KE Cellars

A Nation at Risk

Click here to listen to the broadcast of You Tell Me on KTBB AM & FM, Friday, Sept. 10, 2010.

Editor’s note: This is an update of a post that first appeared in April 2008. It is updated and repeated here in recognition of the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year.

Let me share with you a quote.

“If an unfriendly power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

That line came from a report issued in 1983 by the National Commission on Excellence in Education titled, “A Nation at Risk.”

By 1983, the fact that America had taken the wrong path on public education was becoming clear. By that year, seeds sewn in the racially charged 1960s had fully blossomed. Much of what had been enacted through legislation and imposed by court order was coming home to roost.

Here’s some history.

The first collective bargaining contract between teachers and school administration was signed in 1962 in New York City. That agreement, and the ones in other cities that soon followed, transformed teachers from members of a respected profession into yet another militant labor group — fighting for pay, benefits and government money.

SAT scores for college-bound students peaked in 1964.

In 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed. This was the first large-scale federal involvement in school funding and it was a part of the sweeping legislative initiatives of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.” The intent was to provide federal funding to schools with a predominance of low-income students. The effect was to permanently implant the idea of a direct correlation between school funding and academic achievement. Many, if not most, Americans cling to that idea still, despite four decades of experience.

Between 1975 and 1980 there were more than a thousand strikes and job actions involving more than a million teachers. As a result, teachers’ salaries rose even as student test scores declined.

But most damaging by far was the 1966 report titled “Equality of Educational Opportunity” produced by a group of scholars headed by James Coleman and which came to be called simply, “The Coleman Report.” The Coleman Report advanced the idea that minority students, meaning mostly blacks, could not prosper academically without being integrated into racially mixed classrooms.

This was the catalyst for school desegregation court orders. Most of us called it “forced busing.”

Busing did enormous damage. It removed children from their neighborhoods and made it nearly impossible for parents to be involved in school activities. It led school districts to reshuffle the attendance deck every year to obtain a court-ordered racial balance on campuses, often making it impossible for high school classes to remain together through graduation.

Parents saw control of their neighborhood schools slipping from the grasp of the teachers and principals. Those that had the means moved to suburbs or placed their children in private and parochial schools. This led to the farce of thousands of children being bused across town to schools that had become de facto segregated schools. So much for the benefits of a racially mixed classroom.

But the most insidious damage was sociological. Prior to the 1960s, schools were central to neighborhoods. Neighborhoods fostered community. Community supported families and the application of social norms, including those attendant to marriage and child bearing. When children were ripped from neighborhood schools and taken across town, far from neighborhood and parental involvement, it sent a clear signal that parents mattered less in education and that government mattered more.

Families began to disintegrate.

Today, 27 years after the publication of “A Nation at Risk” things are much worse. The sorry state of many of our public schools makes it clear that no program, no legislation, no increase in funding, none of the shopworn panaceas, can compensate for the breakdown of families — the principal transmitters of the culture. As George Will said in an article in the Washington Post,

“No reform can enable schools to cope with the 36.9 percent of all children and 69.9 percent of black children today born out of wedlock, which means, among many other things, a continually renewed cohort of unruly adolescent males.”

Since the 1960s, we have allowed our schools to be laboratories of social engineering and experiment. The results have been catastrophic.

Today, we are beyond being a “Nation at Risk.” We’re a nation in deep trouble.


  1. Linda E. Montrose says:

    As someone who was there when the bussing started, I can tell you from experience how damaging it was. Before bussing, I walked to school. But when the bussing began, I had to get up earlier and got home later because the school was clear across town. The lines drawn for who was bussed and who was not, were crazy because one who was deemed to be bussed, might have only lived a few blocks from a school they could have walked to. As far as blacks benefiting from the experience, the ones I knew who had been going to their own schools were NOT happy about it. It was very evident from their acting out. They felt like fish out of water. Anything forced upon someone is not going to have the same effect as something that is gradual in coming. It reminds me of the adage my Granny always like to tell me of leading a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.
    One thing that was very evident to me as I was growing up, was the stupidity of some of the things we were being taught in school. My Granny only had an 8th grade education, but she had learned things that weren’t even touched on when I was in school. She was much smarter than I was with a 12th grade education. This is something I have noticed as growing older. Each generation has NOT had the quality education I had and I certainly did not have the QUALITY of education my Granny did. It is very evident, to me at least, of the dumbing down in our educational system. Kids, upon graduation, do not know the basics I was taught…like reading, writing, spelling and basic arithmetic. It amazes me HOW they graduate at all. I love game shows where your knowledge is challenged. If you want to see just how dumbed down we have become, just watch Jeopardy and Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Young teachers have no broad spectrum of knowledge, especially in history. It is sickening.
    I think the whole department of “education” needs to be dismantled and given back to the states without any government interference in order for our kids to get the education they deserve!

  2. Anytime individual (parental) responsibility is abdicated to an elite bureaucracy filled with self serving, unaccountable, government protected leaches; you get the results you have identified.

    We would be better off to invoke the old-time single room school house and let local communities hire their own teachers for every group of 50-100 children and forget the big budget, multi-million dollar edifices that emphasize elaborate facilities instead of learning skills and basic knowledge. The local community church could very well serve this purpose and many have already started this effort.

    I’m so glad that I completed my education before the demise of the American educational system. In 1960 I started the 10th grade – easy to remember. All of my teachers and classmates knew that school was a serious endeavor and disorder or incompetent teachers were not tolerated. Today, all parents with kids in school should question the value of the educational establishment for which they are being taxed. It is time for drastic action to rid ourselves of the incompetent, bureaucratic, educational establishment and start to rescue our kids from such foolishness and place them into a serious educational commitment that we will never regret.

    Bureaucracies can’t be fixed. They must be crushed and start over. Any parent that doesn’t get active to ensure the proper education of their children is guilty of malfeasance (injury to their loved ones) and should repent and do the right thing. It should be their prime directive to vote for candidates that promote vast decentralization of the educational establishment in favor of vouchers that lead to direct parental control of small community schools that are subject to market competition.

    The strength of the nation to withstand the alluring promise of a cradle to grave welfare society will depend on the next generation of well educated young adults that believe in rugged individualism and self sufficiency.

  3. As someone who graduated in the 1990’s I find all these ‘old timers” lamenting the education system and yearning for the old days to be laughable. Sure, it has problems, what system doesn’t. But a student can still find wonderful, caring, and competent teachers. I am a product of that public school system and have earned enough money in the last 10 years to ensure I do not have to work again if I do not want to. I employ people and create goods and provide services.

    Those who lump all teachers and school systems into one catagory are lazy to do so. Do we then assume then that our men and women in the military must be lazy and incompetent as they are government employees, that the CEOs of Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual were quite competent because they were private sector? No. Rugged individualism applies today as it did yester-year, to those who choose to employ it.

  4. Joseph Marcos is wrong. Please see my comments at:

    http://www.ktbb.com/youtellme/2010/09/02/the-unbearable-cost-of-discount-war/comment-page-1/#comment-850

    and you will see that Mr. Gleiser is REALLY interested in YOU TELL ME, even if you disagree with him.

    A note to E. Josephs:
    You are the exception to the vast majority of the cases that illustrate the poor results of a public school education, today, compared to 50 and 100 years ago. I can’t get proper change from the kid working at the local fast food restaurant without the computer telling him/her what to do. My own kid sister that is 10 years younger than I never learned geography or math very well. The purpose of the leadership of the teacher’s unions is to protect careers, not promote excellence in the classroom and we “old timers” see the evidence to prove it.

  5. My nine year old daughter can do things on a computer, data programs, and such most fifty and sixty year olds have no clue about. She seems to be doing just fine with the school system

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