Executive Perspective

Two Milestones, Two Lingering Goals

by PAUL D. HOUSTON

As we enter this new school year, we are poised between two major anniversaries in education that serve as bookends to the two key goals that public education has tried to serve: the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., and the 20th anniversary of “A Nation at Risk.”

Brown was the centerpiece of public education’s 170-year quest to provide universal access to schools and as such was the symbol for the search for equity in American education. “A Nation at Risk” marked the first official stirrings of a new goal for education in America: to not merely have children in school but to ensure they reach a much higher level of proficiency.

Now is a good time to think about what each of these benchmarks means as we struggle to turn from our past goal of inclusion to the future goal of giving wings to every child’s dream.

Equity and Excellence
Brown was a significant piece of the greater tapestry of equality represented by the civil rights movement. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that separate was not equal and that schools needed to be open to all—even those who were not part of the majority population. This was easier said than done, and it took decades to dismantle the separate system of education for children.

In 1965, the federal government acknowledged its obligation to support those who were most at risk in our society by enacting the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The 1970s saw the creation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to provide a place for handicapped children in the mainstream of our education system and Title IX to ensure that women would have the same opportunities as men. During the 1980s public schools were opened to all children, even homeless children and the children of illegal immigrants.

By the late 1980s the 170-year-old goal established by our founding fathers and given impetus by Horace Mann and his colleagues was complete. A free and appropriate education was available to every child in America.

Of course the disparities in our society still were reflected in the schools. As more children of America’s underclass took their seats beside the privileged, it became increasingly apparent that having access was not enough to ensure excellence. This gap was exacerbated by a decline in the social and economic capital available to children in America. America was a land of opportunity, but it was not always an equal opportunity.

Risk in Perspective
When America’s flourishing economy created by the post-war industrial boom and emerging information era began fading in the 1960s and 1970s, other nations began catching up to us. It was not so much that America had slipped, but that our head start diminished as the world moved into the information age.

But there is something in the American spirit that longs to be No. 1. So our diminished advantage led to scapegoating and we turned to our favorite target—public schools. Schools always have been considered the place where problems are created and solved.

In 1981, President Reagan commissioned a panel to look at the quality of education in America. In some of the most dramatic language ever penned by a presidential commission, the group reported a “rising tide of mediocrity” in America’s schools that was likened to the unilateral disarmament of the nation.

The commission’s conclusions were based on flat test score averages over the previous 20 years and a dropout rate of about 30 percent. The commission hadn’t bothered, however, to look at changes in the breadth of students taking the tests. The SAT, created shortly after World War II, was normed to a population of mostly upper-class Ivy League bound males. Even into the early 1960s, only a small percentage of the population took the SAT.

As more students had access to education and set their sights on college, a much larger portion of the population began taking the test. The flat rate of growth was really a rather remarkable testimony to the productivity of the public schools; the middle-level students were doing as well as the previously high-flying group.

As for that pesky dropout rate, the commission failed to mention that the term “dropout” was created in the 1960s when more students were completing school than not and we needed a descriptor for that new minority who were not obtaining their diplomas.

The fact that the commission’s work was overly dramatic and in many ways misleading does not take away from the fact it was the beginning of a new paradigm and expectation for education. We now were supposed to educate all children to a much higher level, one formerly reserved for the elite.

Recommitting Ourselves
The passage of No Child Left Behind was the first time the government weighed in on universal proficiency through legislative action. While it is a noble goal, it remains to be seen whether our nation has the collective will to do everything required to make it happen. Certainly the current legislation will not succeed within the 12 years allotted. It took us 170 years to get to universal access, and that was the easier goal.

It is good to celebrate the bookend anniversaries of Brown and “Risk.” It also would be good if the country could sit back for a second and recommit itself to the twin goals of equity and excellence and put them as high on our national agenda as complaining and consuming.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.