The Kojo Nnamdi Show

The "Golden Age" of American Education

Tom Loveless joined The Kojo Nnamdi Show with Jonathan Zimmerman to discuss how to improve the American education system.

Kojo Nnamdi, host: It was the golden era of American education, a time when schools taught kids exactly what they needed to succeed in life, when teachers were paid what they were worth and when American schools were the best in the world. It all sounds nice, but the problem is that it’s next to impossible to actually find this “golden” era in the historical record. Today, we’re getting history behind the headlines; how some debates on education reform rely on simplistic ideas about the past, how complaints about teaching to the test heart back to the early twentieth century, and how partisans have dukes it out over math and science for five decades. Joining us in the studio is Tom Loveless, senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He authors the annual Brown Center Report on American Education. Tom Loveless, thank you for joining us.

Tom Loveless: Thank you.

Kojo: I mentioned this idea of a “golden” era of American education even though it’s often somewhat vague. There is a way of talking about our current challenges that implies that we’ve lost something that our education has somehow, our education system somehow has deteriorated. In what sense is that true and in what sense is it misleading?

Tom: It’s mostly misleading; we didn’t really have good measures of how well kids were learning in schools until probably the 1950s and 1960s. We didn’t for instance start taking a national snapshot of student achievement until late 1960s, 1969. International tests, the very first comparison of international countries didn’t happen until the 1960s. So the idea that American schooling somehow had this “golden” age in the first half of the twentieth century, we just simply don’t know. And much of it is just methodology based on people having gone to school and having good feelings about it.


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