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Dreams of Better Schools

Matt Rainey/Star Ledger/Corbis
Eighth-grade students working out algebra problems at Robert Treat Academy, a charter school in Newark, New Jersey, September 16, 2008


When Mike Rose, who teaches in the Graduate School of Education at UCLA, made some positive remarks about public schools on a call-in radio show a few years ago, one listener phoned in with disbelief: he said he “didn’t know one seventeen-year-old who could make correct change.” Others followed with “assaultive” anger that “did not, in any way, invite engagement, or mutual analysis, or thinking through a problem together.”

In some respects, it has always been so. With the possible exceptions of the postal service and the motor vehicle bureau, few public institutions rival our schools in public dissatisfaction. “We can all agree,” according to the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, “that American public schools are a joke”—and it is not hard to find comparable statements from commentators on the left.

What should one make of such claims? In a study published more than a decade ago by the Century Foundation, Richard Rothstein, who later became an education columnist for The New York Times, rattled off a list of similar lamentations stretching back more than 150 years. As early as 1845, when the nation’s first standardized test was administered to a group of fourteen-year-olds under the direction of Horace Mann, the examiners were shocked by the “absurd answers,…errors in grammar, in punctuation and in spelling.” Writing in 1902, the editors of the New York Sun declared that America’s schools had sunk to the level of “a vaudeville show.” By 1955, a best-selling book, Why Johnny Can’t Read, charged that the failure of the schools was “gradually destroying democracy.”

In 1983, the authors of an influential report commissioned by the US Department of Education, A Nation at Risk, summed things up with a memorable quip:

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.

And in 1998, the year of Rothstein’s report, the National Constitution Center concluded that the war was going badly: barely 40 percent of American teenagers could identify the three branches of government, while nearly 60 percent knew the names of the Three Stooges.1

Measured against our aspirations for public schools, all these expressions of alarm doubtless have some warrant. But measured against the actual schools of the past, how, in fact, are we doing?

Some think this question can be settled by objective measures such as test scores over time. Between the 1940s and the 1980s, combined verbal and math scores on the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) did indeed decline (about 10 percent), which would seem to bolster the view that American schools have deteriorated.2 But today, the SAT is taken annually by roughly two million students of wide-ranging preparation and ability. When it was first administered in its modern form in 1941, it was taken by only around ten thousand students, or less than half of 1 percent of all seventeen-year-olds—a largely self-selected group seeking admission to elite private colleges. And there are other confounding factors, such as the growth of the test-prep industry, which serves the affluent as a sort of school supplement, as well as the growing incidence of allowing students with documented psychological difficulties extra time to complete the test.3 Such developments make it hard to know how well test scores reflect what actually goes on in the schools.

Meanwhile, graduation rates have been rising while reading scores have been falling. But what does this mean? Are today’s high school students less literate than their predecessors, or do the data now include relatively weak students of the sort who would not have shown up in the past because they had left school before the testers got to them?

In short, the more one ponders the statistics, the more murky their meaning becomes. The most reliable data, lucidly presented by Daniel Koretz, a professor of education at Harvard, in his book Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us, do disclose some noteworthy trends. Especially in mathematics, student achievement has lately improved at the elementary school level, but the gains have not been maintained through middle school and high school. Test scores of African-American students in reading as well as in math continue to lag behind those of white students, though the gap has been narrowing. Hispanic students also score lower than non-Hispanic whites, although, as Koretz points out, the meaning of these data is complicated by the fact that “the Hispanic population is constantly refreshed” by new immigrants who, at first, may have difficulty understanding and reading English.4

Yet despite the manifest ambiguities of the data, Americans persist in believing that our schools have fallen from some golden age of excellence—an idea that Rothstein dismissed as a “fable.” It was a well-chosen word, since “fable” is the name we give to a tale whose claims cannot be empirically verified but that may nevertheless contain some admonitory or normative truth.


Ever since its beginnings in antebellum Massachusetts, public education has been regarded as a national imperative, yet running the schools has generally been left to the states. Before the Civil War, when one western state school superintendent observed the “futility of attempting to operate a Free School System, without proper supervisory agents,” supervision was considered a state responsibility, and so it has remained ever since. During the short-lived experiment of Reconstruction, Congress did seek to influence local educational practices through its oversight of the new state constitutions, and through the Freedmen’s Bureau, which set up schools in the South for black Americans who had previously been denied access to education. But it took nearly a century till the US Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), issued its order that all public schools must be integrated. And it was not until the presidency of Lyndon Johnson that the federal government got substantially involved in school reform by directing funds to the states through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), with the goal of improving schools in high-poverty neighborhoods.5

So it is all the more remarkable that it was under George W. Bush, a president full of platitudes about the virtue of local autonomy and the folly of “big government,” that Washington entered the field of public education more aggressively than ever before. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, supported by many liberal Democrats, notably the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, required that states institute standards defining what students must learn grade by grade, test student achievement school by school and district by district, and improve—or, in the absence of improvement, eliminate—schools that fail to meet the standards.

In general, the Obama administration remains committed to such mandates. As part of the “stimulus package,” it has announced plans for dispensing some $4 billion on a competitive basis to states that adopt what Secretary of Education Arne Duncan calls “common, internationally benchmarked K–12 standards.” The new initiative is called “Race to the Top,” and one of its provisions encourages the growth of charter schools that are exempt from many of the regulations governing the hiring, firing, and promotion of teachers, and whose charters are subject to revocation depending on performance as measured chiefly by test results.6

Not so long ago, charter schools were opposed by liberals wary of union-busting and privatization, and were supported by conservatives seeking to inject entrepreneurial energy into a system they regarded as paralyzed by life tenure for teachers and a salary structure based on seniority. Today, charter schools have found a degree of bipartisan support, public approval of them is growing, the teachers’ unions are on the defensive, and in every region of the country—in traditional public schools, charter schools, private schools, and parochial schools—standardized testing has become so pervasive and begins so early that, according to Deborah Meier, founding principal of the well-known Central Park East School in New York City, “five-year-olds worry, not about whether they will make friends, but whether they will be held over because they haven’t yet learned all their letters and phonemes.”7 The notion that ideas about improving schools can be neatly divided between “liberal” and “conservative” seems increasingly incoherent.


Now we have two new books by authors who would seem to come at the problem of education from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Before assuming his current position at UCLA, Mike Rose taught for years a variety of students ranging from kindergarteners to adults enrolled in job-training programs. His tone and instincts affiliate him with the liberal left. He is suspicious of flag-waving patriotism, indignant at corporate greed, dismayed at the growing gap between rich and poor. E.D. Hirsch, an emeritus professor at the University of Virginia, has had a distinguished career as what might be called an anti-theory theorist associated with the traditionalist wing of literary academia. In the 1980s he achieved fame (in some quarters, notoriety) as the author of a best-selling guidebook, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, which conservatives welcomed as a counterattack on the identity politics of “multiculturalism.” Since then, Hirsch has led the “Core Knowledge” movement, a nationwide initiative to establish a curriculum based on the premise that all children should attain shared knowledge of history, fundamental political and philosophical ideas, classic literary texts, and basic scientific concepts.

Both writers feel besieged, but from different directions. For Rose, the enemy is the number-crunchers who want to measure everything by tests and thereby reduce education to a “knowledge-delivery system.” For Hirsch, the problem is the “anti-curriculum” crowd, people he regards as deluded by the romantic idea that children somehow possess innate knowledge that can be released through play or self-paced learning or other forms of what he considers vapid “progressive” education. To Rose, children—especially those whose parents are poorly educated—are ill served by schools that treat them as little learning machines; to Hirsch, they are cheated by schools that treat them as members of preciously distinctive cultural groups whose sense of self would be damaged by a standard curriculum required of all. But the real divergence between these two writers, and the one of most consequence to anyone interested in education, is the difference in their views of what Rose calls “the picture of human cognition.”

Hirsch’s account of early childhood has a determinist flavor. With good reason, he sees the fund of knowledge that children acquire early in life as dictating their prospects in later life, and he thinks we have failed to deal with the plain fact that children from homes where reading takes place and dinner-table talk reaches beyond household events enter school with an immense advantage. “The chief problem in American education,” he writes, “is not diversity of income, race, and ethnicity but diversity of preparation.”

Hirsch looks to schools to counteract this invidious diversity. His book amounts to a restatement of a faith once articulated by Horace Mann as follows:

  1. 1

    Quoted in Mark Bauerlein, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Tarcher/Penguin, 2008), p. 19. For the historical reputation of public schools, see Richard Rothstein, The Way We Were?: The Myths and Realities of America’s Student Achievement (Century Foundation Press, 1998), Chapter 1. Alarm about school quality tends to rise whenever our security or economy appears to face a foreign threat. After the launch of Sputnik in 1957, something close to panic arose over the prospect that the Soviet Union was outdoing us in science. In the 1970s, with the incursion of Toyota and Nissan into the domestic automobile market, Japan’s secret weapon was said to be its deployment of a “competent labor power prepared for company life and receptive to learning more specialized skills at the workplace”—in other words, a better-educated workforce. See Ezra Vogel, quoted in David K. Cohen and Susan L. Moffitt, The Ordeal of Equality: Did Federal Regulation Fix the Schools? (Harvard University Press, 2009), p. 103.

  2. 2

    Verbal scores have continued to drop, but math scores have lately stabilized and climbed back to levels not seen since the 1960s. Moreover, while SAT scores were declining, average IQ scores, which have been shown to improve with schooling, were rising—a trend, Rothstein points out, that could hardly “have been registered if schools were decaying or even stagnant.”

  3. 3

    Diane Ravitch, “Student Achievement in New York City: The NAEP Results,” in NYC Schools Under Bloomberg and Klein: What Parents, Teachers, and Policymakers Need to Know (Lulu Press, 2009), p. 25.

  4. 4

    Daniel Koretz, Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us (Harvard University Press, 2008), pp. 98–103.

  5. 5

    For extended discussion of Title I of EASA, see Cohen and Moffitt, The Ordeal of Equality.

  6. 6

    At a recent meeting with educators and business groups, Secretary Duncan said that the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB), rather than raising standards, has, in some cases, “inadvertently” lowered them by threatening states with the loss of federal funds if they fail to show test-score improvements. Duncan praised NCLB, however, for “exposing achievement gaps, and for requiring that we measure our efforts to improve education by looking at outcomes, rather than inputs.” See Molly Peterson, “No Child Left Behind Law Seen as ‘Toxic,’ Duncan Says,” Bloomberg.com, September 24, 2009.

  7. 7

    Molly Peterson, “Charter Schools Gain Support from 64% of US Adults in Survey,” Bloomberg.com, August 26, 2009. Deborah Meier, “New York City Schools: Then and Now,” in NYC Schools Under Bloomberg and Klein, p. 160.

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