As a retired educator, it pains me to say that the same metaphor applies to our current educational system. In recent decades, American public education has had three wheels securely in place, with the fourth seeming to creak and wobble more with each passing year. That wheel has now fallen off.
The three wheels that are still in place are educators, parents, and communities. When all three are performing as they should, they get the job done, but it’s clear that they could do so much more if the fourth wheel were functioning positively.
That fourth wheel is our public discourse about education and the laws and policies that result from it. This wheel did not fall off suddenly. In fact, evidence of its dysfunction has been visible for over a half century and is now plainly obvious.
When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, politicians, pundits, and journalists were quick to blame our educational system for America’s failure to be first into space. In a widely read Life magazine series comparing the school experiences of a Russian teenager with his American counterpart, the author Sloan Wilson went so far as to predict that the difference in American and Soviet schools would result in us losing not just the space race, but ultimately the Cold War.
Of course, we now know that America easily won the space race once we made a commitment to landing on the moon. And although Sputnik did spur additional investments in American education, the young people who benefitted from those educational reforms were clearly too young to contribute to NASA’s successes in the 1960s.
The one sure effect of America’s response to Sputnik was the birth of the popular notion of a crisis in education. In the years since, education’s critics have cherry picked, distorted and invented evidence to convince the public that our educational system has been in a state of steady, precipitous and irreversible decline, even when test scores and other measures of educational quality have been improving.
In the 1960s the rhetoric of educational crisis intensified when scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT) dropped. The decline was predictable, given that the number of test takers exploded during this period, including many from the lower rankings of their high school classes. This happened for two fairly obvious reasons. One, Baby Boomers came of age as the first generation with an expectation that college was within the reach of all social classes and racial groups. Two, a lot of young men who did not prepare for college during their high school years decided at the last minute that higher education was preferable to fighting in Vietnam.
SAT scores have steadily improved since that time, and the average combined verbal and math score in 2017 was the highest in over 45 years. Nonetheless, you’ll still find a lot of otherwise well-informed citizens who think that performance on the SAT has continued to lag. Looking back, that misconception is not surprising. As was true with America’s response to Sputnik, the idea of a crisis in education was seared into our collective consciousness with the SAT score decline of the 1960s.
The Reagan administration’s publication in 1983 of “A Nation at Risk” took alarmist, exaggerated political rhetoric about education to a disturbing level. The first page contained the famous line, “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”
The authors even blamed the sluggish economy of the early 1980s on public education. Of course, we were then one year away from a presidential election, and the unemployment rate was over 10 percent. Somebody had to take the blame.
“A Nation at Risk” contained little data to support the assertion that our schools were tanking, probably because there wasn’t much. Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress were generally improving or holding steady, but there had been a recent drop in scores in 11th grade science, so the authors built a flimsy case for educational crisis on that basis.
“A Nation at Risk” resounded across America and irrevocably changed public education. State legislators and governors enacted a rash of bipartisan, test-driven accountability reforms beginning in 1984, and the emphasis on test score improvement has continued unabated ever since.
In 1990, the George H.W. Bush administration contracted with Sandia Laboratories to conduct a comprehensive assessment of educational data, apparently hoping the results would be negative and would enable President Bush to run for re-election as an educational reformer. When the Sandia Report produced the conclusion that America’s schools were improving, it was squashed. David Kearns, the deputy secretary of education, was so livid he reportedly told the Sandia researchers, “You bury this or I’ll bury you.”
If Americans had known that our schools were performing relatively well according to most measures, maybe they would have rejected No Child Left Behind, a 2002 federal law that basically nationalized earlier state reforms and put them on steroids. The major purpose of NCLB was to bridge the achievement gap between the races, a difference in performance that George W. Bush and other advocates of NCLB attributed to teachers’ “soft bigotry of low expectations.” That characterization of educators was false, as was the promise of NCLB that getting tough with teachers was all that was necessary to solve the persistent racial gap in academic achievement.
The Obama administration’s implementation of Race to the Top did nothing to change education’s overemphasis on test score improvement. In fact, it increased the use of test scores in teacher evaluations and promoted charter schools, proving if nothing else, that there’s never been much difference between Republican and Democratic policies on education — that is, until now.
President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are pushing hard to dismantle public education in favor of charter schools and privatization, and even more so than their political predecessors, they aren’t letting facts get in their way. The overall performance of charters and vouchers has not matched that of public schools, but Trump and DeVos have relentlessly promoted the myth that public education is floundering and that vouchers and charters are a glowing alternative.
That is why I believe that American education is now like a three-wheeled lawn mower. The threat of Trump and DeVos’s educational policies is sobering enough. To make things worse, today’s Republican Party is marching in lockstep behind Trump (even when they ought to know better), while Democratic leaders have been all but silent in responding to this existential threat to our educational system.
Critics of American education often point to international assessments and effectively ask, “Why can’t we be like Finland or Singapore (or whatever country has scored the highest)?” Here’s a better question: “Is there another country anywhere that politicizes education as much as the United States?” I’m guessing no, and we need to change that.
Dr. Bill Smith of Johnson City is a retired educator.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed by all Community Voices columnists are their own and do not necessary reflect the official positions of the Johnson City Press.