Commentary Magazine

The Schools

To the Editor:

Joseph Adelson’s article [“What Happened to the Schools,” March] is typical of his lucidity and thoroughness. It clearly outlines some of the major issues confronting youth policy in America. Still, I feel his conclusions, albeit they are tentative, are largely on the wrong side.

The first issue is: how bad is the situation of our youth? Mr. Adelson properly points out that some researchers (including Richard Easterlin) have contended that contemporary youth alienation is mainly due to the transitory “youth bulge”—the existence of a disproportionately large number of youths compared to the number of adults. Because of demographic shifts, the bulge is now in the process of expiring. So too, it is thought, is the current high level of youth disorder.

Regretfully, I must report that a colleague, Jonathan Shapiro, and I have just completed a long-term statistical analysis of the correlation between the curve of the youth bulge and the curve of white male adolescent suicide. While the paper has not yet been published, our most pertinent finding can be mentioned here. The significant relationship between the two curves is only 17 percent. As statisticians realize, such a conclusion is little more than might be obtained from purely coincidental symmetry. Apparently, we cannot rely on the disappearance of the youth bulge to remedy our youth problems.

Mr. Adelson also cites the research of Daniel Offer and others to the effect that many adolescents are leading wholesome, traditional lives. Given the fact that there are millions of adolescents in America, this research is probably correct. But what we have is a glass-half-full/glass-half-empty situation. The recorded levels of rates of death by suicide and homicide and rates of illegitimate births among white adolescents for the most immediate years available are now at or near the highest levels since we began keeping such statistics. It is probably true that these rates are also at the highest levels ever attained in American history—since 1607. In sum, we are faced with a critical question: should we emphasize that, measured by absolute numbers, there are now more healthy white American adolescents than ever before (which may be true), or should we be concerned that the rates of disorder among white American adolescents are now higher than ever before in our history (which is also probably true)? In this instance, I prefer taking on the role of Cassandra to that of Dr. Pang-loss. Youth conduct has been deteriorating for over twenty years. The root causes will not be quickly corrected. We cannot afford to postpone effective concern much longer.

A second important issue raised by Mr. Adelson is the matter of the institutional and intellectual interests identified with the issue of youth alienation. Obviously, a number of “helping” groups and institutions—which are not in fact always so helpful—have used the youth issue partly to advance their own pet ideologies. Indeed, it is quite likely that some of the causes of the alienation we have identified are related to the very policies fostered by these groups. Mr. Adelson shares my healthy distaste for many of them and for their policies. As a result, he concludes his article by suggesting that youth alienation should be played down as an issue, since emphasizing it gives greater credence to logically unsound policies.

The problem is that if we . . . admit that youth policy is in a bad way, then we must also conclude something has to be done. In such a situation, the issue—like war—is too important to be left to our current “generals.”

Contrary to Mr. Adelson, I—and my colleagues associated with Character magazine—do not see the choice as either denying the existence of a grave problem or leaving policy-shaping in the hands of the existing deficient agencies. We propose a third course: to devise new concepts and policies which recognize the problem, and to suggest corrective steps (typically relying on localized and decentralized measures) which bypass or even eliminate many existing agencies and policies.

Edward A. Wynne
Editor, Character
Chicago, Illinois



To the Editor:

One could not ask for a better explanation of what went wrong with the public schools than that of Joseph Adelson in “What Happened to the Schools.”

I am disappointed only in that Mr. Adelson did not discuss and finally endorse a solution to the schools’ declining performance: the introduction of a strong dose of competition in elementary and secondary education in the form of tuition-tax credits (made refundable for low-income parents).

A public-school teacher for the past decade, I am convinced there are teachers capable of extraordinary success with difficult student populations. I am also convinced that the successful methods and philosophies (and sheer effort) of these teachers will never be widely applied until there is competition in education. . . .

Introducing an element of genuine competition in education would spur the imitation of such success. The proposal for a $500 tuition-tax credit introduced recently by Senators Moynihan, Roth, and Packwood, moreover, forbids its use for schools that discriminate on the basis of race or origin.

Competition in elementary and secondary education brings risks, however. Some parents will fall for the sales pitch of charlatans of one kind or another (which is not to say that charlatans are not found within bureaucratic public-education monopolies). Charlatans, however, will not endure. A much greater risk is to tolerate an abysmal—at least as far as big-city schools—status quo. . . .

Tom Shuford
Roslyn Heights, New York



To the Editor:

. . . On the basis of my forty years’ experience in the New York City public high schools, which is probably representative of many other city school systems, may I substantiate some of Joseph Adelson’s important points.

In the 40′s and 50′s the New York City high schools ranked among the very best in the nation. Today one can count on the fingers of one hand the number of high schools which may still be considered excellent. Thirty years ago, for example, almost every large high school had a dozen classes in physics; today, with the exception of the three special high schools, there aren’t half-a-dozen physics classes in all the high schools of Manhattan and the Bronx combined. Without detailing the decline of each curriculum area, I will only examine what happened to the minimum requirements for an academic high-school diploma. During the 60′s the . . . need to complete a three-year and a two-year sequence in foreign languages, science, and mathematics, as well as to pass a State Regents examination in social studies and in English, were all eliminated by the Board of Education. Finally, the academic diploma itself was abolished. . . .

In the matter of discipline, certain influences have helped erode the authority of the principal. Small groups of so-called “concerned” parents, usually acting in conjunction with the Civil Liberties Union, as well as a politicized and pusillanimous Board of Education and the ever-omniscient courts, combined to change the relationship between pupils and teachers from one of humane guidance to an adversarial, legalistic relationship. Schools with growing disciplinary problems found themselves overwhelmed. Often, after administrators filled out all the required lengthy reports and fulfilled all the involved procedural requirements, miscreants were sent back to the schools by a weak-kneed school superintendent or a judge. Since no notation of serious delinquences was permitted on permanent record cards, delinquents were to all intents and purposes free to start over again—on the same path. . . .

Not surprisingly, confidence in the New York City public-school system continues to decline and the private schools continue to burgeon.

Louis A. Schuker
Boca Raton, Florida

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