blank.gif (51 bytes) Education In America: Liberalism's Failed Legacy

by Pat Hickey

ducation standards started crumbling in the 1960s. Like most changes in our tempestuous times this collapse began in popular culture and quickly found its way into our schools. Universities were first. Many professors embraced the calls for change counter-culture challengers were launching against practically all our traditional norms.

In prominent university classrooms such time-honored practices as grading based on standards-based performance, serious study of the classics and general respect for academic authority were dispensed with as easily as the film The Graduate did away with traditional marital mores.

Liberalism's impact on American education? Yale Professor Stanley Rothman, author of American Elites, writes that, "Expressive individualism [his term for liberalism] has become the dominant ideology of the American intellectual, serving as a debunking tool for disassembling the status quo." Yale graduate Hillary Rodham Clinton apparently agrees. Speaking at a 1993 University of Texas graduation ceremony, the First Lady lectured that, "Remolding society certainly in the West is one of the greatest challenges facing us all."

Liberalism's impact on American society since the 1960s is legendary and irrefutable. The legacy deposited in our schools is now what confronts us. What's been sown in terms of relaxed scholastic standards and the preference for emotional over academic outcomes, we are now reaping in terms of dismal test scores. Sadly, American education looks more like a Third World product trying to catch up with the competition.

For those who chose to see it, reality first hit us between the eyes in 1983 when the National Commission of Excellence in Education declared the United States, in the words of the title of its report, A Nation at Risk. The landmark study sounded a system-wide warning with its conclusion that "the educational foundations of society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people."

Unfortunately in the past 15 years those risks have been compounded by society's quantum growth in social ills, coupled with our continued poor educational performance.

For many Americans the prospects of a permanent, second-class education system is proving to be a hard pill for a proud people to swallow.

What Can We Do About It?

ome parents say it can't get much worse. Many teachers say they don't see it getting any better. But for better or worse, it is time parents, teachers and self-interested members of society confront what got us here, and more importantly take the necessary steps for American education to regain its former status.

One remedy for 1960s latent liberalism, and its reluctance to maintain clear and consistent academic standards, is to systematically raise the academic bar in the nation's schools.

Numerous parents, politicians and reform-minded educators are boarding a back-to-basics reform wagon whose centerpiece is higher academic standards. The National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, another blue ribbon panel of educators, has called on every state to find ways to incorporate demanding standards for learning into curriculum frameworks and assessments of student performance.

The lesson being: Expect more not less from students, and their test scores may surprise you. Debunking the myth that minority students are frequently incapable of higher academic achievement, Katie Haycock, formerly of the liberal Children's Defense Fund, lectured Nevada lawmakers in January about school districts in El Paso and Milwaukee that implemented higher standards. The results showed dramatic increases in test scores, especially for minority students.

In her testimony before the Interim Education Committee, Haycock pointed to a recent Education Trust study that found 80 percent of black and 82 percent of Hispanic students responded that they "would work harder and learn more if their schools demanded more of them."

American students can and should do better. Raising school standards will help reverse liberalism's failed notion that sensitivity to the frail inner child is more important than genuine self-esteem gained from academic achievement. However, this kind of student-centered approach is not without its critics.

Many experts feel that students will fail to reach the goals they are expected to meet if teachers are not the focus of the reform movement.

A recent report from the National Commission on Teaching sounded a clarion call to place the issue of teaching quality squarely at the center of the reform agenda, arguing that " without a sustained commitment to teachers' learning, the goal of dramatically enhancing school performance will remain unfulfilled. "

There are of course already many good teachers. The problem is the mediocre and bad ones. Unfortunately, teachers unions too often coddle the latter. Reform measures like merit pay designed to reward teachers with acquired knowledge and skills are routinely rejected by teacher unions which act like protecting their lowest achievers is paramount to building school systems that succeed.

The quality of the nation's school teachers is worthy of debate. Studies show that good teachers make a great difference in young peoples' lives.

Ronald Ferguson, in a study on the influence of teacher qualifications on student achievement published in the Harvard Journal on Legislation, found that individual teachers’ expertise—as measured by scores on licensing examinations, master's degrees and experience—accounted for over 40 percent of student achievement in reading and math in grades 1 through 11.

Earlier this year policymakers from the Heritage Foundation, Empower America and other pro-free-market think tanks revisited A Nation at Risk. After looking into the issue of qualifications for classroom teachers, they concluded:

Every child has the right to be taught by teachers who know their subjects well. It is educational malpractice that a third of high school math teachers and two-fifths of science teachers neither majored nor minored in these subjects while in college. Nobody should be employed anywhere as a teacher who does not pass a rigorous test of subject-matter knowledge--and who cannot demonstrate their prowess in conveying that knowledge to students.

Comic Will Rogers understood when he said, "You can't teach what you don't know any more than you can come back from where you ain't been." Unfortunately for too many students, not all that’s true about their teachers is that funny.

Wooster High School Principal Serena Robb tells of the horror certain teachers at her Washoe County school felt when they were asked to take the same advanced placement tests they were administering to their honors classes. The teacher's union got them out of an embarrassing situation, but the lesson was not lost on their students.

Are Teachers Properly Prepared?

ritics charge that new teachers come to the classroom ill-prepared to teach. Case in point: the recent Massachusetts experience where over half of prospective teachers applying for a position failed their qualification tests.

G. Reid Lyon, a neuropsychologist at the National Institutes of Health, is equally critical, saying, "Teacher preparation is a scandal. Most teachers will tell you they don't have any idea what they're talking about when we're talking about skills that kids should have."

Clark County public schools Superintendent Brian Cram is the University of Nevada, Las Vegas College of Education's biggest client, typically hiring more than 90 percent of the college's graduating class. Unhappy with the lack of basic skills in his new employees, Cram recently demanded that the School of Education rely more on more traditional strategies like phonics, vocabulary lists and the memorization of multiplication tables. Otherwise, he said, he would go shopping elsewhere.

Cram told educators his top-performing schools were operating "in a more traditional manner and that’s what we want to see more of."

Liberals who have steered the curricula at schools of education in a touchy-feelie direction for the past three decades are skeptical of such assessments. Listening from atop their graduate school towers, they perceive statements like Cram's as pedestrian and reactionary. And recent studies would indicate the views of many professors of education don’t exactly match with the guy on the street.

Public Agenda compiled a 1997 report entitled: "Different Drummers: How Teachers of Teachers View Public Education." One of its findings was that professors of education hold a vision of public education that seems fundamentally at odds with that held by the public, students and most public school teachers. According to the study, "While the public's priorities are discipline, basic skills and good behavior in the classroom, teachers of teachers severely downplay such goals." In fact 79 percent of those teachers of teachers surveyed said, "The general public has outmoded and mistaken beliefs about what good teaching means."

Where Do We Start?

hen it comes to education in Nevada, blame-game targets are too numerous to bash. Certainly 1960s liberalism deserves a measure of the responsibility for making standards irrelevant.

It also must be acknowledged that given the state of contemporary society, families (or the lack thereof) deserve a big chunk of responsibility for many of our educational woes. Legislatures, the media, popular culture, our religious and social institutions are all culpable, but ultimately we ourselves deserve the bulk of the blame.

Parents and passionate activists need to keep pressing for reforms like school choice, charter schools, merit pay and higher academic standards for both teachers and students. Even so, these important improvements in methodology will not be enough without a change in our mindset.

In the 1960s, student activists like Hillary Rodham caused the establishment of that era to redefine what education means. As a result, today’s educational power is now wielded by those who share Mrs. Clinton’s ideological bent.

The question now for the rest of us is, are we as determined to change today’s status quoas they were?u

Pat Hickey is editor of
Nevada Journal.

Well, at least one time he thought
better of an embrace.

Dear Polly:
I read Don Lambro’s recent column about your version of the school choice bill in Milwaukee. I am fascinated by that proposal and am having my staff analyze it. I’m concerned that the traditional Democratic Party establishment has not given you more encouragement. The visionary is rarely embraced by [the] status quo
Keep up the good work.
Governor Bill Clinton, Oct. 18, 1990
Letter to Polly Williams

"I am unalterably opposed to a voucher system to give people public money to take to private schools."
President Bill Clinton, June 1993
Letter to the NEA Center for the
Preservation of Public Education


Journal front | Search | Comment | Sponsors