Self-proclaimed education experts blame low student performance on everything except themselves. They often cite the lack of funds and parental involvement, or social factors, for the decline in American public education.
ALTERNATIVES FOR HOMEWORK?
I teach at a public middle school that is predominantly black in inner-city Houston, Texas. Recently, I suggested to our school’s dean of instruction that we require our seventh grade students to turn in all homework typed. Even though many of our students do not have typewriters or computers at home, we could make the school’s computers more accessible.
Reluctantly, she agreed. Then she remarked, “You know, many experts do not believe in this.” Confused, I responded, “Students using technology?” “No,” she replied, “homework.”
Apparently, many education “experts” believe homework has more negative than positive effects. For example, these experts contend that homework distracts from quality family time. Also, as my dean of instruction stated, often the parents—not the children—do the homework. Additionally, the dean of instruction blamed low report card grades at our school on homework. Therefore, we either had to find an “alternative,” or stop assigning homework.
My school’s students’ annual scores are well below the state averages in reading and arithmetic. Only half the students read at their grade level and just 30 percent...
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Racial and Financial Inequities Hamper Public Education
Two decades of progress in narrowing the achievement gap has ended. Our report, Education Watch:The 1996 Education Trust State and National Data Book, finds that the gap separating lowincome and minority students from other young Americans is growing once again. The study, which ranks the 50 states and the District of Columbia on 17 indicators of educational quality and equity, paints a disturbing portrait of student achievement— kindergarten through college. The report argues that the current effort to set uniformly high standards for all students, though critical, is by no means enough to close the gap once and for all.
The data presented in our report suggest that our educational system is so riddled with inequities that our schools and colleges actually exacerbate the effects of race and poverty, rather than ameliorate them. Students from low-income families and students of color are far more likely to attend schools with only minimal expectations for student performance, so they have much to gain from the new movement toward high standards for all. But schools attended by low-income students and students of color are also more likely than schools attended by other young Americans to have only meager cash resources, under-prepared teachers and the most watered down curriculum. Thus, an education improvement effort that simply rolls out high standards, without attention to other inequities, will leave most...
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Poorly Trained Teachers Hamper Public Education
The sad story of poor student performance in America’s public schools is so widely known these days that most people greet each new study that confirms it with a kind of numbed disgust.
That was the case in my state of Michigan in September 1996 when the results of proficiency tests in math, reading, writing, and science were reported in the press. Barely one-third of high school seniors were rated proficient in science and writing and fewer than half achieved that basic level in math and reading. “So what else is new?” seemed to be the common response.
POORLY PREPARED TEACHERS
The decline in students’ test scores and of literacy in America are often laid at the doorstep of K-12 public education. Children are clearly being shortchanged, but not by the K-12 system alone. Indirectly but decisively, children are being shortchanged by the system that teaches the teachers who teach the children—higher education.
In September 1996, the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future released an important study. The bottom line: Large numbers of public-school teachers are not qualified to teach the subjects to which they are assigned. Close inspection suggests that the problem is not that too few teachers are graduating with good grades and degrees in education; the problem is what goes on in the courses they take from university departments of education.
Poor student performance and poor...
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Chapter 1 Bibliography
Karl L. Alexander, “Public Schools and the Public Good,” Social Forces, September 1997.
Gerald W. Bracey, “Are U.S. Students Behind?” American Prospect, March/April 1998.
Carol C. Chmelynski, “Segregated Schools in the ’90s,” Education Digest, January 1998.
Lee A. Daniels, “Derailing a System,” Emerge, September 1996. Available from One BET Plaza, 1990 W. Place NE,Washington, DC 20018-1211.
Barbara Lerner, “America’s Schools: Still Failing After All These Years,” National Review, September 15, 1997.
Tamar Lewin “Public Schools Confronting Issue of Racial Preferences,” New York Times, November 29, 1998.
Richard Morin, “Lessons from the Education Professors,” Washington Post National Weekly Edition, November 17, 1997.Available from PO Box 1150, 15th St. NW,Washington, DC 20071.
New York Times, “Education Life” (entire section on education), January 3, 1999.
Policy Review, “A Nation Still at Risk,” July/August 1998.
Virginia I. Postrel, “Test Case: How Relying on ‘The Experts’ Failed Public Education,” Reason, February 1998.
Rosemary C. Salomone, “Common Schools, Uncommon Values: Listening to the Voices of Dissent,” Yale Law & Policy Review, vol. 14, no. 1, 1996.
Svi Shapiro “Public School Reform:The...
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