An Educational Crisis?

Harvard News 6/1/83–Editorial – AN EDUCATIONAL CRISIS?

By E. Randol Schoenberg, Editor-in-Chief

Time Magazine began its report on the decline of educational achievement in the U.S. with these words from a 36 page document issued by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, “Our nation is at risk. The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity.” These are strong words for the government to use while it calls the massive buildup of nuclear weapons “a necessary risk” and a nuclear war “survivable.” Obviously, there must be a big problem with our educational system.

During the Cum Laude Induction ceremony, the distinguished guest speaker, Mr. Leroy Barnes, again warned us about declining achievement. He said that our generation is not as competitive as his was, and that we would have to push ourselves harder because our classmates wouldn’t be able to. The problem must be getting serious.

Unfortunately, I found no proof of any decline in achievement at Harvard. Too bad for Mr. Barnes that he was directing his talk to a senior class with a record shattering 25% of the class in the top one half percent in the country. Isn’t it ironic also, that as Harvard is building a reputation for academic excellence, we are told that the rest of the academic world is crumbling. But it is reassuring to find that the logical basis for this hue and cry over the decline and fall of academia in the U.S. is, to say the least, shaky.

The statistic that is used over and over again was printed in Time, “From 1963 to 1980, the average scores on Scholastic Aptitude Tests fell more than 50 points in verbal skills and 36 points in math.” A person needs only to look as far as his home encyclopedia to find an explanation for this decline. According to my 1976 edition of the World Book, the percentage of Americans who have had at least four years of high school has risen from 43% in 1963 to 60% in 1973 with a trend for equal increases in the last ten years. It is logical to infer from this that there has been a substantial increase in the number of students taking the SAT. Today, there are people graduating from high school and going to college who would not have in 1963. But it shows an improvement in education, rather than a decline, that more people (17% more in 1973) are finishing high school. And the increase more than accounts for the decline in test scores.

Unfortunately, all that the statistics do show is that educational opportunity has risen faster than educational quality. There are people going to college today who are not as prepared as those in 1963. But, as usual, people cry that the horse is dying because it can’t carry a big load as fast as he could carry a small one. The answer is not to make the horse work longer hours or to punish it for going too slowly. The answer is to get more horses.

I am for better training and pay for teachers and increased citizen involvement to get more money for education, two changes recommended by the National Commission on excellence in education. But the other three reforms, stiffer state and local high school graduation requirements, higher achievement standards, and more time devoted to learning basics, serve only to soothe the consequences rather than to solve the causes of a societal disease. The problem is that education is a low priority in state and local government and therefore does not receive necessary funds.

Stiffer graduation requirements and higher achievement standards cannot be met without first mending the system that puts out people who cannot meet the requirements and standards. The Back-to-Basics movement is a negative one. It assumes that reading, writing, and arithmetic are all a person needs to be “educated.” It frowns upon the fine arts and other courses that related to functioning in the real world—driver’s education, physical education, sex education, psychology, and any other courses that one might consider an “elective.” Back-to-Basics also requires longer school hours and longer terms to achieve its goals. Obviously, this requires more money, money that should be used to repair and improve the present system rather than to expand it.

There are some beneficial aspects to the reforms that I have condemned. However, none can be effective at all if programs to increase teacher pay and training and to encourage citizen involvement (i.e. lobbying for more money) are not implemented. Such programs are essential for further reform to work. We cannot expect more from our schools without putting more into them.

To students at Harvard, this entire argument may seem somewhat irrelevant. We go to a private school and these problems exist only in the public schools. But we should take an interest and feel responsible for the future of our country on which the products our schools depends. As many spokesmen for the government have said, because of the dire situation that exists in our schools “our nation is at risk.” If our goal in this country is to produce a greater number of educated people than in the past, then we must realize our priorities. We cannot be selfish and stay ignorant to the severe test which our school system is now undergoing, for our nation depends on everyone to improve the situation.


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