Education Opinion

Back to the Future Won’t Work for Education

By Donald M. Stewart — June 17, 1987 4 min read

A friend of mine recently returned to his alma mater, where his son is now studying. The boy was taking a philosophy course from the same professor who taught his father 25 years earlier. To my friend’s amazement, his son’s final examination had exactly the same questions as his own a quarter of a century earlier. Intrigued, he went to see the professor and asked him why. “Well,’' the professor responded, “the questions may be the same, but as the years go by, the answers all change.’'

So it is with education these days, thanks, in part, to the public debate and reform effort set in motion by the publication, in 1983, of the report A Nation At Risk.

In these past four years, between 200 and 300 state-level task forces have been developing reform proposals. While the federal government has largely abdicated any responsibility or active role in the reform movement save for public statements, the Education Commission of the States, a group serving the governors of the 50 states, has catalogued 45 different kinds of reform activities.

Within this complex framework, two directions of reform have been: raising academic standards for students, and more recognition and higher standards for teachers.

But are these the right directions?

Whether or not we are still “at risk’'--and the opinions are as varied as the people offering them--depends on the answer to some other, and more philosophical, questions:

Is the purpose of schools to provide a stimulating, intellectual environment?

Is the purpose of schools to compensate for other social problems or deficits?

Is the purpose of schools to provide a uniform ladder for learning, and let the chips fall where they may?

Is the purpose of schools to find a way in which to maximize the capabilities of each student, regardless of native intelligence or personal background?

Is the purpose of schools to prepare students for jobs?

We also need to ask whether the current reforms will give us results that assure the future health and prosperity of American society.

Indeed, I hope this will be the case, but I am worried.

Why? Because most of the rhetoric, action, and assessment of progress in the current reform movement is cast in terms of decline, of looking backward to a former standard of quality that has been lost and must be regained. This is in marked contrast, for example, to educational-improvement efforts currently under way in Japan.

The Japanese educational system assumes that all students can and will learn. Japanese educational reform, initiated by Prime Minister Nakasone through the Ministry of Education, is aimed at liberalizing and making less rigid the Japanese educational system, as opposed to the current American approach, which seeks to tighten and raise academic standards in order to improve academic performance by teachers and students.

In the United States, as in Japan, the need of business for educated manpower will have a significant impact on what and how students learn. Approaching the information-based society of the 21st century, we see that a higher level of skill attainment will be needed by any citizen who hopes to be employed and socially valuable. Narrow vocational preparation won’t do. Higher skills of reasoning and critical thinking are necessary.

The future position of this nation in the world economy, and particularly our trade and investment relationships with Japan, may dictate that our schools develop a wholly new standard. Consider the following.

The old standard worked well to socialize and train a school population headed for jobs in an industrialized mass-production economy. It was fully developed in its basic form and character at least a century ago.

But today, many of those factory jobs have moved offshore. And yet even as the reform movement seeks to restore the schools’ ability to deliver those routine skills, we find that too few of our pupils can reason well or perform complex, non-routine intellectual tasks.

As the Task Force on Teaching as a Profession of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy has noted: “An economy based on people who think for a living requires schools dedicated to the creation of environments in which students become very adept at thinking for themselves, places where they master the art of learning and acquire a strong taste for it.’'

The American educational system, designed for a mass-production economy, will not succeed unless it not only raises, but redefines the essential standards of excellence, and strives to make quality of education and equality of opportunity mutually compatible. Like the Japanese, we must plan for the 21st century and stop looking backward.

Which brings me to my final point. By the end of this century, about a third of our schoolchildren will be members of minority groups, largely black and Hispanic. Present realities being what they are, that also means that many will be from economically poor backgrounds, where often, due to no fault of their own, the opportunity to do well academically is impossible, or the value of doing well is not always self-evident. For them, new and better opportunities for motivation and success must be devised.

And if our schools are unable to educate those youngsters successfully for the labor market of the future, it will not merely be a matter of social injustice, but a national economic disaster.

Success in rebuilding our educational system means not only teaching different skills, but also teaching them in new ways--ways that engage students of all backgrounds and all ability levels, persuade them that the enterprise is worthwhile, and respond to their individual needs in a fashion that will enable them to succeed.

A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 1987 edition of Education Week as Back to the Future Won’t Work for Education