When I accepted President Reagan’s appointment to be chairman of the National Council on Educational Research, I did so because I welcomed the opportunity to learn firsthand how professional bureaucrats approached America’s many and increasingly serious educational problems. After some time spent at my appointed task, I realized that bureaucrats were not capable of solving the educational problem, because they themselves were a part of the problem.
At the NCER I spent several years attempting to carry out President Reagan’s agenda for achieving excellence in our schools. Simultaneously, the bureaucrats spent the same amount of time and an infinitely greater number of hours trying to prevent the activation of that agenda. President Reagan sought to reduce the Federal government’s bureaucratic control over educational policy and practice, while the Washington bureaucrats sought to increase that role and control. The President sought to return instruction in the classroom to a primary focus on basic skills and traditional values while increasing community and parental involvement. The “educational professionals” often sought just the opposite.
Beating one’s head against a brick wall continues as long as one places little value on the head and refuses to acknowledge that the bricks, regardless of their lack of gray matter, will eventually prevail.
But there are other paths to educational excellence.
When I resigned from NCER on May 7, 1985, I did so with mixed emotions, knowing that there are some educators in Washington who would return control of a child’s educational future to the parents if possible. But to the overwhelming majority of the bureaucrats I said then and I say now ” . . . I came, I saw, but I wasn’t conquered.” I still contend that there is no contradiction between better education and more efficiently run schools. Nor does it seem improper to me that those who pay the soaring cost of public education should be made accountable for the quality of the end product.
Since the early 1960’s, the revenue earmarked for public schooling has increased at least twenty-fold, while the average high school Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores have fallen by more than 150 points. While many educational professionals have attempted to explain this away as a consequence of”broadening of the system” to include more college-bound minority youngsters, the drop in student performance has taken place at all levels of society. Those who seek to comfort themselves on the false pillow of faulty testing would do well to consult John Silber of Boston University whose research will quickly demolish every “broadening the system” rationale they can construct. The fact is that many children from middle-and upper-income families also demonstrate less evidence of educational skills now than did their counterparts of 20 years ago.
It remains my belief, strongly reinforced after several years experience in Washington, DC, that both the Nation al Council on Educational Research and its subsidiary, the National Institute of Education, are in great part responsible for education’s ineffectiveness in addressing the major issues confronting it. The Federal education bureaucracy has become the captive of misguided and misinformed “educationists” who willingly sacrificed traditional instruction in the “three R’s” and respect for Western cultural heritage in favor of pop-psychology and behavior modification as the goals of schooling. In doing so, these profession al bureaucrats have contributed directly to the creation of a nation in which 23 million Americans are functionally illiterate and less than half of our 17-year-olds who have passed Algebra II can correctly answer simple word problems involving several steps.
As President Reagan has so aptly noted, “If money alone were the answer, the problem would have been shrinking not growing.” Yet, we will spend over 51 million dollars this year on the National Institute of Education, and to what end7 Since its creation in 1972, the NIE has spent approximately 800 million dollars on pet projects of the education lobby, all while education standards and student performance have been falling. And the. Department of Education itself, which will spend over 17 billion dollars during this fiscal year, has little more to show for its endeavors.
Many of the problems that have come to light in the past few years have done so as the direct result of the publication of the number of educational analyses, the most widely known of which is now about three years old and entitled “A Nation At Risk.”
This remarkable report, generated by the National Com mission on Excellence in Education, powerfully articulates the dissatisfaction Americans have long felt over the dismal academic skills that high school graduates were bringing to business, industry, the military, and to colleges and universities. As a result, all 50 states have instituted education improvement task forces. In addition, high school graduation requirements have been increased in 44 states, and state college entrance requirements have been raised in 25.
But education in the United States is still primarily a state and local matter and does not lend itself readily to centrally prescribed cures. While saturation journalism may wear out interest in educational excellence by sensationalizing and overexposing the issues on the six o’clock news, the problems go on after the television set has been turned off.
If the movement towards excellence in education appears to be running out of steam today, it is probably because the partisans of reform have not yet sufficiently linked up with their most effective engine of educational progress: the American parent. It is one thing to diagnose what is wrong with our schools, but to follow through and correct these things there must be maximum involvement on the part of the mothers and fathers who provide the 44,000,000 children and the billions of dollars that comprise the immense enterprise of American education.
For many Americans it is axiomatic that parents have the primary responsibility for the education of their children. It follows then, that parents should have the opportunity to choose the type of education suitable to their children’s needs and most congruent with their own values and traditions. For millions of parents, there is no choice; because they are unable to afford the added costs of private schools, they must send their youngsters to public schools, however much they might prefer to do otherwise.
While parents who had their children in troubled public schools applauded the results of the “A Nation At Risk” study, educational professionals were openly contemptuous of findings contained in the document. Joseph Adelson, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, struck the dominant chord of professional resistance. When faced by the evidence that public schools were not effectively transmitting reading and math skills beyond the early elementary grades, professors and theorists of education tried to emphasize the irrelevance of traditional learning. They explained, as Adelson noted, that they were after all succeeding in their own goals, which were to remove social prejudice and to instill what they thought were progressive moral values.
Taxpayers have a right to be enraged at such elitist arrogance and should continue to insist that teachers teach skills, not their own personal political or moral prejudices. Parents also have a right to be similarly angered with teachers’ unions which primarily advance their own self interest, under the guise of “helping education.” The National Education Association (NEA), for example, believes U.S. public school teachers deserve “across-the board” pay increases, and lobbies hard for more pay, but refuses to accept the accountability of the teachers to the public, and throws its considerable weight against any plan to apply merit evaluation to the profession. It has also worked, as education critic Chester Finn of Vanderbilt University has shown, to substitute the teaching of ideology for the transmission of skills in the classroom.
Nothing reveals this so obviously and consistently as the NEA’s one-sided, leftist approach on behalf of the nuclear freeze movement. The NEA-sponsored nuclear war curriculum is called Choices. Among other things, it features “games” in which students are given tokens representing the Federal budget and urged to spend these tokens in NEA approved ways. There is a great deal of role playing, apparently intended to stress everyone’s inherent reasonableness, and to reinforce Samantha Smith’s inspiring “discovery” that the peace-loving Soviets are “just like us.” But the most conspicuous feature of the program is the requirement that the students write letters, lots of letters. They write letters to the President, to members of Congress, to the mayors of their towns, and even to Soviet officials in which they bear their souls and plead in anguish in despairing tones for mercy on humanity.
Whatever may be our views as parents and educators on the vastly complex issues of arms control and disarmament, common sense tells us that it is totally inappropriate to conduct debates on foreign policy in elementary schools, let alone kindergarten classrooms. American taxpayers and school boards have a mandate to provide schools in which the schools are instructed in the three R’s, and not, as is the current vogue, in the two P’s, politics and pacifism.
The NEA’s relentless pursuit of its own rigid political ideology is repeated far too often in the actions of educational professionals and those in related fields who have their own agenda and their own imperatives which they voice regularly and ruthlessly. In recent decades this agenda has centered on the “resocialization” of children through probing of the emotions and feelings, and “values” training, the end result of which is to alienate children from the values of their families. Parents by the score testified before hearings by the U.S. Department of Education in March of this year to protest the experimental use of their children in programs that had nothing to do with academic achievement and everything to do with psychotherapy.
Parents complained further of cavalier treatment at the hands of school administrators and other school professionals who knew very well how to use their technical expertise and political clout to intimidate them into forestalling any further questioning about the regimen imposed on their children. It is certainly to be hoped that such treatment does not characterize the majority, or even a large minority of our public schools, but that it exists at all is an alarming phenomenon. Even a small number of teachers can make “curriculum victims” out of a large number of students.
We have garbage curricula in our high schools and colleges—classes in making pasta sauce for kids who have never read MacBeth, classes in astrology for kids who don’t know an inclined plane from a quadratic equation. But we have yet to face the fact that the garbage starts on day one. If people ran restaurants as they run schools, there would be no more chefs and menus. We would be led to the kitchen and left to fend for ourselves among the ingredients. It would not be surprising to find some poor souls, unable to cook, eating oregano out of a bottle or gnawing on a raw potato.
Perhaps the trouble with some educators is that they spend too much time with teachers and bureaucrats and too little time with children. The average American seven-year old is not particularly interested in Dick or Jane or Spot—unless one of them gets blasted by a laser cannon. On their own time, they revel in “He-Man, Voltron, and Superfriends.” So how about Ulysses and the Cyclops, or Jason and the Argonauts?
The point is that for too long in our schools we have neglected our first lesson: the lesson of life in America. We will not return to literacy or excellence until we apply those immedicable rules of life to the classroom. The values of tradition, of property and the family which, by common accord, made America prosper can again make our schools seats of learning and not mere way stations between childhood and unemployment. What are we to do?
I would like to suggest very respectfully that merely updating a 1948 exemption for Federal income tax could go a long way to solving America’s educational dilemmas. In 1948, for example, personal exemptions for Federal income taxes were $600, and are now only $1,000. Those exemptions should be $5,600 if they were to be equivalent to the $600 exemption in 1948 adjusted for inflation. If personal exemptions were only one half of what they should be ($2,800), each individual would have a tax saving of approximately the same amount on the average as President Reagan recently suggested in his rejected tuition tax credit program. The benefit of this approach is that the President would achieve a general reduction in personal taxes and everyone would benefit. Secularists could spend the additional money on material possessions or place it in a savings account or invest it. Yuppies could go out and buy another SAAB or another BMW. And those wishing to use the additional revenue to send their children to private schools could use it toward that end.
A Gallup Poll recently showed that 4 5 percent of those Americans with children in public schools indicated that they would prefer to enroll them in private schools if they could afford it. Some would argue that deducting an additional $300 per taxpayer from the Federal treasury would mean a loss of approximately 29 billion dollars in revenues (about 95 million returns are filed per year). However, if even 30 percent of those students attending public schools switched to private schools, that would mean a savings of about 29 billion in tax dollars paid to states, because the total expenditure for public school students in the United States is around 94 billion dollars a year. This would offset the 29 billion dollars lost to the Federal treasury because of the additional $1,800 personal deduction per taxpayer. Also, this would allow state governments to reduce the level of their taxes, and quell their complaints that the Reagan Administration has shifted the burden of education to them without the accompanying transfer of funds to meet their new responsibilities.
Therefore, if Congress would increase personal exemptions from $1,000 to $2,800, everyone would be treated fairly. Since this would be a general “exemption” rather than a tax “credit,” it would also solve the concerns of those fearing that if a tax credit is equated with a subsidy by the government, Federal regulations might be attached, to which religious institutions would object.
This suggestion, one among many, resulted from several years of interaction with public education bureaucrats in Washington, DC. Education in the United States, by any reckoning, is an extremely costly enterprise. With some foundation, the charge also can be made that public education is an extremely wasteful enterprise and growing ever more so. Waste, of course, can be defined in terms of resources that are misused or abused, but also in terms of resources that are underused or neglected-and into that category has been relegated, to a considerable extent, the input, the ideas, and the values of U.S. parents. The number of professional educators who will admit that parents should control the educational content of their children’s curriculum shrinks daily.
The traditional Western concept is that schools—all schools—operate in loco parentis, that is, as part-time or substitute parents—or literally, in place of the parents. That concept is the rationale behind the permission slips that are routinely sent home regarding trips and activities away from school grounds, or requesting permission for school authorities to administer aspirin or first-aid. But when it comes to the substance of education and the content of courses, it is clear that a “wall of separation” is firmly in place to keep parents from treading on the turf of educational professionals. But it’s there, and its presence demeans a great profession—teaching.
The teaching profession has a great deal in common with other professions, but unique to teaching is each year’s rhythm of rest and renewal. With every fall comes the opportunity of a new beginning, and with it a renewed zest for tackling the year ahead. And while most of us remember the high hopes, and sometimes the trepidation, that we felt on the first days of school, on mature reflection we are able to see how those hopes were made possible by the faith of our parents, and the trust they placed in our schools.
American parents are making an investment, not just of their taxes, but of their children’s lives, when they send them off to the classroom. Our Western heritage has always acknowledged the parents as the primary educators of their children, and the authority which schools and teachers possess is an authority derived not from the state, but from the parents. President Reagan has attempted to reassert this principle, which in recent years was all but forgotten amid the competing claims of bureaucratic and judicial activists, social scientists, arrogant university elitists, and professional education lobbyists.
Knowledge, they say, is power; and certainly the organized purveyors of knowledge in our society are well versed in managing the levers of power. All over the world we see how totalitarian societies and near-totalitarian societies zero in on education as the swiftest and most indispensable means for subduing and controlling subject people. For them the prior and God-given rights of parents do not exist. If we are to retain our freedom we must do everything possible to reassert the rights of these parents, so firmly rooted in biology and in moral law.
Schools depend on confidence, as do banks, the news media, and other institutions. The tremendous reservoir of confidence, particularly in public education, which Americans have built up for over a century, has served to unify and strengthen our country. A firm belief in parental rights and local control of schools—this was the formula that fueled our progress and won for our public schools widespread public support.
Education today is a complex science as well as an art, but it “still reposes on a few home truths that are as inescapable autumn’s falling leaves. The parents’ role as primary educators and the uniqueness, worth, and dignity of every child in every classroom in the land—these are the realities that we must not lose sight of, even as battalions of experts focus on our classrooms, nor should we forget the ultimate ends of education, which are truth and virtue.
If these priorities are given the attention they deserve, the school year now about to start will be a source of blessing for the child, the family, and the nation as a whole.