The Schools Flunk Out

A Place Called School: Prospects for the Future

by John I. Goodlad
McGraw-Hill, 396 pp., $18.95

Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School

by Theodore R. Sizer
Houghton Mifflin, 241 pp., $16.95

High School: A Report on Secondary Education in America

by Ernest L. Boyer
Harper and Row, 363 pp., $15.00

High School Achievement: Public, Catholic, and Private Schools Compared

by James S. Coleman and Thomas Hoffer and Sally Kilgore
Basic Books, 289 pp., $20.75

A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform

National Commission on Excellence in Education
US Government Printing Office, 65 pp., $4.50

Action for Excellence

Task Force on Education for Economic Growth
Education Commission of the States, 50 pp., $5.00

Making the Grade Education Policy, background paper by

Task Force on Federal Elementary and Secondary Paul E. Peterson
Twentieth Century Fund, 174 pp., $6.00

Educating Americans for the 21st Century Mathematics, Science and Technology

National Science Board Commission on Precollege Education in
National Science Foundation, two volumes: 124 and 251 pp., available without charge


Having been through the mill ourselves, we all feel entitled to expound on education. So, too, we believe that the schools belong to us, and hence we have the right to set them straight. The past year has been one for sounding alarms, mainly by a number of task forces and commissions, titles taken by committees to suggest vital issues are at stake. The National Commission on Excellence in Education, appointed by Secretary of Education T.H. Bell, set the general tone. Its report, A Nation at Risk, opened with the now familiar warning that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity.” The Education Commission of the States, created to counsel governors, released its report, Action for Excellence, “with an unusual sense of urgency,” because “a real emergency is upon us.” The Twentieth Century Fund followed with Making the Grade, which forecast “disaster” unless we make “a national commitment to excellence in our public schools.” And the National Science Board’s Educating Americans for the 21st Century called for “academic excellence by 1995.” Something must be in the air, when four independent panels choose “excellence” as their common denominator.

All four reports concentrate on public education, from kindergarten through high school. Lay and religious private schools, which currently enroll one-ninth of all pupils, are apparently seen as in good shape. Nor is much concern shown about the colleges, compared with the clamor of a dozen years ago. The call today is for a more rigorous approach to learning, beginning as early as possible. Educating Americans, for example, recommends that first graders spend ninety minutes every day on mathematics and science. The reports also share a singleness of purpose. Nowhere is it avowed that learning may be pursued for its own sake, or that there may be reason to esteem a cultivated mind. A nation facing peril has no time for such asides. Rather, the concentration on “excellence” means that we must upgrade “the design and delivery of education” (Action for Excellence) if we hope to “keep and improve the slim competitive edge we still retain in world markets” (A Nation at Risk).

So the stakes are economic, with our living standards in the balance. (Interestingly, the reports say little about the relation of education to our military capability.) Other nations are outpacing us because they are, yes, smarter. The only way to preserve our position is to enlarge our pool of trained intelligence. These arguments can have a persuasive ring given this country’s decline in so many ways. Even so, there remains the question of whether reorganizing the schools will improve our competitive position. And even if such a connection can be shown, we must ask how far we want to recast our assumptions about the aims of education.

Not surprisingly, the Japanese are held up as a model. Their students attend classes 220 days a year, against 180 for ours. An ordinary high school there devotes three times as many…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.