Who's Got the Time To Reform Public Education?


Aside from urging all Americans to read the words of John Taylor Gatto (see Vin Suprynowicz's fine article in Lew Rockwell for 1/5/07 and Linda Schrock Taylor's columns on education follies in general), I have little original to say about the current condition of American education. Still, I have some fair knowledge about the reform strophes of recent decades that purport to improve academic performance. I'm led by my ruminations to note the length of time officials say it will take to show results and to demonstrate the actual time line of reform. Out of the fevered brains of zealous policy makers, avid for fame, bien-faisant politicians, and the teacher trade unions come grandiose longitudinal studies that lead to expensive reform projects. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, when asked why he continued to support initiatives that never seem to work, maybe the next one will work. Touching faith it is to fire dollars as if out of a water cannon, and then to call it stewardship. I will focus on the efforts of the Bush Administration to implement its ponderous flagship program, No Child Left Behind (NCLB). First, let's take a look at the way things were in 1983.

Terrel Bell, then-secretary of education, got a report from the National Commission on Excellence in Education. Issued as an Open Letter to the American People titled "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform [Available on the Web in the U.S. Department of Education Archives]," it caused much ruffling in the dovecotes of education. The Commission held that public education was in terrible shape. Whence came the oft-quoted, famous declaration, "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."

Science and languages were largely sniffed-at electives; reading and grammar were in the main topics of mystery for pupils. Victims of the command-and-control gimmickry of the bell-cow teacher-training institutes, teachers were told not to burden their scholars with the technicalities of grammar and to fuzz up math.

The Commission pointed out that:

  • Secondary school curricula have been homogenized, diluted, and diffused to the point that they longer have a central purpose. In effect, we have a cafeteria-style curriculum in which the appetizers and desserts can easily be mistaken for the main courses.
  • We offer intermediate algebra but only 31 percent of our recent high school graduates complete it; we offer French I, but only 13 percent complete it; and we offer geography, but only 16 percent complete it.

Go read the litany of sorry expectations that have left students largely to pick their ways through soft electives, little homework, and rising grades in tandem with declining achievement.

The Commission made its point, although it shrank from indicting the political and educational power structures in place since passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1964. This Great Society program, part of a mountainous legislative tribute to the memory of John F. Kennedy, was intended to bring excellent education to all, especially to minority students, then oppressed by official Jim Crow laws. A Nation at Risk enabled readers to gauge the effects of that then-newly minted federal intrusion into education.

So the nation rolled up its sleeves, eager to banish the standing embarrassment of low expectations and worse academic results. But there was no one to pick up the rent gonfalon of the reform vanguard. Not until 1989. There and then, President George Bush, having designated himself "the education president," and having got regularly pinged for his inaction by political opponents, took a kind of bold step and convened a meeting of governors in Charlottesville, Virginia. Such mass treks have taken place only three times in the history of the republic, and Franklin Roosevelt called the last one.

In due course, President Bush set forth six goals in his 1990 State of the Union address. By 2000, we'd wipe out illiteracy; all six-year olds would be ready for first grade; mawkishly, as befits State of the Union blovia, students would love learning in science and math; they'd love learning a second language, and so on. When President Clinton took over, he added two more goals, and packaged the lot into the National Education Goals Act. This law offered the stick of state reform of education standards and assessments and the carrot of money. What else?

As matters stood at the end of the 1990s, many earnest governors, recalling the pious cant of Charlottesville, got their own state goals enacted. But while all was talk from the politicians, not all was well in student performance. States liked the money, but many of them disliked the federal demands to build standards and assessments. And that takes us to No Child Left Behind.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, signed by George Bush in January 2002, was at first greeted with bipartisan fanfare. Ted Kennedy and George Bush all smiles. This represents a common characteristic of politicians: forget all that high-minded goal setting and bribery of yesteryear, accentuate for the rubes what we're doing for them in the here and now. Goals 2000! Pshaw!

Well then, as we see, thirteen years elapsed from 1989 to 2002. None were the parents, teachers, principals, politicians, students who lamented the passing of the year 2000, all their hopes for reform gone aglimmering. No, NCLB charged onto the scene, blotting out a feckless past with the message that we'd confected a different kind of reform, a quantum leap in educational intrusion and policy statesmanship. We'll provide not just more, much more, money, but you states and districts can spend it any way you like.

But said NCLB, you must hold schools accountable for greater-than-ever expectation of proficiency. We'll even cough up big bucks so teachers can upgrade their skills. No more teachers toiling in classrooms outside their disciplines. Yes, we said there must be a qualified teacher in every classroom. And yes, there will be dire consequences for errant schools. They're responsible for delivering remediation to students who don't measure up.

The drafters of the legislation had at least the advantage of hindsight, observing, as they must have, that the earlier goals timeline had bombed. Ten years wasn't enough, so we will add two years. We'll deck out an academic achievement cycle under which the cohort of kids that entered kindergarten in 2002 will graduate in 2013–2014 certifiably proficient in core subjects, and ready for college, or prepared for further vocational achievement. Reader, you will notice that the period from 1989 to 2014 is 25 years.

So I count 25 years of federal magic-wand waving from 1964 to 1989 and 25 from 1989 to 2014. Why can't we conclude that the time line for reform (oh, bitter harvest!) is approaching fifty years?

I do understand that the Democratic majority in Congress, and quite possibly a Democratic president in 2008, will throw the existing 50-year snafu timeline into a beer-garden's shiny urn. It has the likelihood of bringing the next round of reform to 2065 or so.