07/09/2007 06:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Falling Behind -- or Just the Old Bait-and-Switch?

It's a ritual.

About every 25 years, someone thinks the best way to improve American schools is to dump a load of bullshit on them. Here are three classics.

In the light of Sputnik, 'life adjustment education' turns out to have been something perilously close to 'death education' for our nation and our children ... We have wasted an appalling part of the time of our young people on trivialities. The Russians have had sense enough not to do so. That's why the first satellite bears the label 'Made in Russia.'

-Arthur Bestor, school critic and author of the 1953 book, Educational Wastelands: The Retreat from Education in Public Schools, interviewed in U. S. News & World Report, January 24, 1958.

Actually, the U. S. could have launched a satellite over a year ahead of Sputnik and chose note to. After the Apollo 11 moon mission of 1969 (a heavenly object the Russians never managed to even hit), a survey found that all 53 NASA scientists and engineers who responded to the survey had finished high school before 1958).

"If only to keep and improve on the slim competitive edge we still retain in world markets, we must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational system."

A Nation At Risk

The National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983

The theory that schools were responsible for the loss of productivity and competitiveness to Germany, South Korea and, especially Japan, was very popular, particularly during the recession that cost George 41 his second term. When the economy came roaring back, improved schools were not mentioned as a possible factor.

"America's schools are falling behind. America is in danger of losing its competitive edge because we are not preparing today's students to be skilled workers for tomorrow's economy." -Strong American Schools, a $60 million print, radio and TV ad campaign called "ED in 08" to make education a campaign issue and, according to key funder Eli Broad "wake up the American people" (other funder: Bill & Melinda Gates; head honcho, ex-CO Govenror and ex-L. A. schools supt., Roy Romer).

Seventy-six percent of the jobs in the U. S. are in the service sector.

Partly, it's the old bait-and-switch. For many years, the "falling behind" emphasized test scores, but in tests given in 1995, 1999 and 2003, U. S. kids showed more gain than most so now "falling behind" means lowered rank for graduation rate. Mostly, that's due to fother nations having caught up.