Does the Topic of Education Reform Make You Weary? America Was at Risk in 1959 and America Is at Risk in 2012: Same Problems with Same Unwanted Solutions

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My kids love to visit my parents’ house in Connecticut, not only because of all the books and curiosities in the main living space, but also because the house actually has a basement, and it’s crammed from floor to ceiling with stuff. (Basements aren’t common in the major metropolitan areas of California, so a basement is a novel concept to them.)

Knowing that one day a major hurricane will flood that basement and ruin everything, I take time during every visit to go through some of the thousands of books stacked and shelved everywhere and salvage some to mail to California. One of the books included in the last shipment was a 1962 paperback revised version of The Big Red Schoolhouse, written by Fred M. Hechinger (education editor of the New York Times from 1959 to 1990) and originally published in 1959.

The book’s title of The Big Red Schoolhouse plays on the American idyllic image of the little red schoolhouse, which is about to be crushed by the centralized, nationalized, state-serving education system of the Soviet Union. I had never heard of this 50 year-old book, but I figured it would be an enlightening and interesting time capsule about American education policy at the end of the 1950s, after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite into orbit. This Cold War artifact did not disappoint me.

The introduction leads off with this statement: “When the history of twentieth-century America eventually is written it will be recorded that the date of October 5, 1957, was a turning point in American education. Sputnik didn’t do it alone – the times were ripe for change.”

Well, perhaps that date will continue to get a brief mention in the history books, although its significance will continue to fade as an entire generation of Americans enters adulthood either confused or blissfully ignorant about why Americans regarded the Soviet Union as an international threat for 70 years.

I would include Sputnik as just one incident in a list (off the top of my head) that also includes these developments affecting educational policy:

  • Enactment of the original G.I. Bill of Rights in 1944 and subsequent amendments, resulting in college becoming a more mainstream pursuit for the middle class.
  • Various events related to school desegregation – perhaps, in retrospect, the most important turning points in 20th Century American education.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court decision (Engel v. Vitale) in 1962 striking down government-sanctioned prayer in public schools, which some Americans believe was the incident that started a long slide of public schools to disorderly chaos and chronic disrespect for authority.
  • Development of more meritocratic admission policies for the nation’s elite colleges, including opening admission to women and recruiting a more diverse body of students.
  • The establishment of collective bargaining rights for teachers and the transformation of professional teachers’ associations into labor unions. (See a PowerPoint of the Association of California School Administrators on “A Brief History and Overview of Collective Bargaining in California Public Schools” here.)
  • The emergence of marginal societal dysfunctions as mainstream behavior among students (i.e. sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll). (Peak year for using marijuana at least once: 1979, at 60.4%; the percentage has been 40-45% for the past several years – see here.)  
  • Passage of Title IX in 1972, forcing schools to reallocate resources and fill a growing demand among girls and women for official sports teams and other extracurricular sports activities. (See the National Women’s Law Center web site on Title IX here; also, 57% of college students are women, according to the U.S. Census Bureau – see here.)
  • Establishment of the U.S. Department of Education in 1979, as a result laying a foundation for what could one day evolve into a nationalized education system.
  • 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk and the resulting movement at the federal government (for example, through Goals 2000, enacted in 1994) and in the states toward more student testing and curriculum standards. (See the U.S. Department of Education’s A Nation Accountable: Twenty-Five Years After A Nation at Risk here.) 
  • A rush of non-English speaking immigrants into the school systems of many states following the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.
  • A movement for inclusion of students with learning disabilities or special needs in the regular classroom.
  • A push for various degrees of school privatization, including vouchers, charter schools, Channel One, Edison Schools, for-profit post-secondary education, and web-based schools.
  • Enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, continuing a quiet but inexorable trend of the federal government using financial incentives as leverage to arrogate authority in education policy from state and local governments.
  • Stable middle class families with traditional conservative values – long the backbone of American public education at the community level – increasingly choosing to circumvent the public school system altogether through homeschooling.

We know now that the ruckus after the launch of Sputnik really wasn’t much of a turning point at all – the basic structure of American education remains the same 55 years later. There has been some minor tweaking of curriculum standards and some devolution of power from local school districts to state governments and the federal government, but the situation described in The Big Red Schoolhouse generally remains the same: “Our schools have been, in large part, molded by public demand in each individual community.”

Claims Made in The Big Red Schoolhouse about American Education 1959 (and 1962)

Nothing is new under the sun, and some things never change. Here’s the status of American education as seen in 1959 and again in 1962:

  1. In a free society such as America, forces and counterbalancing forces are at work in the political arena and prevent rapid changes to curriculum or other educational policies. American public education is a fusion of the priorities of many societal interests – some in complete opposition – along with various European and home-grown educational philosophies and theories of social science.
  2. One trend remains constant in American education: the resolute aim to make education universal through high school. Generally, the system tried to be comprehensive in serving the needs of all children, regardless of backgrounds or aspirations. Americans are leery of an educational system that would create a privileged class of the educated elite.
  3. The ability of the American educational system to take a diverse people of immigrants and transform them into a common American citizenry is an unprecedented wonder of history. It is in direct contrast with the ideologies of other nations and civilizations.
  4. The launch of Sputnik has convinced influential Americans and the education establishment that the country must make some dramatic changes in American schools, or else continued complacency will lead to the ultimate triumph of Communism in the “gigantic struggle between two civilizations.” Maintaining the status quo while monitoring textbooks for signs of subtle Communist infiltration will not be sufficient to ward off the Communist threat.
  5. It is difficult to assess the quality of American schools because of the diversity and decentralization of the system, with its local controls and uneven standards. No one in the United States has the authority to officially pronounce a system “correct” or “incorrect” (although many try to do so).
  6. Americans live in a prosperous country in which someone does not need to be an intellectual or do well in school as a prerequisite to live a life of ease, comfort, and entertainment. There is not a sense of urgency about intellectual preparation.
  7. Americans value their educational system more for the symbols (such as grades, diplomas, and degrees) and the “sideshows” (such as marching bands and sports) more than the nature and content of the education itself. Americans also see the educational system as a program for children to learn how to get along with other people and groups, develop new tastes, and become curious for further exploration and learning. Most Americans do not want children to be pushed too hard to learn things in school, and they want the schools to extend the concept of childhood to some extent even into high school (rather than schools treating students as miniature adults). The only societal inducement for an American student to work hard is to win admission to one of the top, selective colleges.
  8. The lack of value Americans place on quality education is shown by the low salaries of teachers. Comparing the United States to the Soviet Union, he writes “It is one of the great ironies of this century that a police state rather than a democracy thinks more highly of its teachers than of its policemen.” The prospective teacher soon learns that the salary he will earn depends not on how well he teaches, but only on how long he has taught. The teaching profession does not attract smart people. “The popular esteem for teachers will show little improvement until better salaries attract into the teaching ranks a higher caliber of intelligence.” American teachers are trained in how to teach, not on what to teach. Many teachers know the methods but don’t know the subjects.
  9. The United States is “struggling to maintain” a teacher-student ratio of one to twenty-six.
  10. The American educational system relies heavily on tests to determine the child’s current knowledge and natural aptitude for learning, and then builds the system around the child’s needs.
  11. Many colleges need to provide remedial English classes to their freshmen because the high schools have failed to provide fundamental instruction such as the essentials of grammar or good writing. Only 7% of high school students study Latin, Greek has practically disappeared, less than 1% of high school students take an ancient history class, and the classics, for all intents and purposes, are no longer taught at all. The United States permits generations to grow up in a historical vacuum. Only 16% of high school students study a foreign language, and many of that small group studied that language for only two years. Ironically, the Soviet Union rejects Western tradition, but requires its students to study it (within a critical Marxist-Leninist context, of course).

Proposed Solutions in The Big Red Schoolhouse to America’s Education Problems 1959 (and 1962)

  1. Establish some national standards through appointed board of experts so the United States can survive in technological competition with the Soviet Union. Local control is often a weakness in the system.
  2. Require students to take more classes in English, math, sciences, history, and foreign languages. Reduce the opportunity for students to choose a potpourri of unrelated, uncoordinated electives.
  3. Listen to committees of scholars and experts in their fields who are convening to discuss and propose changes to the school curriculum.
  4. Make better use of technology by creating listening and viewing rooms for students to use records, films, and kinescopes. (It’s OK to snicker about this – I think they used slide rules at that time too.)
  5. Attract leading experts from the community to interact with students for consultation, discussion, advice, and criticism.
  6. Start challenging students with an intellectually rigorous curriculum at a younger age.
  7. Put more money in the system, especially for teacher salaries.
  8. Teachers need to be better educated about the actual subjects they teach.
  9. Allow for student failure by ending automatic promotion to the next grade and withholding diplomas. Don’t be dominated by the idea that the stigma of failure is so psychologically damaging that it requires the absence of incentives to work for success.
  10. Stop assuming that a few American geniuses will perpetually allow the rest of America to enjoy a leisurely, uncompetitive learning environment and still maintain a comfortable life.
  11. Preaching to students about the rewards of hard work in school is futile, because Americans know they can have a comfortable life without working too hard in school. It’s not hard for an American to get a job or get into a college even if he doesn’t work hard in school.

Sound familiar? Remember, this book was written in 1959 (revised in 1962).

Next time you hear a politician talk about his or her amazing, cutting-edge, common-sense ideas to reform public education from within the system, go back to this list and understand that it’s just the same old problems with the same old solutions.

American education reflects American values, and as long as the nation is relatively prosperous and relatively free, we will rely on motivated immigrants and a small group of home-grown intellectuals to launch our own future Sputniks. We don’t even have the ideological threat of the Soviet Union or the economic threat of Japan to fear anymore. The People’s Republic of China is the foreign motivator of the moment for educational reform, but fundamental rights there are still limited and controlled, and I’ll guess that a new country will emerge as “the threat” in my lifetime.

Also, what happened to the kinescopes?

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