America suffers from a crisis-mentality. This means education is likely to be a high priority on the national agenda for only a few years longer.
Even if the terrorist attacks don’t drive education off the national priority list, the time for education as a major focus of the nation is drawing to a close. Demographics created America’s school reform movement, and they are likely to bring it to a close over the next several years. The fact of the matter is that the enormous size of the baby boom generation has profoundly shaped the priorities of the country for the past half-century. Born between 1946 and 1964, this group of Americans now makes up a quarter of the U.S. population. Each stage of their development has determined the way Americans viewed themselves and our nation.
When they were born, America was awash in babies and baby carriages, and Dr. Benjamin Spock was a best-selling author. When the baby boomers went through adolescent rebellion, beginning in the 1960s, America was described as divided, angry, and in conflict over a civil rights movement and Vietnam. When this generation entered adulthood and the workforce, we spoke of the United States as a yuppie nation; young urban professionals, careers, and material well-being were the dominant themes in the Reagan years of the 1980s. When they migrated to the suburbs to raise their children, the suburbs for the first time in history became home to a majority of Americans. The education of their children became the baby boomers’ and the nation’s preoccupation.
Today, the post-World War II babies are entering a new phase of their lives. Some of their children have completed their schooling, and others are well along in the educational system. So the boomers are turning their attention and their resources away from education and toward aged and ill parents. What is more, the first of the baby boomers themselves will reach retirement age within the next decade. This will raise profound policy questions for the nation. It will put an incredible strain on the Social Security system. When the system began, there were 12 people paying into it for each recipient. When the boomers retire, there will be only three. Means-testing for Social Security will undoubtedly be hotly contested. Further, the baby boomers, both because of their numbers and their longer life spans, will tax our health-care resources as never before.
For the first time in history, America will have to provide elder care to a generation of retirees and their parents. The focus of the baby boomers, their children, and the country will be on the aged. There will be a painful and divisive national debate on what services should be provided to aged baby boomers and at what cost.
For almost 200 years, historians have recognized the American crisis mentality. The nation is regularly aware of any number of social problems, such as poverty, education, national defense, or crime. Periodically, we agree that one has reached crisis proportions. Countless reports are issued documenting the crisis. Then we mobilize all of our national resources—financial, human, technical, and intellectual—to resolve the crisis. For a period of years, we witness grand experiments, policy initiatives, an influx of philanthropic dollars, and dramatically expanded media coverage. Then the nation moves on to the next crisis. We don’t so much solve the last crisis as get bored with it and turn our attention somewhere else.
Regardless of Sept. 11 and its aftermath, what this means is that education is likely to be a high priority on the national agenda for only a few years longer. It then seems reasonable to think that the nation will shift its focus to the crisis of the aged, if terrorism does not remain our principal focus. The critical question for us now is: How do we fashion an endgame to the current education reform movement? Three needs stand out.
First, we must get beyond the sharp ideological divisions regarding schools that separate us, and focus instead on our children. It would represent an important step forward if each state would agree to legislate an “education bill of rights,” guaranteeing all children such essentials as a qualified teacher, adequate facilities, appropriate curriculum materials, and a safe school environment. If local schools were unable to provide these things, states would then be responsible for creating new schools, identifying stronger schools, or providing the funds for families to make other arrangements.
Second, as a nation, we have been remarkably successful in upgrading our suburban schools, but our efforts to make comparable improvements in urban schools have largely failed. Today the schools of our inner-city poor and minority students are less well financed than those of their more affluent suburban counterparts. The achievement gap between blacks and whites has been nearly flat for a decade. We have the time to improve urban education, but this will require higher salaries to attract and retain the best teachers for inner-city schools. It will demand professional development for the existing teacher force to meet new state standards. It will necessitate the creation of curriculum materials that reflect the backgrounds and abilities of urban children and the goals of state standards. It will require the hiring of principals and superintendents who are educational leaders, giving them the freedom to lead their schools, and holding them accountable for the results. And it will require a reallocation of public dollars from the suburbs to our cities.
Third, we need to do a better job of educating teachers and school administrators, principals and superintendents. There are too many weak preparatory programs. Too often, administrative education programs prepare managers, not the educational leaders schools so badly need today. It is time for the states to close poor programs, strengthen weak programs, and support strong programs.
The alternative is to allow the education reform movement to peter out. If that happens, what we will have to show for 20 years of hard work are a sea of reports documenting a crisis and proposed remedies, a cornucopia of innovations that were attempted under the banner of reform, anecdotes about why each was successful, and an education system that better serves our most advantaged young people. We need to do better.
Arthur Levine is the president of Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City.
A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 2001 edition of Education Week as An Endgame for School Reform