Those who know me know how often I fall back on Gore Vidal’s reference to the U.S.A. as “The United States of Amnesia,” and how no area of human endeavor is forgetfulness more the norm than it is in education.
I will often follow it with “Been there, seen it, done it,” followed by the old saw that insanity is doing the same thing but expecting different results.
A function of old age, congenital contrariness, and just plain weariness, it’s what comes of former educational reformers. They don’t go quietly into the dark night but go down kvetching loudly right to the very end.
Bitterly complaining about the quality of American education is part of our history.
When I first became a teacher in the 1950s, it was James Conant, former President of Harvard, and Admiral Rickover, father of the atomic submarine.
In 1957, came the political outcry in reaction to fears of Russian global ascendancy with the launching of Sputnik — attributing America’s failure to be number one in space to lack of rigor in our schools.
Over a half century later, President Obama revived that specter, recalling how Sputnik provoked the United States to increase investment in math and science education and helped America win the space race.
He warned that with billions of people in India and China having been “suddenly plugged into the world economy,” only those nations with the most educated workers would prevail,” and how, “America is in danger of falling behind.” Here we go again — more fire-bells ringing in the mid of night.
Back to the 1960s and the Great Society — a time when federal efforts in education ramped up significantly in the form of assistance to schools and colleges seeking to eliminate racial segregation, developing new strategies for educating disadvantaged children and in broadening access to higher education for previously neglected youths.
Many programs failed; a few succeeded. Lessons from these efforts provide instructive experiences that can guide future efforts in educational reform. But for the most part they have been ignored.
The late ’60s and ’70s featured a blossoming of educational reform and a progressive vision.
Programs of compensatory education were joined with the free school and alternative education movements. Most of these efforts, however, were not taken seriously and were prematurely aborted — succeeded by a wave of counter-reaction.
They have also been banished from recent memory.
The 1980s were driven by A Nation at Risk, a report chronicling the latest “crisis,” citing abysmally low basic skill scores, low basic comprehension rates, and high drop-out rates, recommending more rigorous standards, the standardization of curricula, and a program of National testing… Sound familiar?
In keeping with its recommendations, by the mid-1980s, 45 states had gotten with the program, expanding their testing programs, instituting more strenuous graduation requirements, cutting frills, and returning to basics (as if they had ever left them in the first place).
In the end, however, it all proved so much sound and fury…signifying nothing.
Research revealed that this highly orchestrated and costly effort had not the slightest effect on student learning and comprehension. Even when legislated merit pay systems were added to the mix, little of this trickled down to the classroom. None of it ever enhanced the students’ ability to learn.
Shouldn’t this historical backdrop have been at least noted amid the current hue and cry for more rigorous standards and high-stake testing procedures?
If not, the current effort must be judged to be more about public relations and politics than serious educational thought, in which case, damn the torpedoes (and the history) and full speed ahead!
Larry Paros has worked in the field of Education and Human services for more than 30 years both as a teacher and administrator. A pioneer in the creation of alternative settings, he is best known for his work with young people from varied ethnic and racial backgrounds in contexts of his own making. His book, Dancing on the Contradictions: Transforming our Schools, our Students, and Ourselves, will be available in September of 2019.