Snapshots of American Education

People who study the U.S. educational system agree on only one point—we have a problem. Americans have had a love affair with education since the founding of the republic. The common school helped forge a democratic consciousness. The system of land grant colleges helped the United States achieve the highest incidence of higher education in the world. Public schools converted immigrants into Americans.

Now, all seem to agree that the system of pre-college education is "broke" and needs fixing, but agreement on how to fix it is elusive. American students test below those of many other countries in standardized tests of math and science. Employers report that new high school graduates lack basic skills, even the capacity to read, and that remedial education must be provided to enable them to begin company-speciþc training. Employers also express concern that U.S. workers will be unable to compete effectively in producing internationally traded goods and services. Urban schools, especially those serving African-Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities, have become arenas for violence and indiscipline that make learning difficult or impossible.

That problems exist is uncontroversial. What to do about them is controversial in the extreme. The articles that follow examine a few of the interventions that various analysts have proposed and the sometimes virulent reactions that they provoke. Suggest that all U.S. students should meet certain standards or that the curriculum anywhere should teach certain subjects or competencies, and some people see the threat of stultifying conformity, rather than a call to improved performance. Whether schools should have the independence to hire their own staff, set their own rules, or teach a different curriculum provokes passionate disagreement. Should teachers be compensated based on their capacity to improve student performance? Should the public school system be transformed by giving parents vouchers that they can apply toward tuition anywhere?

Virtually every fundamental aspect of the public school system now elicits quite heated, even violent, disagreement. The articles that follow explain the disputes regarding national standards for performance and curricula, the continuing þght about whether and how to extend use of school vouchers, the frustrations that arise in turning the idea of rewarding teachers and schools for the success of their students from an attractive idea into a practical administrative practice, and the progress of newly popular charter schools that contract to produce educational success for their students. Although they cover enormous ground, these four articles should be regarded not as reports on clear trends but as bulletins from a chaotic battlefront.