Education in America
Since the Reagan administration’s report A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform (1983) declared that U.S. public schools were producing graduates who could not compete effectively with those from other countries, education reform has been an acute political priority. But the polemic about how best to educate children began centuries ago. This map looks at the struggles to make American public schools live up to their mandate to provide successful universal education.
Horace Mann, the Massachusetts lawmaker who pioneered public schooling in the U.S., considered education a necessity for personal fulfillment and good citizenship, believing it “holds the welfare of mankind in its embrace.” He deemed that public funding should provide, at minimum, instruction “sufficient to qualify each citizen for the civic and social duties he will be called to discharge,” including voting, serving on a jury, raising children and meriting the inheritance of a “portion of the sovereignty of this great republic.”
Mann began his advocacy for educating American children in 1837. Two centuries later, policymakers, educators and parents are still trying to find the most effective means to “ensure that all children have a fair, equal and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education,” as stated in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, President George W. Bush’s school-reform initiative. Ten years along, NCLB is falling short of its goals, and a 2012 report, U.S. Education Reform and National Security, warns that our children’s “lack of preparedness poses threats on five national security fronts.” Above all, NCLB has ignited a seemingly intractable battle between the government-driven reform movement and the people in the trenches (mostly teachers and their unions).
In the mid-1950s Rudolph Flesch advocated for a return to phonics in his book Why Johnny Can’t Read: And What You Can Do About It. With the phonics method, which reaches back to concepts endorsed by lexicographer Noah Webster in his Blue-Backed Speller (1783), learners sound out words by individual letters or spelling patterns. The standard reading curriculum in the 1950s was based on a whole-language strategy of word recognition, memorized vocabulary and interpretation (a.k.a. reading by sight). Educators generally rejected the premise that phonics provided the best route to reading proficiency for most children. But Flesch’s book, which became a best-seller, involved the general public in the school-reform debate.
The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush, codified a federal commitment to improving the literacy and math skills of public school students. NCLB instituted programs—including Reading First, which emphasizes phonics—and set goals for higher standards to which schools are held accountable. As dwindling state education budgets and other political roadblocks muddle the law’s outcomes, one thing is clear: School reform remains a front-burner issue, and NCLB has done little to bring about a consensus on how to optimize our education system.
While tutoring Johnny, a 12-year-old American public school student, reading expert Rudolf Flesch made a startling discovery: Johnny couldn’t read, and it wasn’t his fault. Flesch perceived a growing literacy crisis and blamed it on the methods used to teach children in U.S. public schools. In Why Johnny Can’t Read, Flesch urged a radical overhaul of reading education; instead of the whole-language approach then in vogue, he prescribed the early introduction of phonics—a method of reading and writing by breaking words down into component sounds and patterns—as literacy’s savior.
Phonics had been used in American schools at least since the late 18th century, but influential 19th-century education reformer Horace Mann deplored sounding-out methods, maintaining that they separate words from their meanings and reduce language to “cadaverous particles.” Mann wanted education to be a more holistic experience that would help children develop as independent, creative and morally responsible citizens. His concerns still echo today. Many educators and parents protest that the No Child Left Behind Act forces a narrow focus on teaching children to take the math and reading tests the law requires while sacrificing subjects such as arts and humanities that can’t be as easily codified and evaluated.
In The Great School Wars (1974), New York educator Diane Ravitch wrote, “The reform movement cannot be fully comprehended without reference to the works of Jacob Riis, who focused attention on the public school as the key weapon in the war against the slum.” Journalist Riis, a late-19th-century innovator in the use of flash photography, exposed the underbelly of Manhattan’s tenements, sweatshops and schools, and published his observations in How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York and other books. He often collaborated with social reformer Felix Adler, founder of the New York Society for Ethical Culture, which in 1878 opened a free kindergarten for the children of the working class. In Children of the Poor (1892), Riis called kindergarten “one of the longest steps forward that has yet been taken in the race with poverty.”
Riis, Adler and other turn-of-the-century reformers built upon foundations laid by mid-19th-century Massachusetts secretary of education Horace Mann, who believed education to be “the absolute right of every human being that comes into the world.” Mann, his second wife, nee Mary Tyler Peabody, and her sister Elizabeth Peabody were also prominent advocates of kindergarten education.
In How the Other Half Lives, photojournalist Jacob Riis graphically documented (often by staging photographs) the appalling living conditions of the immigrant poor in the slums of New York’s Lower East Side. Backed by police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, Riis sparked a wave of reforms, including improved schools and the establishment of child labor laws. Just as many education experts cite poverty as a main factor in low academic achievement, Riis correlated poverty with the reckless behavior associated with inner-city slums, recognizing that a healthily functioning society requires strong, safe communities.
Eighty years later the Harlem Children’s Zone took a similar approach at the other end of Manhattan. Called “one of the most ambitious social experiments to alleviate poverty of our time” by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the organization in 1997 created the Harlem Children’s Zone Project, a community investment and charter school network that drew national attention as the inspiration for President Obama’s Promise Neighborhoods grant program and as the subject of the documentary Waiting for “Superman.” HCZ aims to improve the future of children by also focusing on housing reform, community building and improving young lives from the get-go, with prenatal health, parenting and preschool programs.
President George W. Bush introduced No Child Left Behind, his education reform cornerstone, to counteract persistent lower achievement levels in schools with large populations of economically disadvantaged students, which he blamed on “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” NCLB aims for all schools to achieve 100 percent proficiency (a likely impossible goal) in math and reading by 2014, but its federally mandated school-based reforms have not provided for adequate accompanying social programs to address the educational challenges faced by the 16 million American children living in poverty. President Barack Obama introduced provisions to NCLB in 2011 to lessen the penalties imposed on disadvantaged schools working to raise proficiency levels.
Obama has hailed the Harlem Children’s Zone Project and its network of charter schools in upper Manhattan as a model for education and antipoverty reform. Founded on the philosophy that children need a social support web to thrive academically, the HCZ Project uses community activism to fill the gaps left by No Child Left Behind; programs provided within its 97-block area include educational enrichment, college preparatory guidance and medical care. It’s working: HCZ students are showing better results on statewide tests than students at other city schools.
The documentary Waiting for “Superman,” a scathing critique of U.S. public schools as “academic sinkholes,” has been praised as an honest exposé of a failed education system, yet teacher and critic Rick Ayers lambastes it as a “slick marketing piece full of half-truths and distortions.” The film’s criticism of teachers and union policies deepened rifts between educators and school reformers. Ayers and others reject the film’s advocacy for charter schools and school choice, a No Child Left Behind policy that teachers claim siphons federal resources and motivated students away from struggling neighborhood schools.
Waiting for “Superman” portrays the Harlem Children’s Zone Project’s Promise Academy schools as exemplary successes of the charter school model. Critics of HCZ schools complain that the mostly private funding (board members include bankers and hedge fund managers) and the selective lottery acceptance method undermine the democratic ideal of public education. HCZ Project founder Geoffrey Canada—the film’s title comes from his childhood wish that a superhero would rescue his impoverished neighborhood—asserts that a charter school’s freedom from federal regulations and teachers’ unions is what allows its curriculum committees to innovate and its performance-tested teachers to adapt to students’ needs.
Davis Guggenheim, who directed Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth, turned his cameras to U.S. public schools in Waiting for “Superman.” The film added fuel to the complicated, emotional debate about education reform by reducing it to a simple equation: Bad teachers equal bad schools. Guggenheim demonizes teachers’ unions and argues for eliminating tenure and introducing merit-based pay to improve educational outcomes. But educator-led backlash, including the Grassroots Education Movement’s film The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for “Superman” (2011), proposes other factors as the roots of educational failure: starved budgets, socioeconomic segregation and top-down federal policies that miss the point of education.
The policy at the heart of current debates, the No Child Left Behind Act, employs standardized tests to measure student proficiency in math and reading. Diane Ravitch, who was assistant secretary of education under George H.W. Bush, at first supported NCLB but now believes it does more harm than good. “It is possible to have higher test scores and worse education,” she posits. “The scores tell us nothing about how well students can think, how deeply they understand history or science or literature or philosophy.” Learning only to take tests, many believe, robs children of a well-rounded education.