Grading America’s Schools


I recently received a phone call from a somewhat frantic radio station producer asking if I would be available for an interview on a noontime call-in program the next day. I’m always a bit amazed when anyone wants to interview me or get my opinion on an important subject, but before I could get too excited about the offer I discovered that the original guest had just cancelled and that they were looking desperately for a last minute fill-in.

The topic of the program was “Who Dumbed-Down American Education.” I accepted the offer and the next day I called the station just before noon. The program host was a bit surprised when I started the show by voicing my discomfort with the intended topic. I told him that the topic implied that someone or some group is intentionally causing our children to perform poorly in school, and that I didn’t think that anyone was capable or even motivated to dumb-down American education. My experience with both public and private schools tells me that the vast majority of teachers and administrators have the best intentions for their students and community.

The educational enterprise in America is far too complicated for a single person or organization to purposefully undermine its successful operation. Public schools are influenced by a remarkable number of organizations both inside and outside of government. State legislatures, local school boards, the Department of Education, teacher’s unions, textbook publishers and numerous other interest groups take part in shaping both the purpose and practice of schooling in America. Although it might be tempting to reduce the problems of public education to one cause, it is highly unlikely that such is the case.

However, this is not to say that Americans are complacent about the performance of our schools. Evidence continues to suggest that our students do not learn as much as those from other countries. A recent international comparison of fifteen year olds found our students stuck in the middle of thirty-two nations on reading, mathematics, and scientific knowledge.{1} But the public’s dissatisfaction with government-sponsored schools goes back to their inception in the mid 1800’s. After a trip to a local New York school in 1892 Joseph Mayer Rice wrote that it was “the most dehumanizing institution that I have ever laid eyes upon.”{2} But while American’s usually agree that our schools have problems, they often differ as to what those problems are and on how to fix them.

Although there is no perfect schooling environment, we can highlight some of the factors that detract from the successful educational progress we would like all of our children to experience. Since the educational system in America is complex, the problems are complex. Here we will

consider a host of problems facing education in America and suggest alternatives that might offer the hope of a good education to more of our children.

Progessive Education

First we will consider the consequences of progressive educational philosophy.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century there have been two prevailing educational philosophies that have competed for dominance in our school systems. Traditional educational philosophy, also called the teacher-centered approach, argues that teaching should focus on the accumulated knowledge and values of our culture. Students should learn from teachers who have acquired a significant amount of that knowledge and who can model the habits and discipline necessary to become a learned person. This view assumes that most students are able to learn but that learning can be difficult and that the joy that comes from learning is often delayed until after the fact. The learning process is the responsibility of both the teacher, who breaks topics down into digestible chunks and the learner who must bring a certain amount of self-motivation to the table. The ultimate goal is the production of mature and responsible adults.

The other educational philosophy that has grown in popularity over the last hundred years is known as progressive educational theory or the student-centered approach. The progressive educational view argues that children are by nature both morally good and eager to learn. Learning is a source of pleasure to children and that given the freedom and opportunity all children will learn what they need to know. The teacher’s role is mainly that of a facilitator. If too direct of an approach to learning is forced on the student such as memorization or unnecessary repetition, students will lose interest in the process. Learning is natural and should proceed in a natural organic manner.

These two educational theories begin with conflicting views of human nature. The traditional view would have much in common with the Christian theologian Augustine, who in the fourth century described his own personal sin nature in his Confessions. His depiction of human nature is that we are born fallen or marred by sin. Education of the right kind can play a role in ameliorating the effects of sin but never erase it. The progressive view looks back to the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau and John Dewey for their point of view. Rousseau, in his work Emile, argues that children are good by nature and only need nature itself to guide their instruction. Dewey believed that children were neither good nor sinful, but rather highly malleable, making the educational process all the more important.

Rousseau and Augustine cannot both be right concerning human nature. Neither can traditional and progressive educational philosophy. Perhaps one problem with our schools is to be found in the most basic assumption of what it means to be human.


Let’s investigate how the changing way that our society views truth has changed both what and how we teach our children.

Just as progressive education philosophy has slowly found a home in our educational institutions so has a new view of truth. Prior to the twentieth century, education focused on helping students to discover and value truth and the good life that resulted from honoring it, a tradition that goes back to Greek philosophers and Judeo-Christian thought. Many educators limited this search for truth to what science alone could provide and may have valued reason above what is provided by faith and authority. However, the quest was to acquire and teach truth that applied to all people everywhere for all time. Teachers often viewed themselves as dispensers of knowledge, possessors of a grand tradition known as Western Civilization and participants of what is sometimes called the Great Conversation between pagan and Christian thought. These ideas mattered because they were part of a debate over the essence of things. How one viewed human nature, God, ethics, and the natural world were dependent upon which side was favored.

A new view of truth has emerged since the last world war to contest both the purpose of schooling and the role of the teacher. By the end of the twentieth century influential thinkers were arguing that the search for essences or the meaning of life have become useless endeavors. In fact, they argue that language itself is incapable of communicating truth that is true for all people everywhere and for all time. They hold that truth is itself a human invention and that those who possess power in a given culture produce it. In the past teachers might have argued that knowledge is power, today it is often held that power produces knowledge. As a result, all education is viewed more as a political endeavor rather than a quest for universal truth.

Truth is seen as a social construct, something created by a culture that enables people to cope with the world they live in. Since no one can step out of their own culture and evaluate other cultures in an unbiased way, all cultures and their corresponding truths must be treated as equally useful or true. Some cultures are not quite as equal as others. The culture of white males of European descent is almost universally seen as an oppressive one by instructors and textbooks.

The result of this change in our view of truth has been that learning facts about the key events and people of Western culture are downplayed, and coping mechanisms and self-esteem becomes the primary purpose of the educational enterprise.

Decline of the Family

So far we have considered the impact of progressive education philosophy and the postmodern view of truth on our schools. Now we will turn our attention to changes in the American family and how they have affected our classrooms.

One consistent finding of educational research is that family life matters. Students tend to do better in school, and schools are generally more effective when families mirror certain attributes. The most important indicator is the socioeconomic status of the family represented by the occupation, income, and education of the parents. However, other factors play a role as well, such as the presence of two parents in the home and the amount of encouragement given by fathers to go on to college.

Unfortunately, family in America has changed dramatically over the last few decades. Between 1960 and 1999, the percentage of births out of wedlock increased by 523 percent. In 1999 alone, 68.8 percent of births to black mothers, 42.1 percent of births to Hispanics and 22 percent of births to white mothers were to unmarried women.{3} This trend directly impacts the socioeconomic status of families. In 1998, only 9 percent of children suffered from the effects of poverty if their parents were married. On the other hand 46 percent of children lived in poverty if a female headed the family.

The lack of a stable family influence and the presence of a father can be especially devastating for boys. Recent statistics reveal that starting at the elementary school level, girls get better grades than boys and generally fair better in school.{4} Although girls have all but eliminated the much-discussed math and science gap with boys, boys’ scores in reading and writing have been on the decline for years. At the end of eighth grade, boys are held back 50 percent more often, and girls are twice as likely to say that they want to pursue a professional career.{5} Boys are twice as likely to be labeled “learning disabled” and in some schools are ten times more likely to be diagnosed with learning disorders such as A.D.D. Boys now make up two thirds of our special education classes and account for 71 percent of all school suspensions.{6} There is also evidence that boys suffer from low self-esteem and lack confidence as learners.{7}

Men as mentors for boys are not only missing in our homes but they are missing in our schools. The vast majority of our teachers, close to eighty percent, are women, many of them just out of college and with little experience with young boys. This lack of male leadership is one of the many reasons we are less than pleased with the performance of our schools.


Let’s conclude by focusing on what changes might help our schools do their job better.

In her recent book on the history of progressive education Diane Ravitch argues that:

Schools must do far more than teach children “how to learn” and “how to look things up”; they must teach them what knowledge has most value, how to use that knowledge, how to organize what they know, how to understand the relationship between past and present, how to tell the difference between accurate information and propaganda, and how to turn information into understanding.{8}

The reason that this kind of learning does not happen as often as we like is that we agree less and less about what knowledge has the most value and what constitutes accurate information vs. propaganda. The recent battle over multicultural sensitivities in the curriculum has caused textbook writers to water down history books fearing that some group might be offended. The strident political agenda of teachers’ unions on issues ranging from homosexuality to the environment has caused parents to question teachers’ objectivity and their suitability as role models for their children.

As our society becomes more and more diverse, the “one model fits all” public school system is causing more and more tension. Administrators respond to critics by adding more and more levels of bureaucracy to schools so that many districts now have more employees outside of the classroom than inside.

The current response of government has been to encourage curriculum standards and high stakes testing for all publicly funded schools, but it has avoided the one reform that might make a significant difference. Private schools, with less bureaucracy, more focused academics, and a traditional approach to learning have proven themselves successful in even the most difficult inner city areas. Giving parents, teachers and students real choice in the kinds of schools they want to learn and teach in, via a voucher or tax credit program would generate true diversity and, I believe greater learning for many more of our children. If we are concerned about the general welfare of our people it makes sense to give our poorest students the benefit of private schooling in our worst districts.

Over the last decade Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Cleveland, Ohio have taken bold steps to offer real school choice. So has the creation of a large and growing private voucher program. Soon we will have enough data to evaluate its impact on students. The question of the constitutionality of voucher programs has reached the Supreme Court. Its decision could destroy school choice or greatly encourage it in the future. I hope they don’t miss this opportunity.


1. David J. Hoff, “U.S. Students Rank Among World’s Best and Worst Readers,” Education Week, December 12, 2001, 7.

2. Diane Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms, (New York, Simon & Schuster, 2000), 21.

3. “The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators 2001” (

4. William Pollack, Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood, (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998), 15.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid., p. xxiii.

8. Ravitch, 17.

©2002 Probe Ministries