From Education Weak, to Education Strong
By Sam Johnson
week, schools across the U.S. have been marking “American Education Week” with
a variety of activities, news items, and announcements aimed at highlighting
the importance of education in our society.
With the slogan Great
Public Schools: A Basic Right and Our Responsibility, the National Education Association
(NEA), one of the sponsors of this awareness week, is “calling upon America to
provide students with quality public schools so that they can grow, prosper,
and achieve in the 21st century.”
According to the NEA,
this annual observance was initiated after World War I draft boards discovered
that about 25 percent of the draftees were illiterate, and 29 percent were
physically unfit. Education in America was weak.
In 1917 the American
Legion, NEA, and the U.S. Office of Education discussed launching an
educational campaign to correct such deficiencies. As a result, a series of
conferences that began in 1919 led to a plan for an annual nationwide
observance, and two years later in 1921, the first “American Education Week”
observance took place.
Of course, the
realization of the importance of education in America goes back as far as the
devoted to the fundamental principle that “education is the bedrock of our
democracy,” fervently believed that democracy’s most potent weapon against
tyranny was a liberal education available to all who sought it.
He maintained that “a
civilization which expects to be both ignorant and free, expects that which
never was and never will be,” and in an effort to start America off in the
right direction, proposed that children in Virginia “receive three years of
common schooling at the public expense.”
But it wasn’t until
1837-48 that public education as we know it began. It was during this time that
Horace Mann (now commonly referred to as the father of American public education)
gave up a promising career as a senator to become secretary of the state board
of education in Massachusetts.
During these years
Mann began the first real reform movement in public education by setting up a
“common school” system to provide a “universal education common to all.”
He believed that
“education is the gateway to equality...the wellspring of freedom” that should
be available to everyone. The reforms he instituted provided all citizens with
a moral as well as an intellectual education.
Then at the turn of
the century, John Dewey took up the banner of public education and called for a
“democratic education for all citizens.” His influential book, “Democracy and
Education,” made him the figurehead and key spokesperson for a new “science of
Dewey spent many
years promoting teaching as a worthy profession, and leading the progressive
education movement. He continued to be an active influence on public education
until his death in 1952. Many aspects of his educational philosophy are still
in practice today.
Then in 1957 the
Russians launched Sputnik, and public education rocketed into the age of
science and math.
continued through the ’60’s and ’70’s, gradually giving way to a “new school”
of thought about education.
In many places the
emphasis turned towards a new openness, which included “open classrooms” with
an “open curriculum” and new “electives” that students could “relate to.” It
was believed students needed to “experience their surroundings” in order to be
truly successful learners. “Values clarification” was one of the popular
phrases and educational concepts at that time.
But by the 1980’s, a
proliferation of reports began to appear asking “Why Johnny Can’t . . . read,
write, think, speak, add,” etc. and called for a return “back to basics.” The
buzzword of the day became “accountability.”
Though some groups
did propose specific reform plans, (such as “The Paideia Proposal: An
Educational Manifesto” issued by philosopher-educator Mortimer Adler and the
Paideia Group), it wasn’t until the National Commission on Excellence in
Education issued its report in 1983 called “A Nation At Risk” that society as a
whole began to look seriously at educational reform, realizing that blame
shouldn’t be placed on teachers, but on the entire educational system.
The report set off a
nation-wide reform movement that spawned subsequent reports such as “A Nation
Prepared” and others by the Carnegie Task Force and similar commissions. Best
selling books such as Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind,” and E.
D. Hirsch’s “Cultural Literacy” fueled the notion of “A Nation At Risk,”
causing the government to take educational reform seriously.
As a result, the U.S.
Dept. of Education under President Reagan proposed new “model schools” along
with new ways of approaching basic curriculum that led the way in revising and
raising standards, increasing academic and graduation requirements, and
increasing the amount of time students were to spend in school.
Yet American students
continued to lag behind many of their global counterparts.
Following the “A
Nation At Risk” report, each American President has made education a prominent
part of their administration, some more than others.
President George H.
W. Bush slated education as a top national priority and set up a national
education agenda with the country’s governors.
released a report titled “Challenging the Status Quo” that pushed for educational
accountability and student achievement, strengthening teacher quality, making
schools safer, expanding school choice and charter schools, and opening the
doors of college to all Americans.
President George W.
Bush enacted the widely criticized “No Child Left Behind” policy, which
mandated student improvement without providing a means for teacher improvement.
In March of this
year, President Obama unveiled his plan for reforming education that includes a
number of “accountability measures” and financial “carrots” (such as “Race to
the Top”) to encourage states to develop and maintain school-improvement
strategies based on proven student progress in learning.
Yet to date, American
students continue to lag behind their global counterparts. One recent study
concluded that high school students in 23 countries outperformed U.S. students
in math, students in 16 countries outperformed U.S. students in science, and
students in nine countries outperformed U.S. students in reading and writing.
So, how do we go from
American education weak, to American education strong.
must begin with teacher education programs, not only in the preparation of new
teachers, but also in the recruitment of quality people to these programs. New
incentives and better salaries must be provided (ND continues to rank 49th out
of 50 states in teacher salaries, and at the bottom of the list in overall
expenditure on education). This must be done not only to attract high caliber
people into teaching, but also to keep the skilled teachers now in the
profession. And major changes in curriculum, teaching methods, and in our
approach to basic schooling must be made if real improvement in student
learning is to take place.
If may take a village
to raise a child, but it takes a nation to educate one.
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