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…

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