American Education Week

From Education Weak, to Education Strong

By Sam Johnson

     This 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 country itself.
     Thomas Jefferson, 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.”

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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 teaching.”
     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.
     This emphasis 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.
     President Clinton 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.
     Real improvements 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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