“Lowest-common-denominator” education is not the answer

American public schools are under greater attack than at any time in our nation’s history. The charge is simple and direct: American public schools are not educating our youth. Schools started slipping in the depression years, and they have gotten measureably worse almost every year since.

The case against American public education is easy to document. It begins right at the start—in kindergarten and first grade. A 1971 study showed that first-grade “readers published in the 1920’s contained on the average 645 different words. By the 1930’s, this number had dropped to about 460 words.… Analyzing seven basic reader series published between 1960 and 1963, … [researchers discovered that] the total pre-primer vocabulary ranged from a low of 54 to a high of 83 words; primer vocabularies from 113 to 173 words” (Bettelheim and Zelan, On Learning to Read).

Most children at this age already know and use a vocabulary of 4,000 words or more. Even the lowest section of first-graders master well above 2,000 words. Writing a century ago, Anne Sullivan, teacher of Helen Keller, hit it on the nose: “Public education programs seem to be built upon the supposition that every child is a kind of idiot.” If that was true in her day, then in our day we must consider children five times more idiotic than a hundred years ago.

And that is just the beginning of the sad demise of American public education. Almost everyone is passed no matter how poorly he or she does. Absenteeism is rampant. Required foreign language courses have disappeared from the high schools. The average scores made by students on standardized tests have dropped almost every year. Scholastic Aptitude Test composite scores have declined 68 points between 1968 and 1980. The vast majority of students are performing at nowhere near the level their ability scores predict. And in spite of a growing population in the schools, superior students are fewer than in previous decades.

No wonder colleges and universities lament that freshmen cannot read, write, do arithmetic—or think. The U.S. is now at the very bottom among industrialized nations of the world in comparative tests given its high school graduates.

Some evangelicals, like my wife and me, chose to solve the problem by placing our children in private Christian schools. But private education is not a live option for many.

And even if all evangelicals were to educate their children in private Christian schools, they would still be deeply committed to quality public education. We want to live among fellow citizens who are educated. We live in a democracy; and as Jefferson taught us at the beginning of our nation, education is the basis of an effective democracy. It would be an unutterable tragedy for all if America fell into the hands of an uneducated citizenry.

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Partial Answers

What can we do to reverse this descending spiral and introduce an educational program that will help to keep us a great nation? In 1981 the U.S. Department of Education created a blue-ribbon commission. After a two-year study, the panel reported its findings in a book entitled A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. In condemning our present educational system in America, the report is excellent, as far as it goes. It suggests a good many valuable palliatives for our present system:

1. A curriculum of “five new basics,” including four years of high school English, three years of math, three years of science, three years of social studies, one-half year of computer science, and two years of foreign language, together with appropriate courses in the fine arts and vocational studies. That sort of requirement would put starch into the curriculum of every high school in all 50 states.

2. Higher standards, rigidly maintained.

3. Longer school days from our present six hours to a full eight, and a longer school year from our current 180 school days to 220 (as with almost every other industrial nation in the world today).

4. The upgrading of the teaching staff in preparation and performance.

However, these suggestions, though valid, will not turn our educational system into a quality program. Why? Because they do not get at the heart of the problem.

The Basic Flaw

The essential problem, fatally brushed aside without discussion by the panel’s report, is that we are committed to equalitarian education—equal and the same for all normal children from kindergarten through high school, with the same basic goals for all students.

The simple flaw that destroys the effectiveness of the whole system is that—contrary to the way some understand the Declaration of Independence—all men are not created equal. Thomas Jefferson meant that all are equal before the law. Even in a day when the population of the colonies was far more uniform than today, Jefferson had the good sense to know that all humans are not equally educable.

Picture two groups of students sitting in the same classroom and being faced with the same standards. One group have IQs of 80 to 100, and the other of 110 to 140. Can both groups be given a quality education, from K through 12, under these circumstances?

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We have criticized our teachers for doing a poor job—while asking them to do an impossible job. The fact is, our public-school teachers, on the whole, have done an astoundingly good job. We say that they have not educated, but that is untrue. They have educated. They have educated millions more students than formerly, though none of them as well.

Look at the figures: In 1889, only 6.7 percent of high-school-age young people attended high school. In 1960 the figure was in the 90th percentile. By 1982 the National Assessment of Educational Progress reported “that conventional illiteracy, the kind of basic reading required in third grade tests, had all but disappeared in the United States” (National Forum, Fall 1985).

But during this same period, as the numbers of those being educated mounted, the average quality of the education dropped below that of almost every other civilized nation.

A Solution

What can we do? We must recognize that all children are not equal—for many reasons. We need separate schools and separate programs with different standards for admittance, and clearly differentiated goals.

Some may say such a recommendation is racist. But it is not racist if we give children, regardless of race, a quality education so they may be able to realize their full potential.

“Undemocratic!” others will cry. But it is not undemocratic to give children the education that is best for them. To give every child exactly the same education is utterly unjust. Long ago John Dewey taught us we should seek for each child the kind of education the wisest and best parents would seek for their own children.

Moreover, the facts about education stand solidly against the charge that separate education and separate curriculums are undemocratic. England, Sweden, Germany, France, Switzerland, and Japan are not undemocratic. In Germany, students are assigned to different schools with different standards and different goals at the end of the fourth or fifth grade. Opportunities are provided for late bloomers who do not show their ability at quite that age level. Japan divides its students even earlier.

To safeguard a just and democratic educational system we need an extraordinary effort to ensure that every child will be able to secure the best possible education he is capable of receiving. That means special care for children from homes that are not fully supportive of education. And since children vary in the rate at which they develop intellectually, it means provision of a second and third chance for late bloomers. Further, we must take care that such a system does not become a sly way to impose bad education on blacks, or on the inner-city poor. We seek an enriching program for each student, with qualified teachers.

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True, separate schools and programs will be more expensive. They will be inconvenient. Many students will have to travel farther and longer to school. Some students (together with their parents) will have to face early on that they are slow learners. But it will enable our children to get an education. They will no longer all get the same poor education. Slow learners and those disinclined to work can be assigned to schools with attainable goals better suited to their capabilities. And the abler students can get the education they deserve and the country needs.

Even the excellent suggestions set forth in the report A Nation at Risk will not succeed unless we deal with this root problem. For example, the report insists that at least two years of language and three years of science must be required for high school graduates. At the same time, the report adds that we must “adopt more rigorous and measurable standards of performance,” with standardized tests given to determine if students may advance from one level to the next. In short, our schools should be tougher.

But either the standard must be kept very low or a great share of the students will never graduate from our schools. It is better for those who cannot master calculus to be in a program where it is not required, and where they can work at other useful tasks. Both slow and bright students would profit.

Our nation is, indeed, at risk. But Band-Aids will not cure a broken leg. America must face the facts of life about education. The more diversified our population becomes, the more nonsensical is our present program. We must make the radical organizational changes that will permit us to educate all our citizens to the degree they are educable by standards they can meet and with goals appropriate to each.

The quality of our national life and the education of our children are at stake. We need good garage mechanics, scientists, electricians, computer operators, politicians, and clerks. To provide the same education for all is to deprive our children of the education they really need.


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