For a century, our public education system was the backbone of our success as a nation. By creating one of the world’s first mass education systems, free to all children, we forged the most educated workforce in the world. The creation of standardized, unified school systems with monopolies on free schooling had a dramatic impact on this country, helping us build the most powerful, innovative economy on Earth.
But all institutions must change with their times, and since the 1960s, the times have changed. First television emerged to dominate the lives of young people, undermining their desire and ability to read. Then the cultural rebellion of the 1960s and ‘70s brought new problems, including widespread drug use and the decline of the two-parent family. Teen pregnancy soared, the percentage of children raised by single mothers tripled, arrest rates for those under 18 shot up, and gang activity exploded. Meanwhile immigration picked up, doubling the percentage of public school children from households that didn’t speak English, from 10 to 20 percent. At the same time, our Information-Age economy radically raised the bar students needed to meet to secure jobs that would support middle class lifestyles.
Today our traditional public schools “work” for less than half of our students. More than one in five families chooses something other than a traditional public school—a private school, a public charter school, or home schooling. Among those who do attend public schools, 16 percent fail to graduate on time. Even more graduate but lack the skills necessary to succeed in today’s job market. Almost a quarter of those who apply to the U.S. Army fail its admission tests, more than a third of those who go on to college are not prepared for first-year college courses, and almost half of them never graduate. Among industrialized nations, the U.S. ranks 22nd in high school graduation rates and in the bottom half in math, science, and reading proficiency.
Since 1983, we have seen wave after wave of school reforms. Unfortunately, most have been of the “more-longer-harder” variety: more required courses and tests, longer school days and hours, higher standards and harder exams. Few have reimagined how schools might function, given our new technologies.