According to conventional wisdom, American public schools have suffered a terrible decline and are in need of dramatic reform. Today’s high school students, it is alleged, display an ignorance of things that every elementary student knew a generation ago. American business leaders warn that rising illiteracy and “innumeracy” threaten our competitiveness in the global marketplace. Political scientists worry that poor schooling is undermining the very foundations of our democracy as American adults exercise their citizenship on the basis of dumbed-down sound-bites. But are things really that bad? What evidence are these criticisms based on, and does it hold up under examination?
In this book, Richard Rothstein analyzes the statistical and anecdotal evidence and shows that public schools, by and large, are not falling down on the job of educating our children. To the contrary, by many measures they are doing better than in the past. Minority students have improved their test scores significantly, and overall dropout rates have fallen. Moreover, our schools educate more poor children, and more children whose native language is foreign, than ever before.
Further improvement in American education, Rothstein argues, should be based on an accurate appraisal of strengths and weaknesses rather than on exaggeration. Rothstein shows in convincing detail how standardized tests comparing American students’ performance today with that of the past, and with student performance internationally, frequently confuse apples with oranges. The nation’s student population today is very different from that of decades ago and from the student population in other nations.
As critics of public education promote private alternatives and politicians debate the value of standardized national testing, The Way We Were? is especially timely.