This is the title of a landmark report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education that was published 30 years ago. The report warned that we were on a trajectory toward mediocrity as a nation without major reforms in our primary and secondary education system. Today, we have arrived at that dismal destination, and the signs indicate that things are going to get even worse.
Currently, less than one-third of our eighth graders are proficient in math, science and reading. We now rank 48th in the world in math education, according to the World Economic Forum, and we are in the middle among the 34 industrialized countries in science and reading test scores. We are also in the basement in our percentage of high school graduates.
Indeed, we now have a two-tiered system in which the educated, wealthy elite perpetuates itself while a vast underclass lacks the education and skills to move up the economic escalator (as the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof calls it). Today, “poverty is destiny.” To make matters worse, we are relentlessly slashing public school budgets, laying off teachers and cutting school programs rather than making improvements. Meanwhile, other nations, most notably China, are leaping ahead academically.
There is plenty of blame to go around – the unions, bureaucrats, politicians, and the taxpayers have all had a hand in it. As Joel Klein, former head of the New York City public schools put it, the basic problem is that the system is run for the adults, not the children. He concludes that our dysfunctional public education system needs “radical reform.”
Among Klein’s recommendations (in the current issue of the Atlantic): We need to attract much better teachers by paying them better and rewarding merit; we need to be able to weed out incompetent or burned out teachers; we need more gifted administrators and fewer bureaucratic hacks; we need to give children more school choices; we need to allow budget allocations to follow the students and not so heavily favor the schools in affluent districts; we need to make much better use of the new technologies that are now available for improving learning; and, not least, we need to provide jobs and family stability for the students. Our vast wasteland of economic poverty also undermines our educational system.
None of this is news, but the task seems more daunting than ever. Yet the stakes are higher than ever. What we do (or don't do) will profoundly affect the future of this nation – for better or worse.