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Education Commentary

Charting the Course of American Education

By George H. Hanford — April 20, 1983 11 min read

“A sailor without a destination cannot hope for a favorable wind.”

Nobody who reads the newspapers these days can doubt that our nation is engaged in a debate perhaps more intensive than at any time since the Great Depression about what the course, if not the destination, of the American society should be. Education is intimately bound up in that debate. For education today is, as it has been since the earliest days of our Republic, both the source of hope for solving many of our problems, and the scapegoat for our inability to solve those that persist. And, as it has since the earliest days, education is doing its best to respond to the signals that society sends about its needs, its expectations, and its hopes.

In such circumstances, when the society is itself without a charted course, is it possible for education as a social institution, or for educators as a group, to have a destination? Should it have one? If so, what should it be?

American society certainly is sending mixed signals to education these days. It wants its young people to be able to read, write, and compute-and to do so well enough to compete successfully with the Russians, Germans, and Japanese in science and mathematics. It wants a work force that is able to handle the complex tasks that remain as automation takes over the simple ones. It wants a volunteer army able to comprehend the manuals and operate the hardware of increasingly sophisticated military equipment. But--and it is a big but--it isn’t willing to foot the bill.

This circumstance is in sharp contrast to the decades immediately after World War II, when American society valued education highly. It provided higher education for its war veterans, and willingly paid the price of educating the “baby boom” those veterans generated. It found in education a focus for reasserting its competitive spirit and revitalizing its technological resources in the post-Sputnik era. It discerned, in education, an essential tool for achieving better integration of the races and for removing many other obstacles to the pursuit of happiness.

The signals began to get mixed in the 1970’s, as economic growth slowed and the rate of inflation climbed. Conserving dollars became more important than training minds. More and more local school budgets were defeated; states passed Propositions 13 and 2 1/2; and today we see the national government following suit, cutting back on its investment in education at all levels.

But is the curtailment of resources for education just a function of changes in the nation’s economic circumstances? I believe not. In the post-Sputnik era, we saw the investment in stronger science and math education pay off--perhaps most visibly with the dramatic successes of our space program. Indeed, the very brilliance--and the enormous cost of that program may have strengthened American faith that with enough money, our native ability and know-how could solve any problem.

There were other areas, however, where similar investments did not payoff. Huge outlays for public housing and urban redevelopment did not solve the economic and social problems of the cities. Similar investments in social programs did not solve the problems of poverty and discrimination. Despite brilliant advances in medical science, neither the size nor the quality of our health-care system was able to eliminate social diseases or reduce infant-mortality rates. Finally, neither our economic wealth nor military might, in a time period and at a cost acceptable to the American people, was able to solve the problems of a little country called Vietnam.

The decade of the 1970’s, then, saw many kinds of disillusionment appear, as it became apparent that, in international affairs, domestic social conditions, and education, more dollars do not guarantee better conditions or happier outcomes.

It may be, as some would argue, that in education the massive investments of the 1950’s and 1960’s were simply not equal to the magnitude of the task. Educators did little to discourage society’s faith that more dollars for the educational enterprise would produce better education. The size and character of the national student body and the teaching force changed dramatically. Physical facilities expanded immensely. New technology and human insights were applied to improve instructional methods. But somehow the enterprise as a whole did not change enough to cope with new problems. The counterculture arose for reasons far beyond the scope of education to address; but it was in the colleges and schools that much of the “action” took place . . . and education lost some of its lustre in the process.

Then it was discovered that Scholastic Aptitude Test scores were going down, along with other indicators of student performance. More recently, there has been the realization that public dollars committed to student financial aid for college were, in some cases, functioning as family investment subsidies, while other public dollars evaporated as some self-styled postsecondary institutions failed to meet their responsibility for loan collection. Colleges complained that students coming to them could not read and write well enough, and employers complained that graduates coming to them couldn’t do much better. The disillusionment grew, and fed the moves toward Propositions 13 and 2 1/2.

Just as the sources of disillusion in society were not entirely--or even primarily-the shortcomings of education, so education is not alone in experiencing a decline in public support. To take one example from among many, the economic times that favored education also fostered the Interstate Highway System. Society’ recent neglect, however, of the long-term capital investment necessary to keep its roads in repair promises a legacy of crumbling tunnels, rusty bridge’, and bumpy streets. The illustration is apt, for in much the same way, society’ current failure to invest in human capital promises an even more disastrous legacy in the not-too-distant future. Society demands smooth roads and good schools but is not currently in a frame of mind to pay the price to keep them that way.

These mixed signals are reflected in the world of the College Board. They can be seen in the area of financial aid, in tension between an Administration dedicated to reducing federal spending, and a legislative branch that seeks to maintain stronger support for higher education. They can be seen in the differences within an Administration whose Secretary of Education pleads for quality in education, but whose Secretary of Defense gets the dollars to support a military establishment-an establishment, ironically, that needs the trainable manpower that can be produced only by the good schools that the Secretary of Education is unable to get the dollars to support. They can be seen, too, in the diminished but still potent tendency to lay blame for disappointing performance by students on the tests that measure that performance, and in the persistent, if less strident, tendency to suggest that somehow regulating the tests will address the inadequacies of student performance.

In the face of disillusionment, of decreasing numbers of college-age young people, and of an economy that has yet to be healed, the prospects for clearer signals to education may seem dim to some. Yet I believe there is a way to go. Not a quick fix, but a long, hard, steady push on a variety of fronts. The turnaround has to begin within education-and indeed it has.

The more than two dozen school-improvement projects of national scope are evidence of that. Testimony mounts that more can be done with less, at least for a limited time as a growing number of schools are demonstrating that fewer dollars, used more efficiently and effectively, can produce better education. There is, of course, a limit. Followed to its logical conclusion, if more can be done with less, then most can be done with the least. Nevertheless, we are far short of that extreme of logical absurdity. Right now, such demonstrations are both needed and healthy. These activities, as yet, are modest in scope and, for the most part, involve educators talking to educators. But we can’t lift ourselves all the way up by our own bootstraps. Our task now is to move out from these solid beginnings to make the case for education to other segments of society.

That has been the strategy, to take one homegrown example, with the College Board’s Educational Equality Project. Having achieved consensus on what the nature of academic preparation for college ought to be in the 1980’s, the project is now encouraging-with substantial success-the generation of specific measures designed to see that students receive that preparation. Beyond that, the project has created opportunities for dialogue with the leadership of the business community--as well as their personnel directors who are looking for young people who can read, write, speak, listen, do math, and think--and with the military, which needs to enlist young people who can handle today’s sophisticated military hardware.

Do this and other tendencies rank as “signals” from society? Perhaps not yet. But if educators continue to respond with effective measures, there is every reason to believe that the signals will become clearer. I have mentioned growing concern-and demonstrated ability-to do more with less in some schools. In postsecondary institutions, more effective management of fiscal and human resources is showing results. While the wages of teachers remain dismally low, their union leaders, like those in some industries, have begun to see a need to make concessions in order to demonstrate a common larger cause with the public that pays their salaries.

Over time, these beginnings and these hopes can be transformed into real progress . They suggest an answer to the question I posed: Can educators choose a destination and chart a course in a society that has yet to determine its own? I believe so. Indeed, I believe we must, for otherwise we cannot hope for any favorable wind.

Society today is sorting out its values, and educators must take part in that process, especially as it relate to education’s place among those values. Society’s process is complex and ongoing. Should that debate ever end, some would say with reason that our society will be dead. But for education the process is simpler. The fact is that whether from frustration, disillusionment, boredom, or impatience, American society in recent years has shown a strong tendency to devalue education.

There are now some helpful signs that it may be changing its mind. We must do everything we can to encourage that trend, to restore education to its rightful place in the hierarchy of national values--to the place that we as educators know it deserves, if the other values of the nation are to be preserved, revitalized, and transmitted to future generations.

First, we must continue to demonstrate that education deserves such a place in immediate terms, by showing that it returns value for value received in its ongoing operation, and in more long-range terms by helping resolve some of the tensions that generate the larger debate-the tensions between social goals and individual aspirations, between the academic or theoretical and the practical, between merit and egalitarianism, and between quality and equality.

The danger, of course, is to oversimplify by using such oppositions literally. This becomes clearer if we observe the outcomes of the present situation.

For example, our nation is not emphasizing science and mathematics enough to compete with the scientists, engineers, and technicians of some other nations; is not producing enough good social scientists and political thinkers to develop effective solutions to our domestic and international problems; is allowing the profession of teacher to fall behind in the esteem and the economic rewards necessary to attract the best people to this vital function in our society; and is offering too little opportunity or hope to those who are not educated at all.

Are all of these results entirely accidental? I think not, but rather they are the imperfect and unintended outcomes of a competition of values that has led to a de-emphasis on or a devaluation of education.

What is going on in Washington today amounts to a reversal of the gains of nearly three decades--decades devoted to efforts for more open access to education, a reversal that has every prospect of continuing, and in the process, intensifying the self-defeating outcomes enumerated above. But there also is clear evidence that the process is not being accepted without question by the people of the United States or their elected representatives. In fact, I do not believe the American people would want those outcomes either if they thought about them.

There would be danger that a total backlash would throw our choices to the opposing extremes.

What is needed is a moral commitment, not merely to the cause of education in the abstract, but to the hardest of all causes, one that is moderate and complex rather than extreme and simplistic.

I do not mean that we as educators should be soft on the values we prize. We must be firm in advocating greater opportunity for minorities and the disadvantaged, but not at the expense of lower educational standards.

We must be firm in requiring excellence in the quality of education provided by our schools and colleges, but not to the exclusion thereby of minorities and the disadvantaged. We must be firm in defending standards of performance as a condition of awarding credentials, but not at the expense of alternative ways of earning those credentials. We must be firm in subscribing to standards of efficiency and economy in our operations, but not at the expense of essential human and physical resources.

Our ultimate goal must be to pursue conditions that will restore education to its rightful place in the value system of American society.

I believe that that goal, that destination even, is a worthy one. If we select it, we may not only hope for favorable winds but take justifiable advantage of some breezes that already are beginning to blow our way.

A version of this article appeared in the April 20, 1983 edition of Education Week


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