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History Lesson: Schools' Golden Age Is a Myth

October 04, 2003|Walt Gardner | Walt Gardner taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and was a lecturer in the UCLA Graduate School of Education.

With the fall semester underway across the country, it won't be long before critics of public education emerge again to wax nostalgic about the better schooling of the past. These sentimentalists yearn for a return to the golden age of education, when we were proud of our schools and what they accomplished.

The trouble is that there never was such an educational Eden. Ever since public schools have existed in this country, 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.

As early as 1845, criticism of public schools centered on, of all things, standardized test scores. The first standardized test in the United States was administered in Boston to a group of elite students known as brag scholars. Despite their storied reputation, only 45% 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.

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 threat to the nation. During World War I, more than half of Army recruits were unable to write a letter or read a newspaper with ease, prompting officers to question the job that schools were doing.

The National Assn. of Manufacturers charged in 1927 that 40% of high school students couldn't perform simple arithmetic or accurately express themselves in English. It decried the burden these deficits imposed on employers.

In 1943 the New York Times designed a social studies test, which it gave to 7,000 college freshmen nationwide. Only 29% 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.

But nothing came close to matching the attack of "A Nation at Risk" in 1983. The Reagan administration-commissioned report alleged that "a rising tide of mediocrity" characterized public education. It vastly overrated the threat to our economy's preeminence, as time has shown, but its conclusion is still recited as a mantra by many otherwise knowledgeable people.

What these persistent charges underscore is that dissatisfaction with public schools is nothing new. What is different today, however, is the thinly veiled hostility that pervades the latest attack in the form of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. Despite its noble-sounding title, the Bush administration's basic educational initiative goes far beyond its historical counterparts in its punitive approach. It contains a series of nonnegotiable demands that are impossible to meet even under ideal conditions.

By far the most draconian is the provision that by 2014, 100% of students at any public school must be proficient in reading and math on state-developed tests, or the school faces a takeover. If any subgroup -- such as non-English-speaking or handicapped students -- falls short, the entire school is declared to be failing. It makes no difference if the school has distinguished itself in any other way, including college acceptance rates. All that matters are scores on standardized tests.

At no time in American history has this goal been achieved. Nevertheless, the law is being promoted as the only way to get back to the days when schools were paragons of academic excellence. When was that?

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