School ‘Reform’: A Failing Grade

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Eli Reed/Magnum Photos
Children on the playground of Fairbanks Elementary School, Springfield, Missouri

It is a well-known fact that American education is in crisis. Black and Hispanic children have lower test scores than white and Asian children. The performance of American students on international tests is mediocre.

Less well known are contrary facts. The black–white achievement gap, as a recent report put it, “is as old as the nation itself.” It was cut in half in the 1970s and 1980s, probably by desegregation, increased economic opportunities for black families, federal investment in early childhood education, and reductions in class size.1

Another little-known fact is that American students have never performed well on international tests. When the first such tests were given in the mid-1960s, our students usually scored at or below the median, and sometimes at the bottom of the pack. This mediocre performance is nothing to boast about, but it is not an indicator of future economic decline. Despite our students’ mediocre test scores, the nation’s economy has been robust for most of the past half-century. And the news is not all terrible. On the latest international test, the Program for International Student Assessment, American schools in which fewer than 10 percent of the students were poor outperformed the schools of Finland, Japan, and Korea. Even when as many as 25 percent of the students were poor, American schools performed as well as the top-scoring nations. As the proportion of poor students rises, the scores of US schools drop.2

To put the current “crisis” into perspective, it is well to recall that American education was in crisis a century ago, when urban schools were overcrowded, swamped with students from Eastern and Southern Europe who didn’t speak English. The popular press at that time warned that the nation was being overrun by a human tide from inferior cultures, and the very survival of our nation was supposedly at risk.

Then there was the crisis of the 1950s: influential authors such as Rudolf Flesch and Arthur Bestor bemoaned the sorry state of the schools in the early 1950s, and other critics such as Admiral Hyman Rickover blamed them when the Soviets launched Sputnik into orbit in 1957. Since then, the schools have been in nearly constant crisis. In the 1960s, civil rights leaders condemned the public schools for institutionalized racism. In the 1970s, critics like Charles Silberman discerned a “crisis in the classroom” and flayed the schools for “mindlessness.” In 1983, a national commission convened by US Secretary of Education Terrell Bell declared that “a rising tide of mediocrity” in the public schools put the nation at risk. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush convened the nation’s governors to agree on national goals for education. Since then, political leaders have agreed that what is needed to improve education is greater accountability, based on standardized tests.

A decade ago,…


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