Commentary Magazine

Why the Schools May Not Improve

The report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk, has become so familiar since it was issued in 1983 that it is hard to remember how surprised we were when it appeared. Most of us interested in education were entirely unprepared for its tone and emphasis. It had been assumed we would get a characteristic product of the committee process—a report temperate and evenhanded, which might well mean, in practice, an exercise in the vacuous, the sententious, and the banal.

From what one could learn of the commission at work, there was little reason to hope otherwise. As it happens, I had been asked to write a position paper for the commission, hence was able to meet with the members formally and informally, and watch them take testimony, hear reports, question witnesses, and each other. During a long afternoon, one could see few signs of fire in anyone’s belly. To the contrary, the commission membership appeared so diverse in background and disparate in views that an essentially political document, marked by restraint and compromise, seemed to be required if a report were to be issued at all. The commission’s able staff had been assiduous in providing the widest possible variety of data and opinion: work showing that American youngsters were doing very poorly in international comparisons was balanced by arguments that those findings were weak, misleading, and not to be taken too seriously. A pessimistic paper on American education, such as my own, would be offset by an exceedingly optimistic one. All in all, it seemed likely that the struggle to strengthen the schools would not gain much from the commission, that its report would, at best, provoke the usual one-day Washington flurry, then be forgotten.




The first surprise, then, was that the commission somehow managed to transcend those inclinations toward caution, to write a report that was straightforward, outspoken, at moments nearly fierce. The second surprise was the acclaim it received, and the—continuing—attention it gained for the problems of American education. Why a chronic crisis is suddenly perceived to be acute; why one event strikes a nerve while another, similar event does not; why we unexpectedly develop the collective conviction that something must be done—those are the mysteries of the Zeitgeist, penetrable only by hindsight, if then.

It is important to bear in mind that the report made no new discoveries. The sorry state of the American schools had been evident for many years. If there was a true mystery, it was not that the report said what it did, or attracted attention, but why it had taken so long, why enlightened opinion had not previously been fully engaged. One could hear a good deal about the problem privately—parents retelling some of the hair-raising stories brought home by their children, or college teachers reporting the most recent solecisms encountered in student compositions. There is a local teacher who compiles a catalogue of the worst howlers he has come across in papers graded during the past year; he distributes it to colleagues, to their vast amusement; and one senses they laugh to keep from crying, there being nothing quite so frustrating as the semi-literacy they confront almost daily.

Nor was the plight of the schools known only privately; not at all. A number of journalists—notably Gilbert Sewall of Newsweek and Gene Maeroff of the New York Times—had been writing trenchant stories (later books) on the problems of education, and what might be done about them. There had even come to be an annual ritual—a story reporting the latest decline in SAT scores. Another annual event was the Gallup poll of public opinion about the schools—sometimes slightly up, sometimes down, but on the whole bleak. In a number of state legislatures, plans for the competence testing of high-school seniors were being debated, at times carried out. Looking back, we can now see that by the late 1970′s, a critical mass of writers, intellectuals, and academics—few of them entrenched within the education establishment—were beginning to be heard on the failures of the schools: Diane Ravitch, Chester E. Finn, Jr., Dennis Doyle, Tommy Tomlinson. And at the very end of that decade, one was aware that a number of large studies of high schools were under way—by James Coleman, Gerald Grant, John Goodlad, Ernest Boyer, Theodore Sizer—all initiated by a mounting uneasiness about the condition of secondary education.

So there were many straws in the wind; but then there always are. At the time, it took great optimism to believe that we would soon see fundamental changes in thinking about the schools, let alone changes in practice. There were bureaucracies to be found at all levels of the education system, from the local to the national—and they tended to be sluggish, defensive, unwilling to undertake change, unable to grasp the nature of the complaints being made, or too preoccupied with finances and housekeeping to give more than cursory attention to issues of pedagogy.



If the bureaucrats of education were generally inert, the soi-disant intellectuals—scholars and theorists—were likely to be testy and aggressive. The disinterested observer could sense in them an emotional raggedness, a quick-on-the-trigger sensitivity to criticism. They often saw themselves as samurai who had been given the task of defending the system that had emerged during the 1960′s. The system, one would be told, might have its faults, but nevertheless represented a triumph of humane values and democratic ideals. Threats to the system were seen to be political in inspiration. In private conversation, one would sometimes hear amazing things said: that there was an orgy of book-burning in the schools set in motion by the Moral Majority; or that the high schools had no function except to keep youngsters out of the labor market, so as to maximize corporate profits.

Public discourse was generally more guarded, but even there it was not difficult to perceive an embittered ideological animus, two noteworthy examples being the efforts to discredit Marva Collins’s work in her Chicago school, and the innuendo and obloquy which greeted the important Coleman, Hoffer, and Kilgore research on high-school achievement. With hindsight, once again, it might appear that so much touchiness bespoke a dwindling sense of inner confidence; but the more common reaction was to despair for the immediate future of education, dominated as it appeared to be by a curious mixture of mediocrity (in personnel, techniques, and ideas) and ideology (egalitarian, individualistic, utopian).

Another reason for pessimism was that many defenders of education would hint that the critics were actuated not by politics alone, but also by a covert racism. To worry openly about the collapse of cognitive skills was taken to be a surreptitious way of questioning the competence of blacks. To be sure, there were enough instances of poor black performance to warrant alarm about their schooling; but the general level of intellectual quality was at least equally worrisome. A university professor might, for example, read a term paper containing serious grammatical errors in almost every sentence, then learn that the writer was a college senior with a high grade-point average, preparing to attend graduate school, the child of a successful professional, and a graduate of a fast-track suburban high school. Or be asked to sign a permission slip drafted by another college senior (white, middle class) containing three spelling mistakes in two sentences (“herby,” “permision,” “signiture”).

In fact, the problem of black achievement is less troubling, because it is less puzzling. But how is one to understand a youngster who has had the best of everything, yet after sixteen years of schooling is unable to write a comprehensible sentence? And how is one to understand an educational system which passes such a youngster through a competitive high school, a selective university, and into a good graduate program? Race was only one of the many questions troubling the critics, yet the conversation on educational quality was conducted so allusively and so euphemistically that it often proved difficult to make that plain.

A final reason for pessimism: the critics of the schools were not themselves powerfully situated, and, looking about them, did not see the prospect of strong institutional support. Above all, they found themselves thwarted and puzzled by the indifference of the universities. After all, it was higher education which felt most directly the failings of the schools; yet those failings did not become a matter of institutional concern. It was not hard to see why: the universities felt that the schools—and even more, their ecology, the schools of education, and the teacher-training apparatuses, and the accreditation procedures—were a briar patch of ineptitude, stubbornness, and entrenched interests—unreformable, hopeless, best left alone. So there would be little help from higher education.



Then A Nation at Risk took the nation by storm. Against all expectations, the nerve had been struck. A public long unhappy about the schools, but held at bay by bureaucratic inertia, intimidated by expert opinion, kept in check by a solipsistic legal system, had at long last found its own interests voiced, and by the most unlikely agent of redemption, the federal government. Other reports were to appear in the following months—Goodlad, Boyer, Sizer—but the commission, in preceding them, also adumbrated them, or seemed to, so that these later works were accommodated into the “paradigm” already established. A bandwagon was soon rolling: the pundits and politicians who had shown no previous interest in education, let alone its quality, quickly added their voices. So did, mirabile dictu, the National Education Association, until that moment noted only for a fastidious distaste for the idea of excellence, thought to be elitist, perhaps illiberal.

Yet these elements, the opportunistic and the merely fashionable, were only the smallest part of the reaction. What seemed far more important were the actions taken locally or at the state level to revamp curricula and to increase requirements for graduation. Even such actions, important as they were, were understood to be surrogates for those changes of the spirit felt to be really needed. They were to serve to signal parents and teachers and the young themselves of the communal wish to be—once again—serious about schooling. There was to be more time devoted to academic subjects, there was to be more homework given, and done. When feasible economically, the school year and school day were to be lengthened. There were to be orderly classrooms, and more systematic, focused, attentive instruction.

The tide had turned. Perhaps there would be further struggles, even some minor setbacks; but now it seemed clear to all that corrupt progressivism, the dominating mode in American education, had had its moment, had failed wretchedly, had been seen to fail, and knew itself to have failed. What many parents suspected, and what many teachers knew in their bones, was confirmed each time new findings appeared. For example:

The number of American youngsters scoring over 650 on the verbal portion of the SAT declined 45 percent in the ten-year period from 1972 to 1982.

In the most meticulous cross-national research yet carried out, comparing American, Japanese, and Taiwanese children, Harold Stevenson found that in mathematics “only one American child appeared among the top one hundred fifth graders,” and “among the twenty American fifth-grade classrooms, in not one classroom was the average score on the mathematics test equivalent to that of the children in the worst-performing Japanese classroom.”

Stevenson’s prose is unemotional, yet even so he terms these (and similar) findings “devastating,” as indeed they are, made the more so by the fact that the American children were more advantaged than their Asian counterparts, coming from well-educated families, and attending much smaller classes. Still, one felt that the pain occasioned by these findings could be borne, given the belief that reform was at hand.




The third surprise—a most unpleasant one—was the slowly dawning recognition that the tide may not have turned after all, that despite the reports and the resolve, the movement for reform might well be blunted, that the disarray of its opponents, though real enough, had been only momentary, that the forces against reform were unpersuaded and unchastened.

As soon as the reform of education became a public issue, one began to notice efforts, witting or not, to change the subject, to divert the discussion to other questions. The most obvious form this took was political: each presidential candidate, declared and undeclared, rushed into speech. Planks were drafted, platforms rewritten. The true course of education had been subverted/had been enhanced/would be moved forward by the new/ old administration. New programs were needed. New programs were not needed. More money was needed. More money was not needed. In other instances the discussion was moved to issues closer to education yet secondary in importance. Merit pay for teachers: it may or may not be a good idea, but it is hard to see its importance. It is hard to see how, even over time, it would produce a significant improvement in teaching and learning. Yet the issue of merit pay, pro and con, absorbed a considerable amount of discussion and debate. Another example was the controversy about the competence-testing of current teachers. It is hard to see what effect it would have beyond harassing an already beleaguered group.

Another diversion was that many of those strongly in favor of academic reform also favored, quite as strongly, some other purpose for the schools, usually moralistic: prayer; monitoring the school libraries; scrutinizing the curriculum in sex education, or getting rid of it altogether; getting rid of the relativistic approach to moral education; teaching values through literature or philosophy; and so on. Most of us will find some of these proposals lamentable, and others laudable; the problem was that their being linked to academic reform tended to confound separate domains, and much of the time tended to alienate one or another type of parent, e.g., those who might favor intellectual achievement yet were modernist (or traditionalist) in moral outlook.

These diversions and confoundings were more annoying than disturbing, were disturbing only insofar as they suggested an increased diffusion of purpose. What was troubling, and unexpected, was the appearance of rhetorical strategies which seemed to aim at denying the very existence of problems in education. In various ways, these problems were said never to have existed, to have been trumped up, to have been trivial, to have been distorted, to have been misunderstood, to be only a small part of the total picture, to be a thing of the past, and so on. To a clinical psychologist like myself, these devices seemed eerily familiar: denial, negation, splitting, externalization, displacement. For the last few months I have been noting examples of these defensive tactics as they appear in the press. Here are the major themes:

Things really aren’t so bad: stories reporting that though there may be minor problems in the schools, these have “been blown up out of proportion.”

Some things may not be good, but other things are first-rate: upbeat accounts of successful ventures, aiming to provide “a balanced picture.”

Those who criticize the schools do so out of base motives: these stories personalize, drawing attention away from the problem itself and toward the personality of the critic. A choice example is this statement from a press release: “A large part of the public’s confusion [i.e., why it mistakenly believes there are problems in the schools] comes from university scholars trying to attract attention to themselves.” The speaker is President Derek Bok of Harvard, the celebrated shrinking violet.

Perhaps things were bad at one time, but that was long ago: stories which historicize the schools’ problems, suggesting they are safely in the past, and long since resolved. This motif usually accompanies enthusiastic accounts of new approaches to familiar difficulties. A recent example can be found in Time’s account of the Reagan administration’s calling attention to discipline problems in American schools. The story stresses the “dismay” of educators at the President’s initiative, argues that the administration’s data are dated, and offers in rebuttal several heartwarming anecdotes about chaotic schools now become pacific. In fact, the data are not all that dated, and are the most recent findings available; the story offers no newer evidence, aside from those anecdotes and some indignant opinions. The thrust of the story is to suggest, quite incorrectly, that discipline is no longer a problem in the schools.

Finally, and above all: those who criticize the schools have a political end in mind. They are trying to turn back the clock.



This last theme, openly ideological, deserves our close attention. Some of the motifs mentioned earlier seem to have little behind them; they are efforts at amnesia, or simple outbursts of Pollyannaism. But the ideological strategy is another matter entirely. It is principled; it is determined; it is intelligent; it is adversarial. It takes the view that reform is reaction, that the pursuit of excellence will endanger worthier ideals, that the movement for reform is a stalking horse for the recrudescence of dangerous values. The reform proposals are seen not merely as misguided, but illegitimate, a subversion of the proper ideals of American education. The position taken is revanchiste: the new era must be resisted, then overturned.

In the softer, attenuated version, the revanchiste idea is not carried to its limits: changes must be made, yet without giving up the accomplishments of the past. We see its quintessential expression in the press release mentioned earlier, chronicling the outcome of a summit meeting of thirty-nine university presidents who, prompted by the public concern about education, convened and considered and conceived ten recommendations for the universities, each and every one vapid, self-important, and condescending: “Providing opportunities for the continued professional development of superintendents, principals, and other school leaders”; “strengthening existing affiliations with elementary and secondary schools or initiating new ones”; “serving, where needed, as sources of advice in the shaping of public policies affecting education.” And so on.

One would not expect much bite or penetration from a summit-level communiqué, and certainly not one issued by university presidents. Still, one had hoped for a bit more than these fatuities. No institution is more grievously harmed by the erosion of talent this nation is witnessing, and one might presume the universities would see it as their duty to preserve and support that talent. Yet we find that the presidents give almost no attention to what caused the fuss in the first place. The concern rather is to allay anxiety, since “too uniformly gloomy” a picture has been painted for the public. We are reminded that the “significant achievements” of the recent past must not be forgotten; these consist of improving achievement in younger children (in fact, an arguable conclusion) and “improving access” to the schools.

Anyone steeped in current education commentary is soon aware of the word “access”—generally preceded by “providing” or “improving”—part buzz word, part code word, and a delicate way of adverting to universal secondary education, and more particularly the presence of blacks and other minorities in the senior grades of high schools and colleges. It is the succinct expression of a somewhat more complicated idea: that there is an implacable trade-off between excellence and equality (now more commonly called “equity”), so that encouraging a democratic school system produces a decline in achievement. Equality means leveling, which in turn means intellectual mediocrity (of course, it is not put so crudely); mediocrity is the price we pay for universal education. That is by no means a new idea; to the contrary, it is a very old, conservative idea, albeit with a somewhat different moral emphasis. It has now become the conventional establishment-liberal idea. One can understand its appeal. It is centrist, moderate, enlightened, above all symmetrical: excellence and equity in balance, on a seesaw, so that a rise in one virtue induces a fall in the other.

It is also a comforting idea, permitting one to take long views, and to look well past today’s troubles. Unfortunately, it is more appealing than useful as an explanation of intellectual decline. Even if we limit ourselves to the two findings mentioned above, it is plain enough that widened access has little to do with it. The American portion of the cross-national study was conducted in Minneapolis, which has few minority families. The sharp decline in top SAT scores cannot have been much affected by universal secondary schooling. For some years now, poor American performance in international comparisons has been explained by the high retention rates in our secondary schools, but other countries—notably Japan—now show similar rates, while maintaining much higher standards of achievement.



Nevertheless, the fear of excellence is real enough, when the case can be made that the disadvantaged are at risk. Here, for example, is the story of a contretemps now taking place in my own community in Michigan, as reported by one of the local newspapers: it tells us a great deal about what can intervene between intention and outcome when higher standards are sought. The school administration had proposed some modest increases in high-school graduation requirements, essentially along the lines suggested by the various commission reports. No matter that they were modest; there was an immediate uproar. The plan agitated “angry teachers,” who were said to consider it “simplistic.” It was also deemed reactionary: a high-school principal is reported as saying that it reminded him of the curriculum of twenty years ago.

The new plan would require three years of math and science, so that “even marginal students would have to pass basic chemistry, physics, algebra, geometry, and logic to gain their diplomas.” That might well raise the dropout rate, now very low. Mandating courses might mean eliminating electives, which students are said to like. “Electives have pizzazz,” a teacher is said to have said. Besides, college-bound students already take many courses in science and math, so why have requirements? Besides, the teachers are angry because they were not adequately consulted. Besides, the community is angry because it was not adequately consulted. Besides, the administration’s proposal evades the real issue, which is the presence among students of “passivity, apathy, linear thinking, and dependence on authority.” A local professor of education is quoted to this effect, along with the observation that what is really needed, before we rush into things, is—more research, to tell us how to “involve students more deeply in learning.” The story concludes with an attack upon A Nation at Risk, depicted as the fons et origo of the nation’s descent into pedagogical darkness.

One finds it hard to imagine that such arguments could delay change. Given the national climate of opinion, who would not support so slight an elevation in requirements? Yet the school administration surrendered immediately, putting up no resistance. It appointed a forty-person committee, representing teachers, students, and “the community,” deputed to draft a new curriculum. That committee would in turn break up into smaller groups to hold public meetings, hear witnesses, draft reports, etc., etc., until ultimately changes would—or perhaps would not—emerge.

One also finds it hard to imagine that this farrago of shopworn and discredited ideas retains the power to compel belief. Yet the ideology persists, undaunted. In one of its major variations—liberationist—it holds that traditional schooling enslaves the spirit. Though we may achieve a rapid acquisition of skills, we do so at a terrible cost in creativity, independence of mind, joy in learning. The criticisms commonly directed against liberationist practice, that it encourages ignorance and intellectual incapacity, are treated disdainfully, it being the view that objective methods of assessment are both invalid and morally meretricious. Traditional schooling is seen to reflect an unwholesome devotion to such values as “cognitivism” and social Darwinism. The critic, in short, is seen to be a fusion of Gradgrind and Snopes.

In the Left variations, class or ethnicity outweigh all else. Here is a capsule summary of the position: “The schools are one way the privileged have chosen to intimidate, humiliate, emasculate the poor and the blacks. Tests, grades, and the like are of no moment, since they do not relate to the actual conditions these youngsters will confront—unemployment or a continuing economic degradation. Tests are little more than a means of oppressing the victims, then blaming them. All the talk about discipline is a smokescreen. It is based on straight racial bias, and is a subterfuge for getting rid of the blacks. If there are real problems, which is doubtful, they developed because the true needs of disadvantaged youngsters are not being met.”

The two variations are united in a disdain for the idea of merit. In the liberationist view, the striving for merit is seen to diminish any love for the activity itself. In the Left view, that striving produces differences in rank, distasteful and unjustly achieved, with those beginning behind destined to remain behind. The use of “merit” as a term of abuse now extends to “excellence” itself, to judge by the scorn conveyed by Irving Howe and others at a recent conference of intellectuals; and it should be no surprise to us that at least one speaker at that meeting singled out the commission’s report as an example of a deplorable drift in American life.




“Given the will power, we have the knowledge to increase school learning, and raise our national achievement standards.”

Reading that sentence prompted a moment of surprise. It is from congressional testimony given by H.J. Walberg, a leading researcher on classroom learning. What surprised me was not the statement itself, which is unquestionably correct, as Walberg’s excellent review of the literature has shown; it was the term “will power,” a term so old-fashioned, so nearly anachronistic that one will rarely see it used, certainly not by an academician. Yet when that brief instant of surprise had passed, it struck me that “will power” or some equivalent—effort, drive, energy, commitment—some word connoting intention and purpose, would indeed be needed in discussing both the immediate past and the probable future of American education.

We are, of course, more comfortable in discussing these matters by reference to tangibles: the economy, the labor market, demographics, and so on. What will the supply of teachers look like in the next decade, and what incentives will be available to increase it? Are there changes in prospect for school financing? What would be the impact of tuition-tax credits in states willing to adopt them? These “realities” are or will be of vital importance in understanding the present and future of American schooling. Who can doubt that the outflow of talented women to other professions has had—and will continue to have—a profound effect on teaching quality? Who can deny that many of the problems of the schools have been due to the population anomalies of the last generation: larger families and crowded age cohorts, which contribute in the first case to lowered intellectual capacity, and in the second, to a staggering increase in such pathologies as drug use, criminal violence, and illegitimate births, all of these having the deepest impact on the climate of schooling? It is perhaps worth mentioning here that the lowering of family size and birth rate, though little noted by writers on education up until now, will likely be the single most important benign influence on American schooling in the next decade.

Nevertheless, there seems to be no calculus of tangibles which allows us to comprehend fully the debacle of American schooling in the recent past. But my underlying argument here is that it is far more important to understand those ideas, true ones or false ones, which allow us either to overcome or to succumb to the hard facts of life—above all, the ideologies and illusions, the illusions fed by ideologies and the ideologies fed by illusions.

At almost every moment during the last two decades, the schools and the young have been held hostage to our fantasies. Why in the world did so many university professors allow themselves to believe that the college students of the 1960′s and ’70′s were so remarkably gifted? They were not, yet that illusion contributed to grade inflation at the universities, which led in turn to the despoliation of the high-school curriculum. Why did so many social scientists—many of them familiar with the psychometric literature—allow themselves to believe that minority students functioning two standard deviations below the mean in aptitude and achievement would nevertheless do successful work in the most competitive graduate and professional programs? Why did we believe that schools incapable of teaching correct spelling would nevertheless be able to convey the highest degree of moral, psychological, and social insight? Why were we unable to perceive and reflect upon the uncertain relationship between schooling and later achievement—why it is that a James Joyce could be delivered out of the most rigid Jesuitical circumstances, whereas a hundred Summerhills have yet to deliver a James Joyce? Why did it require an accumulation of empirical work to confirm the obvious, that learning is best achieved, given enough time and enough effort, in an orderly milieu; and why has that simple finding been met with such outrage and condemnation?

A final question: why did some of us develop the illusion that these and like illusions would be easy to overcome? Why did we assume that the exposure of false doctrine to experience, or to careful empirical test, would be sufficient to change belief? I would guess we assumed so out of innocence and wishful thinking, almost as a counterpart to the innocence and wishful thinking in the utopian ideas we ourselves sought to correct and overcome. We were also too drawn to the metaphor of the pendulum, the view that cultural and intellectual life moves regularly from one pole to another. Although that view is by no means entirely false, our error was in failing to grasp the many ways in which ideologies are embodied in human lives. They provide a career, or a personal identity, or a badge of status, or a measure of religious faith. We did not anticipate how much would be at stake, hence how bitter the struggle would be. Least of all did we expect to lose that struggle as, it now seems, we may finally do.



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