Education Opinion

The Golden Age of Education Never Was

By Walt Gardner — February 07, 2011 4 min read
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So much anger aimed at public schools today is based on the assumption that they were far better in the past. It’s understandable why this view persists when the media are relentless in their coverage of what seems to be only the most negative examples.

The trouble, however, is that there never was an educational Eden in this country. In fact, ever since public schools have existed here, they’ve been the subject of complaints that sound very much like those heard today. A fast rewind through the decades serves as an instructive lesson, with today’s parallels noted in parenthesis.

It’s hard to believe, but as early as 1845 criticism of public schools centered on, of all things, standardized test scores. The first standardized test in America was administered in Boston to a group of elite students known as brag scholars. Despite their stellar reputation, only 45 percent of these test takers knew, for example, that water expands when it freezes. Horace Mann, Massachusetts secretary of public instruction, was so distressed by their performance that he berated schools for ignoring higher-order thinking skills in favor of rote memorization. (“Margins of Error: The Testing Industry in the No Child Left Behind Era.”)

At the beginning of the 20th century, public schools in New York City and other principal ports of entry began to feel the crush of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Impatience and hostility were not uncommon reactions to their presence, as Irving Howe wrote in World Of Our Fathers (Simon and Schuster,1976). There was stereotyping of groups and the belief that they would not assimilate quickly or at all. (“The Hispanic Challenge.”)

In 1909, Ellwood Cubberly, dean of the Stanford School of Education, bemoaned the inability of American students to function in an ever more interdependent world economy. He believed that this shortcoming posed a direct threat to the nation. Cubberly’s prediction was on display at the outbreak of WWI, when more than half of army recruits were unable to write a single letter or read a newspaper with ease, prompting officers to question the job that schools were doing. This necessarily led to the development of the Army Alpha, an aptitude test to identify candidates for officer training. (“The Silent Epidemic.”)

Things didn’t improve much because in 1927 the National Association of Manufacturers charged that 40 percent of high school students couldn’t perform simple arithmetic or accurately express themselves in English. They decried the burden these deficits imposed on employers. (“Roadmap for Growth - Education.”)

In 1943, the New York Times designed a social studies test, which it gave to 7,000 college freshmen nationwide. Only 29 percent knew that St. Louis was on the Mississippi River. Many thought that Abraham Lincoln was the first president. The Times concluded that its test results reflected the shoddiness of instruction, which focused on low standards and expectations. (The Five-Year Party, BenBella Books, 2010, by Craig Brandon.)

But nothing came close to matching the attack delivered by “A Nation At Risk” in 1983. The Reagan-commissioned report alleged that “a rising tide of mediocrity” characterized public education. It vastly overrated the threat to our economy’s pre-eminence, as time has shown, but its conclusion is still recited as a mantra by many otherwise knowledgeable people (“21st Century Skills, Education & Competitiveness.”)

What these persistent charges underscore is that dissatisfaction with public schools is hardly new. The only thing that is different today is the rationale for the criticism. According to reformers, the U.S. will not be able to compete in the new global economy unless its schools turn out more students proficient in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. (President Obama’s State of the Union address.)

They point to scores on tests of international competition as the most compelling evidence of the failure of schools to do their job. Results from the recent Program for International Student Assessment, for example, showed U.S. students once again somewhere in the middle of the pack. This finish was offered as “proof” that the nation was doomed to become second rate.

As I’ve written before, however, there is a big difference between an exam meritocracy and a talent meritocracy. Singapore’s former Minister of Education Tharman Shanmugaratnam made that distinction clear in an interview published in Newsweek. This view was echoed by the World Economic Forum and the Institute for Management Development, which once again ranked the U.S. No. 1 in overall competitiveness. This is a curious honor for a country with ostensibly sub-par schools.

Nothing in the above is meant to suggest that execrable schools don’t exist today. But they are almost all located in the inner cities and in rural areas where poverty is greatest. In light of the errors in historical recall by reformers, perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that public schools didn’t do nearly as good a job in the past as they maintain.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.