School as we know it is doomed. And every attempt to improve—but fundamentally preserve—the present system will only prolong its death throes and add immeasurably to its costs, both financial and social. By the year 2010, if we are to survive as a democratic society, our children will have to learn in a variety of new ways, some of them already on the drawing board, some unforeseen. None of them will involve a teacher in the front of a classroom presenting information to twenty or thirty children seated at desks.
Ironically, the success of a highly publicized school-reform movement has most clearly revealed the failure of school to meet the challenges of these times. The movement began on April 26, 1983, with the publication of a report by the National Commission for Excellence in Education. A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform asked for a longer school day and year. It called for the assignment of "far more homework." It demanded higher standards for college admissions, more rigorous grading, better textbooks, and a nationwide system of standardized achievement tests. Like most of the dozens of reform proposals from other organizations which followed, A Nation at Risk was preoccupied with course requirements at the high school level—four years of English, three of math, three of science, and so on. As if four rather than three years of English for students already turned off by the present system would really make much difference.
The interesting thing about the National Commission report (along with most of the other proposals) is that with all its talk of "fundamental" change, it proposed nothing really new. Let's ratchet up the present system, the report seemed to say. Let's get tough on students and teachers. Let's have the same, but better and more of it.
A Nation at Risk set off a firestorm of interest and approval. All three television networks did shows on education. Newsmagazines ran cover stories on the subject. Governors throughout the nation scrambled to get on the band-wagon and create their own commissions and task forces on school reform. Public-opinion polls showed a willingness, even an eagerness, to spend more on the schools. In an amazingly short time—as touted in the Department of Education's follow-up report, The Nation Responds—the more-of-the-same movement was well under way.
No movement to improve the schools gets all it asks for, but this one got more than most. From 1978 to 1983 total spending per public school student, from kindergarten through high school, adjusted for inflation, had remained stable. From 1983, when A Nation at Risk was published, to 1991 per capita spending, adjusted for inflation, increased by 30 percent.
With what results? Blacks and Hispanics have shown some real improvement in reading and writing, and students in general have made small gains in math scores. But even with more and more teachers devoting up to half their time preparing pupils for achievement tests, today's students nationwide are scoring little better, or even worse, in reading and writing than did their predecessors. The painful truth is that despite the spotlight on schooling and the stern pronouncements of educators, governors, and Presidents, despite the frantic test preparation in classrooms all over the country and the increased funding, school achievement has remained essentially flat over the past two decades.
The failure of this well-intended, well-executed movement toward reform summons us to think the unthinkable: we can no longer improve the education of our children by improving school as we know it. The time has come to recognize that school is not the solution. It is the problem. Take a look:
• Clearly, human beings learn at different rates. This doesn't mean that slow learners are less intelligent than fast learners; they're just slower. Yet by and large, school as we know it forces everyone to learn at the same rate or be declared uneducable.
• When we human beings first emerged on this planet, our ability to cooperate gave us an advantage over larger and more powerful creatures. Throughout history we have worked together and learned together to further ourselves and our species. Today if you need help, you're likely to find a friend or a fellow worker who will bat the problem around with you, check out your ideas, offer suggestions. Yet for the most part school is set up to teach competition rather than cooperation.
• A certain amount of self-confidence and self-respect is an essential precondition to learning. Yet by and large, school is set up to humiliate publicly those who, for whatever reason, are unable to come up with the right answer when called upon.
Middle school and high school make it worse. The day is divided into periods of some forty minutes. You sit in a room with twenty or thirty other people with whom you are discouraged from talking over what you are hearing, listening to a presentation that's probably either too demanding or not challenging enough for you. Then a bell rings, and you go sit in another room, with twenty or thirty different people, listening to another presentation that's probably either more or less than you want, on another subject. The teacher in this room probably doesn't know what the teacher in the other room has said or done, nor will any of the teachers in still other rooms know what the other teachers have said or done.
But how about the good old days? Didn't school work then? In 1900 the number of high school graduates was equal to only 6.3 percent of the nation's seventeen-year-olds. As late as 1940 the comparable percentage was only 49—and included a rather high proportion of the same kind of academically motivated kids who can get something out of present-day schooling. Academically successful kids, both past and present, have learned for the most part in spite of, rather than because of, school. The emphasis of today's reformers on the importance of homework and family support points up the fact that school on its own does not and cannot do the job of educating our children.
"In the old days people used to go to doctors to get cured," says Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers and one of the few true visionaries among today's education reformers, "but for several centuries doctors were actually harming their patients, indeed sometimes resulting in deaths, because they didn't realize they had to wash their hands and sterilize their instruments. In other words, in the normal course of practice doctors were doing things out of ignorance that were harmful to their patients. We need to ask whether schools in the normal course of education do things that are harmful to students."
School as we know it is not inevitable. From the beginning it was an administrative expediency, an attempt to adapt the tutor-learner system to mass education, a crude way of handling a large number of learners with a much smaller number of teachers. We were able to get away with it in the past chiefly because our society required few academically or technically educated citizens. In 1900 farming alone absorbed 37.5 percent of the American work force. As late as the 1950s, even the 1960s, unskilled jobs were still relatively easy to come by. What has happened is that the demands and stresses of today's multi-ethnic, technological society have revealed the fundamental flaws in a system we have long taken for granted.
In spite of the best of intentions, the commissions, foundations, task forces, governors' conferences, national and state administrations, and departments of education have missed the point. Longer bad school days and years don't add up to a good education. Cranking up the assembly line a bit tighter, spending all year teaching to the achievement tests, might increase the scores a few points, but at the cost of whatever love of learning remains in our students' hearts. Raising graduation standards without radically improving the mode of instruction will only increase the dropout rate or worsen the cheating that is already rampant in our schools. The assumption that higher quality textbooks, or teachers who "really know their subject matter," can set things right crumbles beneath the boredom, cynicism, and despair produced by the present system. Even if the top graduates from the most prestigious universities were to go into teaching, their best efforts would founder within an essentially unworkable system.