Education for Democracy: Trapped in the Hall of Mirrors


NOTE: This essay is the third in a series focused on education reform. Federal, state and local governments currently are contemplating policy and funding changes for education at all levels. These essays are intended to provide some context for these discussions.

Wandering through the funhouse at the carnival eventually leads us to the hall of mirrors. We see images that are all based in reality. Yet, the images multiply, making it difficult to find the actual source. What we see is often distorted, not providing an authentic view. Eventually the mirrors become obstacles in our path as what appears to be the way out of the funhouse is just another reflection of non-reality. The pathway through education reform for the last 50 years has been a journey through such a place.

In 1983 under the direction of U.S. Secretary of Education, Terrel Bell, the National Commission on Excellence in Education released its report, “A Nation at Risk.” The report was ostensibly intended for U.S. President Ronald Reagan, though his level of interest in the project as the commission was appointed in 1981 was not at all connected to his education policy agenda. The president’s priorities focused on allowing voluntary prayer in schools, creating tax credits for tuition, and shuttering the U.S. Department of Education. It was Secretary Bell who argued that our schools needed attention and thus he created the commission. The report has great historical importance not because it produced great results. Rather its candor and clarity helped us to define the problem. The opening thoughts are chilling:

If an unfriendly foreign 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. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems, which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.

Our society and its educational institutions seem to have lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling, and of the high expectations and disciplined effort needed to attain them. (p. 9)

I sat at my desk recently wondering what happened between the time of the “Truman Report” (1947), (see previous essays in this series for details) and “A Nation at Risk” (1983)? How did we lose our way? Our national drive for expanding educational opportunity was gaining momentum through the 1950s and accelerated in 1957 as Sputnik circled the globe exacerbating Cold War tensions and propelling the emerging space race. Yet, something happened along the way, reminding us education mirrors our society and culture. It’s important we recognize where the images we see in our hall of mirrors are originating. Some would argue schools are the source of the problem. But in this context, a school is simply another mirror of societal patterns and trends that are constantly being reshaped and reflected by cultural change. Through the 1960s our society evolved as life in America took a dramatic turn. The social “revolution” of the 1960s, the expansion of the civil rights movement, and the diversification of the American population had profound and far-reaching effects on our society, complicating and intensifying the challenges facing our growing educational enterprise. The response of our schools to these changing patterns, though well-intended, compounded the effects as change and reform became distorted reflections of one another.

Diane Ravitch, in her recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010), draws our attention to this social setting. She notes:

A Nation at Risk (ANAR) was a response to the radical school reforms of the 1960s and late 1970s. Whoever remembers that era fondly is sure to dislike ANAR; conversely, whoever was skeptical toward the free wheeling reforms of those years is likely to admire ANAR. No one who lived at that time will forget the proliferation of experiments and movements in the nation’s schools. Reformers differed mainly in terms of how radical their proposals were. (p. 91)

The combined educational effects of societal change and curricular reform came clearly into view in the early 1970s as a 14-year steady decline in SAT scores sounded alarms that echo to this day. The College Board began studying the trends and issued a series of reports. Of particular interest are two reports, the first of which was released in 1977, “On Further Examination,” and the second in 1985, “Student Change, Program Change: Why the SAT Scores Kept Falling.” The 1985 report offers the following summary:

The first leg of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) score decline occurred mainly in the 1960s. It seemed to be explained fairly satisfactorily by the evidence that the composition of the test-taking group had changed to include a larger portion of students with relatively low-developed ability, mirroring the increased holding power of education for teenagers. In studies made during the 1970s, no comparable underlying change was found to explain the second (mainly 1970s) segment of the decline, which was ascribed instead to a complex of factors – “pervasive influences” – in both school and society.

The argument is that several of the “pervasive influences” invoked to explain the continuation of the decline in the 1970s are best understood as adaptive responses of the schools to the appearance of a greater diversity of students in senior high school…It is hypothesized that the continuation of the decline in the 1970s, was in substantial part, the direct consequence of those school-related changes and thus was a delayed, indirect consequence of the compositional shift.

The declines seem to have been reciprocal rather than unrelated. Student changes begat program changes, and each new condition in its turn, led to lower scores. (p.1)

This is where the journey through the hall of mirrors began. The results have been an unending series of federal and state initiatives designed to address the nation’s ailing schools. Yet, we find ourselves unsatisfied with our progress. Why have all these reform efforts failed? Stay tuned.

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3 responses to “Education for Democracy: Trapped in the Hall of Mirrors”

  1. Don Huffman says:

    Having personally experienced many of the “pervasive influences” often credited with contributing to the decline of S.A.T. and A.C.T. scores in the U.S., it seems rather certain to me that the attempt in the 1960s & 70s to redress the bias in educational opportunities for the economically deprived in our society was a primary reason for declining performance on standardized tests.
    We witnessed full-scale abandonment of the then existing public school admission policies and brought many underprivileged students into the mainstream public education system without adequate consideration of their lower level of basic skills. Without a doubt, this was a justifiable “democratizing” social act, but it has created a public school system dealing with a much larger and diverse component of students lacking the basic skills and experiences necessary to succeed in an educational system which had not been
    developed to deal with the “new student clientele.”
    As a result, many schools lowered their expectations of academic performance for this inadequately prepared segment of the student population. The net result was the presence of some students being “moved along” but unprepared for adequate performance on standardized exams like the SAT and ACT.
    Despite the remedial efforts of “pre-school” programs, reduced academic expectations, etc. this problem intensified in public schools. Many private schools were established which could limit admission to exclude the new increment of less-prepared students, and in many metropolitan areas the public schools have deteriorated further to the point that many area families no longer support them adequately nor expect them to perform at a high level.
    Recently the rise of home-schooling has further eroded the public school system in many areas.
    It is unfortunate that there has been a decline in support of public school programs, because public schools have in fact been an important factor in our recognition of “equal opportunity” in our nation.
    Improvement in our public school education will require critical thinking and planning from every level of education in the U.S. and will require the cooperation of all economic levels of our society.

  2. Tim K. Nielsen says:

    Please name but a few of the “many areas” in which home schooling has “eroded the public school system.” Furthermore, what is the correlation between public schools and our recognition of equal opportunity?

  3. Don Huffman says:

    Sorry, but my statement regarding “many areas” was not clearly stated. It should have been “many geographic areas” of the U.S. Specifically, home schooling in some metropolitan areas of the U.S. has been accused of instruction given by poorly qualified family members.