How the School System is Rigged for Failure

There has hardly been a time during the last 150 years when Americans were not being told that the schools were at a “turning point,” “confronted with a crucial challenge,” “entering an era of new importance.” At the same time, they have forever been at the edge of failure. Indeed, one major enterprise of educators in every generation has been to analyze that failure and propose new remedies. In the 1840s, industrialization, urbanization, and immigration produced conflict and dislocation in most cities of the North. Educational innovators envisioned public high schools as the means for unifying and civilizing communities, as well as promoting economic growth and social mobility. According to Joseph White, fourth secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education during this period, in the high schools,

The children of the rich and poor, of the honored and the unknown, meet together on common ground. Their pursuits, their aims and aspirations are one. No distinctions find place, but such as talent and industry and good conduct create. In the competitions, the defeats, and the successes of the schoolroom, they meet each other as they are to meet in the broader fields of life before them; they are taught to distinguish between the essential and true, and the fractious and false, in character and condition…. Thus a vast and mutual benefit is the result. Thus, and only thus, can the rising generation be best prepared for the duties and responsibilities of citizenship in a free commonwealth. No foundation will be laid in our social life for the brazen walls of caste; and our political life, which is but the outgrowth of the social, will pulsate in harmony with it, and so be kept true to the grand ideals of the fathers and founders of the republic.1

The aspirations of mid-nineteenth-century America are thus to be fulfilled in the schoolroom.

Similarly, Sputnik launched the demand, in the 1950s, for a new highschool curriculum to save the national honor and restore military superiority. Vice-Admiral Hyman Rickover and President James Bryant Conant of Harvard proposed more rigorous mathematics and science courses, better preparation of teachers, and special attention to the “gifted.” Schools all over the country adopted the slogan “Quality Education.”

During the 1960s, the focus of agitation shifted to the “disadvantaged” student, and the byword became “equality of educational opportunity.” No major school system is now without some special project for the children of the poor. Nor has there been any shortage of federally sponsored programs: Head Start, Follow-through, Upward Bound, NDEA Institutes, Model Cities colloquia, Titles I-IV. During the single fiscal year ending June, 1967, the federal government alone provided over one billion dollars, supposedly for educating poor children, under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Another $100 million was authorized under Title III for experimental and model programs, many of which could be directed to the problems of the “disadvantaged.” Private foundations have invested very heavily in “educational innovation.” And during the last year or…

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