The American Public Education System’s Failure

The main issue with public education nowadays, according to many American critics, is that there is too much emphasis on outcomes. There is a contention that students are not held to high standards and that policy-making circles should prioritize the educational process above the analysis of educational outcomes.

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As far as it goes, this argument is sound. It can, in fact, be carried out a significant step farther. Since at least World War II, we have not only failed to hold the government-controlled education system as a whole accountable for its performance, but we also fail to hold individual pupils accountable for their subpar work. In and of itself, public education is failing. Why shouldn’t individual pupils emulate it?

The past of reform initiatives in American public education is rife with humbug, blame-shifting, insincere actions, and nearly hilarious misdiagnoses of educational issues. Since the majority have, of course, experienced the same system they seek to alter, everyone is an expert. During any given period of school reform, an appearance of disagreement frequently hides an unexpected agreement on the hailed “magic bullet” of the decade—be it computerization in the classroom, progressive education, school centralization, or preschool education—that will solve the country’s educational issues. These miracle bullets never work properly. However, policymakers choose to simply insert another round into the chamber rather than altering their weapon, misguidedly thinking that the newest trend would triumph despite the shortcomings of its forerunners.

Critics of public education reforms contend that the education lobbies—teacher groups, administrators, and the lawmakers they support—compromised or destroyed the programs. As we shall see, there is undoubtedly some validity to the explanation. However, in many instances, blaming subversion for a reform’s failure only serves to absolve it. The majority of reform proposals are detrimental to education or irrelevant. Whether organized political interests supported them or not, they would fail.

Many conservatives think that cultural and sociological trends—the majority of which started in the 1960s—that weakened classroom discipline, the moral foundation of education, and a national agreement on what subjects kids should learn are to blame for the state of American public education today. While there is some validity to this statement, it ultimately falls short of providing an explanation for why American students do not now possess the computational and communication skills necessary for success in higher education or the workforce.

Furthermore, a lot of proponents of free markets assume that introducing market competition into public education will address a lot of the issues facing the country’s educational system. Although I agree with this argument, it fails to acknowledge the ways in which government policies—aside from student assignment to schools—hinder academic performance. A school cannot effectively impart the necessary skills, knowledge, and perspective to its students—whether or not they choose to attend—as long as government policy maintains strict personnel rules, bureaucracy, regulations, and a mandate to use education to engineer social or political outcomes.

Finally, the discourse around school reform frequently downplays the significance of personal choices made by individuals (students, parents, business owners, and instructors) in shaping the course of their education. The saying says, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” It’s a folkloric method of teaching a crucial individualist lesson. Even if parents let their children to watch television instead of doing their schoolwork, chances for success at school do not guarantee it. We overestimate the importance of policymaking when we think that any collection of reform proposals can suddenly produce a populace with a high level of education. Education demands initiative, a quality that is infamously hard to instill or cultivate.

One Hundred Years of Change

There is a shared history between public education and public education reform. There was never a heaven in the past when every pupil did well. There isn’t a flawless example of public education stashed away in the past, waiting to be unearthed and given to a grateful country. Rather, the best way to characterize American public education historically is as average. It was a functional system meant to prepare pupils for a world of farms or assembly lines, where only the privileged went on to further their studies.

After the Civil War, when government-funded and -controlled schools replaced the previous system of private education, public education in America truly got underway. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that in 1870, 12 million Americans who were old enough to attend school were enrolled in public elementary or secondary schools, making up 57% of the total. However, only 60% of those enrolled attended class on any one day, and the typical school year lasted 132 days. The proportion of school-age children attending public schools had increased to 72% by the turn of the century, with about 70% of enrolled students going on any one of the 150 days of the academic year. Just 2% of students were enrolled in ninth grade or above, meaning that the majority of public education still took place in the early grades.

Nearly 90% of children of school age attended public schools in 1989. With a few notable local or regional outliers, the majority of students attended class every day, and the average school year had increased to 180 days—still too short, in the opinion of many contemporary critics, but a 40% rise since Reconstruction. While a record number of students are pursuing higher education, the majority of pupils attend school for at least the entirety of the high school years.

At the turn of the century, educators and policymakers in the United States started to seriously develop our centralized, monopolistic public education system. For instance, in the comparatively short time span between 1890 and 1910, public schools grew from two-thirds to around 90% of high school students; this ratio of public to private schools has continued to this day. This change was motivated by several considerations. Public education had developed gradually over the last decades of the nineteenth century as a mostly locally controlled phenomena, frequently imitating or displacing private schools. Learning skills, including reading and math, remained the main focus of education, and schools frequently served as clear mirrors for their communities.

However, around the beginning of the 20th century, a variety of parties started to hold the view that America’s future depended on a comprehensive, bureaucratically run, and centrally controlled public education system—at least at the local or state level. For instance, the Progressive movement aimed to establish a more standardized, “predictable” system of government decision-making to replace the random technique being used by political machines and community schools. They believed that this kind of transformation was required at the time to get rid of bribery and corruption. In a similar vein, the child welfare movement started to advocate for public schooling to take the place of child labor and familial abuse in families.

Concurrently, corporate executives in the United States started to perceive a disorganized, piecemeal approach to education as a drawback when competing globally. Particularly American manufacturers perceived Germany’s ascent as a serious economic danger and attempted to emulate its recently implemented state-run trade school system. “The nation that wins success in competition with other nations must train its youths in the arts of production and distribution,” stated an editorial in the National Association of Manufacturers in 1905. It stated that German education was “at once the envy and the terror of all nations.” Congress was under pressure from American industry and the expanding labor movement to significantly increase federal expenditure on education, particularly on vocational training. Additionally, leaders in business and education started incorporating new industrial organization concepts into the classroom. Examples of these concepts were top-down hierarchy and the “factory-floor” model, which involved administrators, instructors, and students all contributing to the creation of a single, standardized “final product.” These leaders established specialized bureaucracies to formulate and carry out policies.

Finally, those who would now be referred to as “cultural conservatives” were arguably the biggest supporters of America’s new public school system. All things considered, there was a massive influx of immigrants around the turn of the century. As the number of immigrants increased and they brought a diverse range of languages, cultural customs, and religious beliefs with them, American politicians anticipated the possible risks associated with the process of Balkanization. Once intended solely to transfer information and skills, the public education system has evolved to play a considerably greater political and social role. It served as a method of fostering a shared culture and instilling democratic ideas in newly arrived Americans. To put it another way, public schools were supposed to serve as a harsh “melting pot” that would save America from the terrible destiny of other multinational governments. Political elites in America were determined to prevent a repeat of the early 1900s Balkan Wars because they were all too familiar with them.

The Growing Significance of Public Education

You ought to be feeling a lot of déjà vu by now. Up until this point, these ideas and issues have dominated American public education. Throughout the 20th century, “do-gooders” have worked to increase the importance of public education in all facets of what used to be family life, including educating children about moral principles, promoting their health and nutrition, combating crime and delinquency, and shielding them from emotional and physical abuse. These days, they serve as the main proponents of Head Start and other educational initiatives that touch almost every facet of a student’s life.

This century has seen a number of business groups, particularly national organizations and corporate magnates, take a prominent role in educational affairs. These groups have consistently warned of the economic threats posed by international competitors (as seen in the Sputnik crisis of the 1950s and the current debate over “competitiveness”) and have supported a professional, centralized approach to public education (which stands in stark contrast to what these business leaders believed was appropriate in economic policy).

Lastly, a wide range of political factions have viewed public education as a critical tool for achieving their political and social goals, which may include environmental knowledge, social tolerance, racial integration, or democratic engagement.

The narrative of public education reform is one of these organizations jockeying for position to leave their lasting imprint on the current school systems, sometimes working together and other times against professional educators with their own plans. Reform initiatives have come up again and again; in the 1940s, “life adjustment education” was the buzzword. Teachers tried to assist pupils in adjusting to a changing society because they were concerned about a rising dropout rate and the seemingly rapid speed of post-War technical advancements. During this time, a class called “Basic Urges, Wants, and Needs and Making Friends and Keeping Them” was implemented in public schools. Not the 1960s, but the 1940s are that.

The education panic that started in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite into orbit destroyed this “promising” progress. Learning fundamental subjects once again took center stage, although in novel and perhaps misdirected methods. Following the Sputnik scare, there was a surge of activity that included innovations like new math, open classrooms, programmed education, and ungraded schools (which are making a reappearance). These concepts started to seep into the American public school system in the 1960s (which was already more vulnerable to fads and trends due to its growing centralization). While some of these ideas proved wildly successful in certain schools, they failed miserably in others, which is another frequent outcome of school changes in general. A number of new concepts were added to this increasingly disorganized mixture in the 1970s, including the widespread use of standardized testing for both instructors and students, whole-language reading teaching, behavioralism, and mastery learning.

At last, the school reform movement received a new coat of paint and new tires in the 1980s. Governors implemented various programs for teacher training and testing, curriculum modifications, and increased performance expectations for pupils after the release of A Nation at Risk in 1983. States significantly raised their spending on all aspects of public education at the same period. Additionally, despite his campaign promises to abolish the U.S. Education Department, President Ronald Reagan actually assisted in overseeing a sizable infusion of new government funding for public education, the majority of which was allocated to targeted initiatives for kids from underprivileged or minority backgrounds.


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