Click here to listen to the broadcast of You Tell Me on Newstalk 600 KTBB, Friday, April 25, 2008.

Let me share with you a quote.

“If an unfriendly power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

That line came from a report issued 25 years ago this week by the National Commission on Excellence in Education titled, A Nation at Risk.”

By 1983, the fact that America had taken the wrong path on public education was becoming clear. By that year, seeds sewn in the racially charged 1960s had fully blossomed. Much of what had been enacted through legislation and imposed by court order was coming home to roost.

Here’s some history.

The first collective bargaining contract between teachers and school district was signed in 1962 in New York City. That agreement, and the ones in other cities that soon followed, transformed teachers from members of a respected profession into yet another militant labor group — fighting for pay, benefits and government money.

SAT scores for college-bound students peaked in 1964.

In 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed. This was the first large-scale federal involvement in school funding and it was a part of the sweeping legislative initiatives of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.” The intent was to provide federal funding to schools with a predominance of low-income students. The effect was to permanently implant the idea of a direct correlation between school funding and academic achievement. Many, if not most, Americans cling to that idea still, despite four decades of experience to the contrary.

Between 1975 and 1980 there were more than a thousand strikes and job actions involving more than a million teachers. As a result of this labor unrest, teachers’ salaries rose even as student test scores declined.

But most damaging by far, in my opinion, was the 1966 report titled “Equality of Educational Opportunity” produced by a group of scholars headed by James Coleman and which came to be called simply, “The Coleman Report.” The Coleman Report advanced the idea that minority students, meaning mostly blacks, could not prosper academically without being integrated into racially mixed classrooms.

This was the catalyst for school desegregation court orders. Most of us called it “forced busing.”

Busing did enormous damage. It removed children from their neighborhoods and made it nearly impossible for parents to be involved in school activities. It led school districts to reshuffle the attendance deck every year to obtain a court ordered racial balance on campuses, often making it impossible for high school classes to remain together through graduation.

The time spent riding buses cut into extracurricular activities and reduced the time available for study and after-school jobs.

Parents saw control of their neighborhood schools slipping from the grasp of the teachers and principals. Those that had the means moved to suburbs that weren’t subject to a desegregation order. Or they placed their children in private and parochial schools. This ultimately led to the farce of thousands of children being bused across town to schools that had become de facto segregated schools. So much for the benefits of a racially mixed classroom.

But the most insidious damage was sociological. Prior to the 1960s, schools were central to neighborhoods. Neighborhoods fostered community. Community supported families and the application of social norms, including those attendant to marriage and child bearing. When children were ripped from neighborhood schools and taken across town, far from neighborhood and parental involvement, it sent a clear signal that parents mattered less in education and that government mattered more.

And families began to disintegrate.

Today, 25 years after the publication of “A Nation at Risk” things are much worse. The sorry state of many of our public schools makes it clear that no program, no legislation, no increase in funding, none of the shopworn panaceas, can compensate for the breakdown of families and thus communities — the principal transmitters of the culture. As George Will said in an article in yesterday’s Washington Post,

“No reform can enable schools to cope with the 36.9 percent of all children and 69.9 percent of black children today born out of wedlock, which means, among many other things, a continually renewed cohort of unruly adolescent males.”

Since the 1960s, we have allowed our schools to be laboratories of social engineering and experiment. The results have been disastrous.

Today, we are beyond being a “Nation at Risk.” We’re a nation in deep trouble.

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