Too Many Choices?

A century ago, fewer than 10 percent of young Americans went to high school and only 2 percent received degrees. Except for the handful who received a “classical education” in Latin and Greek, most students simply learned reading, writing, and arithmetic in the proverbial one-room schoolhouse before going to work in factories or on farms. As immigrants poured in between 1880 and 1920, schools emerged as the institutions that introduced English, transmitted a sense of American history and government, and made possible assimilation into the melting pot. In the 1920s and 1930s, progressive practices—inspired by the writings of the philosopher-educator John Dewey—arose as a counterforce. Progressive schools devoted greater attention to the child’s interests, offered electives, and tilted the curriculum toward social studies. Yet by mid-century, the influence of progressive education—which had rarely infiltrated the American heartland—had waned.

During the last fifty years, two trends have come to dominate precollegiate education in America. The Supreme Court’s 1954 decision that segregated schools are inherently unequal, along with the various civil rights laws enacted in the succeeding decade, led to an official bipartisan consensus to the effect that every American child—regardless of race, ethnicity, or class—deserves a quality education. It is a goal that remains very far from being fulfilled; but for the first time, sanctions are invoked against jurisdictions, schools, and even particular teachers and students who fail to meet academic standards. This promotion of a common ideal—the “centripetal” tendency—suggests that it is the nation’s, perhaps the federal government’s, job to make sure that higher standards are achieved. The Bush administration’s education bill calling for annual “high-stakes” testing in reading and mathematics in the elementary years is the most recent and most blatant example of this tendency.

An opposing “centrifugal” trend has arisen with perhaps even greater sharpness. Millions of Americans believe that public education is inadequate and that they should do more to secure a better education for their own children. America has always had families that gravitated toward independent schools, religious schools, or more idiosyncratic forms of learning. Yet until the 1960s, all but a small proportion of citizens accepted their local schools as adequate, rarely questioning curricula or teaching methods. Following the civil rights movement and general unrest of the 1960s, various “alternative schools” were launched, such as magnet schools designed to encourage integration. By the turn of the century, Americans have witnessed a great many new choices, the best known of which are the hundreds of charter schools that have arisen across the country and the growing number of voucher programs that make it possible for students to enroll in the public and, in some cases, the private schools of their choice.

At present, the struggle between “centripetal” and “centrifugal” trends is becoming more and more intense on the American scene. Yet this struggle may ultimately be refashioned by economic, social, and technological forces that transcend national borders.

For those of a centripetal …

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