During the Carter Administration, Congress created the Department of Education. Many conservatives denounced this move as federal usurpation of a power left to state and local governments, and Ronald Reagan advocated abolishing the agency. His position of antipathy toward federal involvement in public education has been, more or less, the Republican Party’s official position ever since.
It is at least a little ironic, then, that much of the debate today over the proper curriculum to use in our public schools arose during the Reagan Administration as a result of A Nation at Risk, a 1983 report about the state of public education in our country, which was commissioned by Reagan’s Secretary of Education. Indeed, the reaction to that report spawned three decades of ever-growing federal involvement in education under both Republican and Democratic administrations without any real improvement in the nation’s education.
Arguably, the most important findings in that report were
- “Some 23 million American adults are functionally illiterate by the simplest tests of everyday reading, writing, and comprehension.”
- “About 13 percent of all 17-year-olds in the United States can be considered functionally illiterate. Functional illiteracy among the minority youth may run as high as 40 percent.”
- “Many 17-year-olds do not do not possess the ‘higher order’ intellectual skill we should expect of them. Nearly 40 percent cannot draw inferences from written material; only one-fifth can write a persuasive essay; and only one-third can solve a mathematics problem requiring several steps.”
- “For the first time in the history of our country, the educational skills of one generation will not surpass, will not equal, will not even approach, those of their parents.”
- “…the average citizen today is better educated and more knowledgeable than the average citizen of a generation ago—more literate, and exposed to more mathematics, literature, and science. … Nevertheless, the average graduate of our schools and colleges today is not as well-educated as the average graduate of 25 to 35 years ago, when a much smaller proportion of our population completed high school and college.”
- “The teacher preparation curriculum is weighted heavily with courses in ‘educational methods’ at the expense of courses in subjects to be taught. A survey of 1,350 institutions training teachers indicated that 41 percent of the time of elementary school teacher candidates is spent in education courses, which reduces the amount of time available for subject matter courses.”
These findings alarmed the nation. The report also listed two interesting “Tools at Hand” for addressing these findings:
- “our better understanding of learning and teaching and the implications of this knowledge for school practice, and the numerous examples of local success as a result of superior effort and effective dissemination;” and
- “the equally sound tradition, from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 until today, that the Federal Government should supplement State, local, and other resources to foster national educational goals; ….”
The responses to this report flooded bookstores and public debate. Among the many books and studies that would be published were two landmark works published in 1987. That year Professor Allan Bloom of the University of Chicago wrote a significant critique of modern college education in The Closing of the American Mind; and E.D Hirsch published what became the foundation of the movement for a “core-knowledge” curriculum, Cultural Literacy. Education departments of many universities doubled-down on method-based curricula in an effort to address the lack of “‘higher order’ intellectual skill” among high school graduates, while research of cognitive scientists began to support Hirsch’s theory about “core knowledge”. In Texas, Ross Perot spearheaded reforms through the legislature with the backing of Governor Clements, and George W. Bush later championed reforms that focused on testing and standards. Various states and localities tried to inject competition and diversity into the system with vouchers, magnet schools, charter schools, and home schools. Nationally, George H. W. Bush ran for President in 1988 to be our first “Education President,” and George W. Bush pushed for national standards and action through his “No Child Left Behind” legislative initiative. Meanwhile, for the last 25 years Bill Bennett, E.D. Hirsch and others have tried to educate the nation on what we need to learn and how we need to learn it.
But any fair-minded person, looking at the results of all of this action over the last 29 years would have to concede that as we’ve tried to mount a national battle for better education little has improved, and in some places (like Detroit, where it recently was estimated that its school system suffers from a 75% drop-out rate before the 12th grade) it has gotten worse. I believe it has gotten worse because we refused to start the reform where it was needed—in the local classroom with the curriculum teachers use to teach our children, and with the tools and facilities they use for teaching. This is a predicament shared by communities throughout the country, but it is primarily a State and local problem to solve.
Over the course of the next few posts, I am going to address each of the findings listed above from A Nation at Risk in the context of the constitutional purpose of public education in Texas and the refinement of that purpose I have proposed in the first two posts of this series, to come up with the contours of a proposed curriculum we will need in our schools, and for the tools and facilities we will need to teach that curriculum. I am going to present my arguments for a “core-knowledge” curriculum, rather than a “method-based” curriculum, discuss how such a curriculum could advance the purpose I have proposed, and outline how such a curriculum should be implemented.
But as I was writing the first post on those topics, I realized that we should pause for a moment and discuss an “800-pound gorilla” in the room—the history of federal involvement in public education in this country, and why federal regulation and money should not be used to “supplement State, local, and other resources” needed to address the classroom reforms I am proposing. In fact, I believe that it is precisely because of our pre-occupation with trying to find a national “silver bullet” to slay our educational problems that we have compounded the problems we face today.
Remember, my first post on this subject in which I quoted the reference in the Texas Declaration of Independence to Mexico’s failure to provide public education in the territory? Well, that concern for public education didn’t occur to Texans out of thin air in 1836. In fact, the drafters of A Nation at Risk were right that there has been a continental civic commitment to public education since the 1630s, when the first public school, Boston Latin School, opened in Massachusetts. In turn, there has been a commitment of national resources since the inception of our national government to establish or supplement an educational infrastructure within the states.
For instance, under the regime of the Articles of Confederation, the national government started establishing an educational infrastructure for each territory prior to statehood. In the Land Ordinance of 1785, Congress stated: “There shall be reserved the lot No. 16, of every township, for the maintenance of public schools within the township….” Then, in Article 3 of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, Congress stated: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall be forever encouraged.” These laws were among the few from the period of the Articles of Confederation, which were continued by the new Congress under the new Constitution.
This commitment to education at the time of our founding is exemplified by the actions of Thomas Jefferson. He was the driving force behind the creation of three, distinct universities: the United States Military Academy at West Point; the University of Michigan; and the University of Virginia. Each of these schools was established with a distinct purpose: West Point would focus on the military sciences to create a trained officer corps for the defense of the country, and a network of gentlemen to lead our communities after leaving the service; Michigan would provide a practical education in the applied physical and industrial sciences, including agriculture and engineering; and Virginia would provide a liberal arts education, and training in the primary professions of medicine, law and the clergy. Together, these institutions would provide society with models for the type of schools that would provide a full range of educational opportunities needed for the functioning of a free society.
For example, the “University of Michigania” (which Jefferson helped found in 1817, and which later became the University of Michigan) became the model for our land-grant colleges. During the Civil War, our first Republican President proposed, and the Republican Congress enacted, the Morrill Act, that set aside land in each state for the “endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies, and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and mechanic arts,…in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions of life.” The purpose of the Morrill Act had been a basic plank in the platforms of both the Whig and Republican parties since the 1830s.
In other words, for a century after the American Revolution, our founders, and the national government they created, implemented a national policy that provided states with the tools to create an educational infrastructure, from the township through college, which would provide citizens with the diffusion of knowledge and professions necessary for the functioning of a free government and economy. When, by the 1870s, every state had adopted, either by constitution or statute, a system of public education, the federal role in education began to recede and education became almost solely a state and local issue.
However, the fact that there were now public school systems in every state did not mean that everyone sought, or was given an education—far from it; for not every community used the township model and built schools right away, and state laws did not make attendance mandatory throughout the whole country until much later. Moreover, it took decades before the network of land-grant colleges was built and functioning, and, to this day, far less than half the children in this country attend any college or university.
In fact, given the demographics of the nation and the continuous influx and migration of people into and across the country, most children did not regularly attend high school until the Great Depression. Then, as a result of the economic disaster, children were encouraged to stay in school and graduate from high school in order to reserve job opportunities for the adults in the community. The public education system we know today is really a phenomenon of the post-World War II era of general prosperity and economic stability.
It is during this post-war period, as a national-defense response to Sputnik (and a civil-rights response to Brown v. the Board of Education), that the national government re-emerged as a player in educational policy. This time, however, it inserted itself beyond its historic role of providing or supplementing educational infrastructure for the states (and beyond what was necessary to end segregation), and began dictating operations and curriculum. In essence it inserted itself in an area where it lacked constitutional and institutional competence, and it imposed bureaucracies and inefficiencies on our schools, which never addressed the core problem—how our local schools should effectively educate the continuing influx of students of varying backgrounds and talents. That continues to be a peculiarly local problem to solve.
I believe it is the attempt to absorb and educate the vast and ever-changing influx of students of varying backgrounds and talents since the Great Depression that is the cause of the paradox that the drafters of A Nation at Risk observed:
…the average citizen today is better educated and more knowledgeable than the average citizen of a generation ago—more literate, and exposed to more mathematics, literature, and science. … Nevertheless, the average graduate of our schools and colleges today is not as well-educated as the average graduate of 25 to 35 years ago, when a much smaller proportion of our population completed high school and college.
This phenomena also explains why educational outcomes and drop-out rates vary so widely between localities and among the states—because the influx of diverse students has been so unevenly distributed across the country over the decades. The challenges faced by schools in Los Angeles, Detroit and Houston differ substantially from each other, and from suburban and rural schools.
Any meaningful educational reform must start with the core-knowledge to be taught in local classrooms, while addressing the reality that a significant percentage of children of diverse backgrounds and talents will never complete primary and secondary levels of education, let alone attend and graduate from college. While we try to retain these students in our schools as long as possible, and continue to raise their level of literacy, we must begin to focus their training on the “cultural literacy” they will need to be successful adults. Therefore, we must tailor the public school curriculum at each grade level to expose as many of these children as possible to the rudiments of American citizenship and the global economy. In the meantime, we must provide a more demanding curriculum at each higher grade level of school based on a strong foundation of “cultural literacy” in order to improve the quality of the knowledge of those who stay in school and graduate from high school. Each local and state must have the flexibility to tailor this curriculum to the type of diverse student they must educate.
National standards and tests, or even state standardized tests with teachers “teaching to the tests,” may continue to measure our problems as they get worse, but they will not solve these problems. Only local and state reforms will solve the problems our classrooms face.
I’ll start to look at how we address the specifics of a new curriculum in the next post.