There is a cottage industry in this country that generates reports devoted to keeping Americans anxious about the future and laying the responsibility for that future on the schools which are never working as they should be. The latest of these scare tactics, Tough Choices or Tough Times, might be the dumbest, least democratic, least reality-based of them all.
The notion that America's schools determine the nation's future developed just after World War II. During the Cold War, "manpower" was the term of the day and CIA chief, Allen Dulles, was telling politicians that the Russians were generating twice as many engineers, scientists and mathematicians as we were (doubt that CIA intelligence was any better then). Where would we get our manpower? From the colleges, of course, but the colleges depended on the schools and the schools were seen as wanting.
The Russians' launch of Sputnik in October, 1957, proved to the school critics that they had been right. Blaming the current schools for letting the Russians get into space first was silly since those working on rockets were well past their K-12 and university educations. Education historian Lawrence Cremin quipped that Sputnik only proved that the Nazi scientists the Russians had absconded with after World War II had gotten a little ahead of the Nazi scientists we had absconded with after World War II.
The schools were hit from time to time in the 1960's and 1970's with other critical reports, but the next big bombshell blew up in 1983, A Nation At Risk. The commissioners who wrote this golden treasury of selected, spun and distorted statistics were, like many Americans at the time, convinced that other nations, especially Japan, were going to eat our economic lunch. They wrote, "if only to keep and improve on the slim advantage we still enjoy in world markets, we must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational system."
This assertion reflected the commissioners' erroneous assumption that high test scores were causally linked to thriving economies. But Japan's bubble burst in 1990 and it is only now coming out of 15 years of recession and stagnation. Beginning in 1991, on the other hand, the U. S. enjoyed the longest sustained economic expansion in the nation's history. Japan's kids continued to ace tests, but that didn't goose the Japanese economy. Our kids continued to score in the middle of the pack, but the economy boomed and the World Economic Forum ranked us No. 1 in global competitiveness among over 100 nations (this year the U. S. fell to No. 6 largely because of the incompetence in the Bush administration, the incompetence and corruption in both the Bush administration and the private sector, and the insanity of an open-ended, coffer-draining commitment to war coupled with the simultaneous commitment to continue cutting taxes).
American kids were average on the various international comparisons in 1996, 1997, 1998, 2001, 2003, and 2004 and the "Oh ain't it awful, we're doomed" refrain was reprised over and over. Now comes Tough Choices. If successful it would accomplish what some have been intending for decades: the private control of publicly funded education. School boards would not operate schools. Private firms would do that.
The report throughout emphasizes the importance of creativity and imagination, but it calls for kids to be tracked into different institutions after 10th grade based on scores from tests that cannot measure creativity or imagination. This is the commission at its most naïve. About the exams it writes "No one would fail. If they did not succeed, they would just try again." Oh, sure. The nature of human nature is beyond these guys. Given the inequality of opportunity in schools and society generally, one can quickly see the Brave New World this would lead to (it would save a lot of money currently spent on coaches, band directors and uniforms, though).
Perhaps the most inane proposal from the report is to let the states, not localities, fund the schools based on some kind of formula. Excuse me, but aren't these the same states that have been sued by districts, state after state, because of inadequate, unconstitutional funding formulas? Just who would have the power to install this new funding scheme is not clear.
The report claims that the future "is a world in which a very high level of preparation in reading, writing, speaking, mathematics, science, literature, history and the arts will be an indispensable foundation for everything that comes after for most members of the workforce" (emphasis added). Huh? Who really wrote this thing? Ayn Rand's ghost? The nation currently has 9 cashiers, 6 waiters and 5+ janitors for every computer programmer and it has no shortage of programmers. I want some of the commissioners' mushrooms.
This report is another smoke and mirrors trick in what I have come to call the High Skills Hoax, a subject to be dealt with as a separate blog entry.