Raising the Schoolhouse Roof
IN 1957, Russia launched Sputnik I, an act that challenged Americans' belief in the superiority of U.S. insitutions, expecially education. Citizens frightened by visions of Soviet domination clamored for changes in public schooling to combat the threat.
In the face of the technological ascendency of Japan and Russia, the fear that we are losing our competitive edge once again haunts the minds of Americans. The National Task Force on Education for Economic Growth, a panel of forty-one governors and influential businessmen, believes that educational mediocrity is threatening our ability to compete with Japan. Verre Orr, Secretary of the Air Force, feels "our nation's technological advantage in defense" can be maintained only by a change in our educational system. And prominent educator Paul B. Salmon echoes the sentiments of many reform advocates when he writes in American Education, a U.S. Department of Education publication: "The quality of life in our country and everyone's future depends upon improving education now, so that we can compete in the future."
Twenty-five years after Sputnik, Americans once again fear the U.S. is losing its edge, and they believe primary and secondary education are to blame. According to a recent New York Timespoll, seven out of eight Americans advocate a back-to-basics program to correct the problem. President Reagan also favors this emphasis on fundamentals. Yet, a close analysis of student performance reveals that proponents of the back-to-basics program are neglectful of the facts; such an educational program will not help to maintain the competitive edge.
Back-to-basics advocates argue that the present educational system is creating a society of illiterates and inferior workers, unversed in the three R's. The facts demonstrate otherwise. According to an April 10New York Timesarticle, studies on all levels show that more elementary school students are gaining the basics than ever before. Minorities, children from underprivileged homes and the academically weakest have been making particularly strong progress: fundamental education of the majority is not being neglected.
RATHER, the educational system is running the risk of neglecting those who show unusual potential; exceptional and even average intelligence is not being nurtured to near its fullest extent. Jeffrey Schille, a staff member of the National Institute of Education, says, "We have made a big turnaround in teaching the most basic skills to the lowest quartile of kids. But in raising the floor, we have at least kept the ceiling constant." Clifford Adelman, an analyst for the National Commission on Excellence in Education, finds that "all our expectations are phrased in terms of minimums. By focusing on the lowest common denominator, we are killing the kids in the middle. Nothing drives them to perform better."
Statistics bear out these remarks; though the last few years have seen rises in average SAT scores, the improvement has been by groups which are traditionally below the mean. Between 1972 and 1981, the percentage of scores in the 600 to 800 range has declined. For verbal scores, the decline has been from 11.4% to 7%. For math scores, it has been from 17.8% to 5%. Instead of trying to establish a higher maximum standard, our educational system is directed solely toward raising the minimum--an emphasis the back-to-basic drive will only underscore.
Alfred North Whitehead, a prominent 20th century philosopher who spoke extensively on education, once remarked. "A merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God's earth." Although Whitehead may have overstated his case, the point is well-taken. Technological advances are generally not the product of a well-informed population, but of exceptional individual talent and expertise. The insight of one gifted man propels a whole society forward. A back-to-basics program will create a well-informed society, but the focus on minimum standards will not cultivate greater ability. Only by striving to promote exceptional achievement can technological superiority be maintained.
A singleminded emphasis on unusual ability would be elitist, particularly in a society where many still lack the fundamentals. But, the problem of low academic performance is distinct from that of technological superiority, and it requires a different solution. Back-to-basics advocates mistakenly present their program as a panacea, which would solve both problems.
EDUCATION REFORM must instead focus on both minimum and maximum standards--there is no reason to emphasize only one. Needless to say, such a two-pronged approach would be more costly. But while educators previously had to choose between the two goals because of limited funds. Americans are now willing to pay for real reforms. The majority of citizens cited in the Timessurvey said they would support a two hundred dollar tax increase if the money went to education. Potentially at least, resources do exist.
Since the "lag time" for education reforms to take effect can be as long as 30 years, it is important that the government act quickly to convert popular support into concrete programs. But before they act, policy makers must learn to distinguish the ceiling from the floor.