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Turning the Bus Into an Airplane

June 30, 2011 By Michael J. Diedrich, Policy Associate

The ability to sign one's name was the basic definition of literacy in the British colonies back in the 1700s. Applying that definition to New England, the most educated region of the colonies, half the population was literate.

By 1795—through the Committees of Correspondence, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Federalist Papers, and the Constitution—88% of that population was literate. In other words, the major literacy gain of the 18th century in English-speaking North America was a 38% increase in the ability to jot down a few proper nouns.

We have made real progress since then.

The 19th century brought a gradual expansion of schooling opportunities. White boys from less wealthy families were able to stay in school longer, white girls started being educated a bit more. The abolition of slavery created the potential for millions more to legally get an education, though access to an educational system roughly equivalent to that available to white children would be much longer coming. Despite these expansions of opportunity, however, the population remained under-educated by today's standards. The high school completion rate in 1900? 6%. We have made progress from there.

Early in the 20th century, the percentage of the work force that had gone to high school—including those who did not complete it—was lower than the percentage with a college degree early in the 21st century. I'll repeat: fewer workers had attended a high school class a hundred years ago than have a college degree today. Clearly, we have made progress from there.

The story of schooling in the United States is one of constantly changing goals. For most of that history those goals centered around access. The operative questions were, “Who gets to go to school?” and, “For how long do they get to go?” It is only relatively recently that we can claim to have secured roughly equal access to education for all children. The paradigm has shifted accordingly: having achieved near-universal access, at least through the end of high school, we now focus on universal achievement.

We have made a lot of progress according to the old measures, though one can argue that progress was longer coming than it should have been. Our goals have shifted, and they are noble and good. What we must keep in mind, however, when we discuss school change is that we are not restoring a system to its former glory. Instead, we are creating a new system, one that has never existed in this society. We are not fixing the same school bus we've been riding for years; we are trying to turn that bus into an airplane.

This point, while intuitive to some, is invisible to others. Some dream of the good old days, that golden and idyllic past when “all” children received a better education than they do today. That dream, however, is a mirage. At the very least, it is a picture that is missing pieces.

Going back to the post-WWII period, schools were segregated and many college acceptance policies excluded students based on race and ethnicity. In the middle of the Cold War, students performed at roughly the same levels they do now, albeit with a larger racial achievement gap. Indeed, for the past forty years, the National Assessment of Education Progress scores in math and reading have stayed roughly constant or shown a slight upward trend. Over that period, black and Hispanic students registered more growth than did white students. Clearly, the policies put in place to increase access have contributed to an increase in achievement; teach more kids for longer, and overall learning increases.

The difficulty arises when the goal shifts. The income-based achievement gap is very real, and the policies that got all (or at least most) kids in school are not the policies that will guarantee they leave school with the skills we as a society want them to have. That does not mean, however, that our system somehow stopped working or that it has backslid. All it means is that we're asking it to do something it hasn't done before.

I want to be very clear that this argument should not be used as an excuse for the real problems in our school system today. For a civilized society, universal access to education is good, but it's not enough. Universal achievement must be the end goal, and we are not there yet.

Indeed, I suspect we have a long way to go to get there, and the mindsets and policies that got us this far will not be enough for us to make it to this new destination. What I do want us to acknowledge more often in our debate is that this is a new destination. Our schools have not done before what we're asking them to do now. They need to change, but they don't need to be blamed for not having met the newest goal. Instead of an argument about who's failing our students the most, our public discourse ought to be about how we help everyone support our students more. Change is required, but it should be seen as what it is: innovating to meet a new goal, not renovating to restore a past that never was.

[Statistics in the first three paragraphs from The Same Thing Over and Over by Frederick Hess.]

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  • J. Lee says:

    July 5, 2011 at 9:49 am

    Thank you, Michael, for putting words together to help explain how education in America came to be, how the system has only slightly changed (allowed more to attend), and how it is a new goal that we must reach for, not one of the past. One wish… for many more people to understand the true history of the system of public education since its inception. Eyes would be remarkably shocked at how little the system has changed to keep up with America’s change. From agricultural, industrial, technological, to the age of knowledge - we need a society that is willing to be involved and help the system evolve to today’s era and set new goals. Placing blame and punishing schools monetarily will only push the system down and further behind other countries who put education of their children at the top of the priority list.

  • Sally Critchley says:

    July 5, 2011 at 10:04 am

    Best article I have read on education in ten years. Very effective analogy and thought provoking. Also very uplifting for an educator! Thank you Michael Diedrich!
    Sally Critchley
    Kindergarten teacher