Broken field defenses

Jack Schneider has a defense of American public schooling up at The Atlantic this week, and while it has an historian’s argument, it feels much like the claims of David Berliner and Bruce Biddle in The Manufactured Crisis, published 20 years ago, in the middle of the Bill Clinton era and most of a decade before No Child Left Behind. What Berliner and Biddle got right — as Schneider gets right this week — is that the declension story that many school critics have told over the past 50-60 years is wrong. There was not a “rising tide of mediocrity” in schools at the time A Nation at Risk was published in 1983. Its modern corollary is also wrong — the idea that “the modern curriculum is a relic of the past” is wildly ahistorical (see Audrey Watters and me on that point, in separate posts).

Schneider is also correct that schools do change, in curriculum and structure. As David Tyack and Larry Cuban pointed out in Tinkering toward Utopia (also a 20-year-old book), the cycles of reform rhetoric obscure long-term institutional trends that are important and largely outside the focus of hype. Pop quiz: what was the modal size of American high schools in the late 1950s? How about today? Hint: they’re not the same.

Where I disagree with Schneider — and Berliner and Biddle — is the conclusion he draws from pointing out how wrong the declension myth is. There are two ways in which the “rising tide of mediocrity” claim could be wrong. One is that public schools are not mediocre. The other is that public schools have significant weaknesses, but that they are longstanding and not traits that sprang up overnight. That is where I stand. There is an important historical argument to be made that “disruption” is a poor universal model for education reform. But its converse is not correct, either; desegregation was as disruptive when done properly as anything else.

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