In 1975 a cover story of Newsweek declared: “Willy-nilly, the US educational system is spawning a generation of semi-literates. Nationwide the statistics on literacy grow more appalling each year… The cries of dismay sound even louder in the halls of commerce, industry and the professions, where writing is the basis for almost all formal business communication.”
The theme was taken up by other media and the idea of educational crisis spread. The decline in literacy was blamed on the innovations of the 1960s which allowed soft options to be introduced into the school curriculum in the form of the choice of too many electives so students were able to avoid subjects that required academic rigour.
The Newsweek article, for example, blamed the changes in educational philosophy that allowed students to use “colloquial, slangy, even illiterate” speech and neglected written language, and the study of “syntax, structure and style”. Ira Shor, in his book Culture Wars, wrote:
You did not count in education unless you could wring your hands over student illiteracy, tabulate an impressive amount of failure, denounce the levellers who brought us to the brink of savagery, and impose martial plans to remedy the problem.
The perception of crisis in the nation’s public schools was helped along by funding cuts that created real difficulties for schools in poor areas. It was reinforced by a shift by those who could afford it to more affluent suburban public schools and private schools. This enabled those who wanted change in schools to argue that this was also what the public wanted.
Actually, the surveys showed that those who had least experience of schools, were most dissatisfied with them. People without children at a public school, who only had the media accounts to go by, were far more likely to rate schools as poorly performing. Also people tended to rate their local schools, those they knew most about, much more highly than schools in general.
Moreover the statistical basis for falling literacy and numeracy standards was faulty. It was largely based on average scores in the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATS). SATS is a voluntary test, mainly taken by students wanting to go on to higher education. The minor decline in SATS between 1963 to 1980 coincides with an increase in the proportion of students going on to higher education. Whereas before only the top performing students went on to higher education, now a wider range of students of differing academic abilities were taking the test.
When the SATS scores were disaggregated it was found that the scores for the top ranking high school students had not declined, nor had they for other groups of students. Other tests such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which attempts to assess reasoning ability, showed no decline in the 1970s or 1980s, but rather a slight improvement in writing ability, reading comprehension and inferential skills.
School critics also claimed that American students didn’t score very well on international tests compared with other nations. Again this was partly a result of more students staying on in high school.
Other nations often had “much more selective education systems” that “weeded out” less academic students at an earlier age and sent them on a vocational track earlier. They therefore had a more elite group taking the tests that provided the basis for national comparisons. Also other countries did not always have fully representative student samples. For example the sample in the UK did not include students from London and therefore excluded a major section of inner urban students.
Average scores also mask a great variability in US schools, which include some of the best in the world and some of the worst in the world. This is because of the variability in funding that occurs in US schools (see chapter xx) – but not in most other affluent nations – and the large variability in incomes in the population as a whole.
Every decade the crisis message has been renewed. In 1983 the US National Commission on Excellence in Education (NCEE) published a report, A Nation at Risk, warning of a “rising tide of mediocrity” and created a second crisis for education. The NCEE was comprised of educators, businessmen, politicians. It was formed on the premise that the education system was the cause of the declining competitiveness of US corporations.
This report “provided the underlying justification for over a decade of corporate involvement in the reform of America’s public schools.”
The report claimed there were high levels of illiteracy in 17 year olds, particularly amongst minorities and overall falling achievement levels at a time when the need for skilled workers was increasing rapidly. “Business and military leaders complain that they are required to spend millions of dollars on costly remedial education and training programs in such basic skills as reading, writing, spelling, and computation.”
One of the report’s key recommendations was that schools “adopt more rigorous and measurable standards, and higher expectations, for academic performance and student conduct … Standardized tests of achievement (not to be confused with aptitude tests) should be administered at major transition points from one level of schooling to another and particularly from high school to college or work.”
The report did not cite studies to support its claims of crisis in America’s schools but this did not stop newspapers, radio and television stations around the US covering the report uncritically and spreading its message of crisis. “Education made it to the headlines and to the evening news again. The media brought the bad news into every living room and put the school crisis on the front-pages.”
In 1991 President Bush again sounded the alarm: “Every day brings new evidence of crisis”.
Time magazine declared “the nation’s schools are mired in mediocrity”. In 1992 a government report entitled Adult Literacy in America suggested that almost half the population was illiterate, however when a later report based on the same data said that actually it was less than five percent it was not reported. In a report ten years later, the report’s statisticians admitted that they had misread the data for the earlier report. In reporting on this in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Dennis Baron noted that “the new findings will not be able to dispel the deeply rooted conviction that there is a literacy problem in the Unites States, and that only school reform and increased testing can turn it around”.
That deeply rooted conviction was not helped by the “lopsided” reporting of educational progress by the media. Good news was not reported, such as a Rand study showing how government funding (Title 1) targeting low income students had “resulted in dramatic improvements by black and Latino students” between the 1960s and 1990s. But the corporate owned media highlighted every test score decline in public schools.
The perception of crisis in schools has continued to the present day in the US. In 2012 Joel Klein, former chancellor of New York City schools, now employed by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, and Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State, wrote a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) report that called the state of United States schools a “grave national security threat.”
The media periodically publishes alarmist headlines about the state of literacy and numeracy in the population. It is a perception fed by big business, which avoids paying its share of school funding. For example Motorola distributed a booklet to its employees claiming that:
A crisis exists today in American kindergarten-through-12th grade (K-12) education and the situation is getting worse. Almost 4,000 young people drop out of high school each day in this country. Achievements of students continue to decline despite large increases in funding for education.
If you have any examples or updates you would like to contribute please email them to me and I will add them here. Please give references for where you sourced the information.