Commentary | Education

Lessons—National Crises, Real and Imagined

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These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.

[ THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON OCTOBER 10, 2001 ]

National crises, real and imagined

By Richard Rothstein

Faster than would have been imaginable, we’ve been transformed from a nation of peace and prosperity to one of insecurity and economic stress. There are now real crises to worry about; we no longer have to invent them to enliven public debate.

For many years, education has been a glass half full and half empty, but public attention focused mostly on the latter. Where emptiness didn’t exist, we imagined it.

Democratic discussion needs catastrophes that reformers promise to fix. We spend $360 billion a year on education, our largest public enterprise. When there are few obvious failures elsewhere, the public naturally seeks them in schools.

The sense of school crisis accelerated with a 1983 report by a presidential commission. Ronald Reagan had taken office pledging to minimize the federal role in schools and abolish the Education Department. But the report, “A Nation at Risk,” took the opposite tack, saying schools suffered from “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people.” It added a cold-war admonition: with inferior teaching, Americans had engaged in “unilateral disarmament.”

Seldom has a claim been both so influential and so wrong. Yet it was often repeated to explain why Japanese, German and Korean companies had captured automobile, office-equipment and machine-tool markets. Today it is apparent that workers here did not, from poor schooling, suddenly have less skill than those elsewhere. Trade deficits that ballooned 20 years ago were caused not by low test scores but by corporate bloat, markets more open here than elsewhere and a budget deficit that pushed up interest rates and the dollar’s value.

Flaws in the analysis should have become obvious when America outperformed Asia and Europe economically in the 1990’s. But a crisis over perceptions that schools were failing had become a matter of faith, and leaders never rethought it. They certainly didn’t credit schools for our renewed economic strength.

The 1983 report had other shortcomings, too. It misunderstood an apparent decline in test scores. College Board results had dropped, but that was due to growth in college-going ambition. The SAT was no longer taken only by top students, and so average scores of test-takers naturally fell.

Declines on other tests had been halted or even reversed by 1983. If there was a tide of mediocrity, it was not rising when the report was issued.

Along with competitiveness, the public has rightly been obsessed with inequality, the persistent gap in social and economic status between minority and white Americans. Inequality is caused by many factors: not only schools but also policies on employment, income distribution, labor regulation and health care. Yet for two decades policy makers have asked schools to assume the largest burden of social reform.

In 1983 Terrel H. Bell was secretary of education, responsible for the “Nation at Risk” report. A decade later he recanted, saying the report had done great damage. “In the face of many negative influences on our children that come from outside the school,” Mr. Bell wrote, the nation “foolishly concluded” that academic shortcomings were caused by faulty schools.

But his admission came too late. Politicians had made schools their signature issue, and newspaper headlines trumpeted tiny test score changes as proof of progress or failure. New programs were mandated before earlier ideas could take hold. Attention jumped from more testing to ending automatic promotion, to teacher certification changes, to more accountability, to higher graduation requirements, to vouchers.

Certainly schools should be improved. Some changes, like better academic standards, have been a big help. Despite slowly rising scores, more can be done, especially for minorities. Too many still fail to graduate, or graduate with unacceptably low achievement.

But as national-security and economic crises deflect attention from schooling, educators can use time away from the national spotlight to let reforms already prescribed take root.

In 1969, Daniel Patrick Moynihan advised President Richard M. Nixon that race relations could benefit from some “benign neglect.” Though widely criticized for that, Mr. Moynihan was not advocating an end to racial progress. He proposed policies that would have enhanced equality, like creating better job opportunities for black men. But he thought that excessive rhetorical attention to race made it difficult to adopt positive incremental change.

We face a similar problem in education today. Schools can benefit from dampened argument and fewer unrealistic demands. As true national crises draw attention away from schools, benign neglect can help.

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