We are told that we are "A Nation at Risk," that ours is, overall, an inferior system of public education which produces mediocre high school graduates. But surely this is not news. I, for one, have "told you so" for more than 25 years-- even before Sputnik. I indicated serious deficiencies in our system, especially in comparision with public primary and secondary education in other technologically advanced countries, such as Great Britain, the Soviet Union and Switzerland, and I described our system as "A National Failure." In math and science, as well as in other solid subjects such as foreign languages and general literacy, we were markedly inferior in the numbers and quality of courses required and in the quality of teaching.
Despite such early alarms from the late 1950s on, our system of public education has not improved. Instead of more required courses of high quality, electives and "bonehead" courses still flourish. A partial list of our failings includes: decline in the quality of teachers recruited and in their training; relaxed standards in curricula and grading; dramatic decline in average SAT scores in math and verbal examinations over the past two decades. Quite simply, and for far too long, in academics we have been "riding an anchor."
Among the specific changes I proposed to redress the manifold inadequacies in American education are:
A return to the ideal of a genuinely liberal education for all--specifically including increased numbers of required courses, regardless of the graduate goals of students. To do otherwise is to lock many--most--students into educational inadequacy and a consequently dim future as working adults;
A nationwide system of standardized examinations as the primary basis for educational promotion. Without such a manner of assessing academic performance, students, parents and teachers will lack reasonably objective bases for determining how well or poorly our children do in school;
Higher pay for teachers--commensurate with the great responsibility they shoulder-- and their release from non-teaching tasks. Better compensation should be tied to higher standards in teacher recruitment and training, and in the testing of teachers' on-the-job performance.
We have now a plethora of reports and findings by numerous "blue-ribbon" committees, most important of which, perhaps, is the recent "A Nation at Risk," by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. All document the dismal state of educational affairs in this country and, in general, make recommendations consistent with those I have made repeatedly and for many years. I shall not, therefore, reiterate their findings here. Rather I wish to identify what I see as the underlying, root causes of our considerable educational malaise: namely, a singular loss of the focus, realism and purpose required for the effective implementation of the specific goals of our educational programs. Commonly cited statistics of poor student performance, low teacher morale, narrow self-interest of teachers' unions, and bureaucratic pettifoggery by school administrators are but the symptoms, not by themselves the causes, of our problems.
What we seem to have lost in the last two to three decades of our sporadic concern with educational reforms is a sense of realistic proportion as to how to ensure that our reforms are both well thought-out--that is, desirable and feasible--as well as unlikely to generate counterproductive consequences. Instead, we have become caught up in one variety after another of quick fixes and reformist gimmicks. These have been highly politicized, catering alternately to wishful thinking or to self-serving recriminations.
Witness, for example, the overly simplistic "back to basics" proposals; the "prayer in schools" panacea; the naive, often counterproductive proliferating of compensatory programs in multi-cultural, bilingual education. At best such fads have given false hope--at worst they have been damaging. All have shortchanged students and citizens alike. This is not to say that no constructive changes, whatsoever, have been accomplished in the last several decades-- only that the salutary changes have been few and minor, and have been bought at a great price to our country and our children.
We have lost that realistic sense of purpose which alone can allow us to achieve the productive focus essential for a wise and coherent educational system. We must concentrate, not dissipate, our efforts. Our schools cannot be all things to all people; to attempt to have them be so--teacher, nurse, parent, semiprofessional recreation director and all-purpose moral guide --is to guarantee a continued exorbitant level of educational waste.
The following are three--but not the only-- basic changes necessary to focus our educational attention:
First, we must realize that ensuring adequate educations for our children will involve requiring more academically "solid" courses for all students--not simply those who are college- bound. These courses should emphasize the verbal and mathematical competence which are increasingly required of all working adults. For without such basic skills, graduated students-- however vocationally well-trained they may become in high school--cannot expect to be easily retrained. Later remedial work, attempting to bring unemployed workers "up to code," tends to be too little and too late.
Second, we must ensure the opportunity for all talented students to achieve their intellectual potential. This is best achieved, not by public relations-like enticements of all students, but rather through giving all students who possess the motivation and ability to excel the opportunity to do so. Not all students, regardless of motivation, can achieve the highest levels; moreover, unmotivated students, however bright they may be, are likely to remain untractable underachievers. By dissipating our educational funds on broadcast appeals to all students to go the route of high academic achievement--or worse, by denying such access to the genuinely talented, unless all students representatively participate--we have produced the dramatic shortfall in students educated at an advanced level. The result is a shortage of the gifted scientists and scholars on whom our country depends for its continued well-being.
By directing our efforts solely to raising average scores of school populations--albeit to still unacceptable levels--rather than encouraging excellence in talented individuals, we have in effect sold our intellectual birthright for a mess of mediocre pottage. Moreover, as I have pointed out before, we cannot expect for the foreseeable future to rely upon disproportionately recruiting our scholars and scientists from abroad. Of course, such immigrants--including importantly those from India, east and Southeast Asia, Israel and elsewhere in the Near East--are welcome, whether they come as children or adults, as refugees or as workers. But we must produce our own "home-grown" creative, practicing scholars, scientists, and engineers. It has been estimated that we, as a nation, need but 50,000 or so new, highly skilled scientists per year, but we are already falling short of producing even this modest number.
2 Finally, it is imperative that we radically modify our system of recruiting, training, and compensating our teachers. I have already stated that we must pay our teachers more; much more if we we expect intellectually capable and motivated men and women to choose teaching as a life's work and remain committed to it. But the teachers must be much better, on average, than they presently are. Far too many teachers in all sections of this country are failing even the simplest standardized tests of the rudimentary mathematical and verbal skills which are indispensable for effective teaching. In "A Nation often cAt Risk" we are informed that, nationwide, "Half of the newly employed mathematics, science, and English teachers are not qualified to teach these subjects."
Small wonder when, among all college-bound seniors, prospective teachers have, on average, lower verbal and math SAT scores than all but those students destined for home economics, ethnic studies and trade and vocational work.
I propose that we abandon, as quickly as we can, our reliance on teachers' colleges and educational degrees as the basis of our selection of future pedagogues. I applaud those states--such as California--which have already taken the important step of requiring a substantive major in a solid discipline as a condition of employment as a teacher; so, too, I commend universities-- Johns Hopkins and Lawrence universities, to name but two among many--which do not offer bachelor's degrees in education. Except for some very small number--if any--of education courses, what our teachers need is thorough training in substantive academic fields at recognized excellent schools, not just the sort of "science for teachers," "social studies for teachers," etc., courses which too often prevail. Master's degrees in education are, moreover, no substitute for high-quality, academically solid training; such degrees are, in general, but one more example of spurious diplomas collected for purposes of bureaucratic advancement.
Higher pay for teachers, and the resulting "buyer's market," would enable recruitment of the intellectually best students available, not simply of those with low IQs or with minimal qualifications. For certainly there is no better guarantee of mediocre students than that they be taught by intellectually mediocre teachers. Other countries--including Third World nations such as the People's Republic of China-- have discovered what we have forgotten: that teachers must be among the most highly prized and best compensated members of a civilization if its educational system and its students are to achieve excellence.
I have made but three recommendations for the long overdue reformation of the public educational system in America. They represent fundamental starting points: to add to the number of recommendations, sub-recommendations, and so forth, is to court the same lack of focus and resulting wastefulness which has cursed us in the past. We have the opportunity, and we still possess the resources necessary, to effect the required changes in American education. We have examples--many in private education--as to just what academic excellence looks like and how to achieve it. We must dedicate ourselves to the necessary sacrifices. Or else!
The primary function of parents is to bear and to develop their children to the greatest extent possible. But the present trend in American life-- with games, sports and, above all, television--has distracted parents from their fundamental responsibility: to pass on our heritage, our culture, to their children. Not to do so fully is to defraud their own creations. This is a "crime" far worse than many things we label as criminal and for which we punish our citizens.