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American Education: Past and Present

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As the third most populous country in the world, the American educational system is posed with a large and challenging task: schooling millions of children, and raising the next generation of American adults. The establishment of this system is, by some means, miraculous, and its history is considerably rapid and storied. However, as long as the American educational system remains tied to local and state funding, it will never be able to live up to its full potential. To understand this issue, though, you have to look at its history. The roots of the American education system are largely found in religious organization. Some of the earliest schools in the United States were started by colonists in New England, for example, and parochial schools sprung up in large numbers around the country as religious Europeans immigrated. Schooling as we now know it, however, may be most directly linked to the adopting of obligatory attendance measures, where it is a legal requirement for children to receive schooling of some form. This became a legal requirement in each state across the country in the second half of the 1800s, though some states did not implement such a measure until the late 1910s (Bandiera et al.). At this time, approximately 70% of American children were in some form of school.

O’Neill 2The way school came to be as it is today, has much less to do with compulsory attendance as it does with the development of what schooling itself means. Though this has shifted over the past century, the core ideal – of education as both a right and a municipal good – has remained; this concept is largely derived from progressive education theorist John Dewey. Dewey argued that education, at its core, should be about helping a person become a person, and that it was the role of the educator to help shape an individual into a citizen (Reese 10). Education was, in this light, portrayed as a critical component of the democratic project. Whether or not American schools live up to this ideal today is a separate question, and to be addressed later. Despite the Great Depression, the first half of the 20th century saw a rapid increase in the number and size of schools in the United States. In 1910, for example, only around 10% of Americans had a high school diploma; this number had increased to 40% by 1935, and then 50% by 1940 (Goldin 688).

Perhaps the greatest overarching change to occur in the history of American education, however, can be found in desegregation. Previous judicial statutes such as 1896’s Plessy v. Ferguson had established a principle of “separate but equal” in regard to segregated American schools. This was rarely more than a legal talking point, as the vast majority of non-white students received lackluster educations as a result of chronic underfunding. The landmark case Brown v. Board of Education changed this in 1954, where the Supreme Court found that this principle was, in fact, unconstitutional. For a period between the case’s decision and approximately 1970, schools across the country were desegregated, meaning that since 1970, American education has been technically equal. It must be noted, though, that American schools are not truly desegregated. Throughout the Reagan and H. W. Bush administrations, federal measures ensuring integration were gradually stripped away; seeing that

O’Neill 3the root causes of de facto segregation – namely housing segregation and economic racism – still exist, and have perhaps even been worsened, American schools are likely not as integrated as they are claimed to be (Wood 109).Second to Brown v. Board, the greatest federal action on American education began with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, passed by Lyndon Johnson as a portion of his Great Society in 1965. Primarily concerned with the increase in funding, the act also aimed at universalizing and democratizing both access to education and the performance of educational infrastructure; the act was renewed by Congress repeatedly after its initial passing. Though changes were made upon each renewal of the ESEA regarding where funds would go and how they would be allocated, the most substantial change in the 20th century came with 1994’s Improving America’s Schools Act. Goals, as stated by the Clinton administration, included increased funding for bilingual education, education technology, and disadvantaged students.

Consideration of the present day begins with the No Child Left Behind Act. It is widely held that the contemporary state of American education leaves much to be desired, especially when contrasted with its previous functionality. Indeed, education has increasingly become a public issue since the passing of No Child Left Behind, which some hold responsible for a perceived decline in quality. In seeking to measure the performance of schools around the country, the act institutionalized the widespread use of standardized testing – a measure widely decried and, ultimately, of little positive effect (Hoyle and Kutka 355).In opposition to standardized testing, there arises a unique feature of the American educational system: its markedly localized character. While there are a variety of federal regulations pertaining to education, much of a school’s curriculum is decided by its local district. Through this, a student’s education is in some ways determined by the lottery of birth – where

O’Neill 4they are born, where their home may be, and what their parents make- these are all strong determinants (Wood 100-101). Such has almost come to be an expectation of parents sending their children to schools. Indeed, governing boards are continuously faced with “…the articulation of increasingly differentiated demands for schooling that are more closely aligned with the linguistic, cultural, and religious preferences of specific […] households,” (Plank 14). These demands are currently translating into a rise in homeschooling and charter schools, furthering the disintegrated nature of American education. Such expectations, and the expectations of performance, essentially amount to American public schools being expected to do more with less (15).Perhaps the greatest issue in American education, however, is the economic aspect.

This again returns the issue to the localized character of schooling, and of school funding; the quality of a student’s education may be primarily determined by the abilities of their surrounding tax base (Wood 101). On a more immediate scale, one must look to the effect of the Great Recession. In the past decade, investment in public education has fallen dramatically (Leachman et al. 2017). This requires examining how schools are funded. Federal funding, while at an all-time high for education, only makes up a small portion of overall education funds at 8%; the task of financing schools instead primarily lies with local and state funding measures. Since the beginning of the Great Recession in 2008, most states in the country have cut those measures (Leachman et al.). While some of the cuts have been made back over the course of national economic recovery, a substantial portion – approximately one-third of all cuts made – have not. This comes at a time when more and more students are entering public schools, meaning the strain on the system is only increasing.

O’Neill 5Another complicating factor is that of collective bargaining. Many right-wing detractors disproportionately focus on the presence of organized labor in American schools as the reason for its current disarray; such is patently false, but there is some validity to critique. First, however, you have to look to the reasoning behind organized labor in schools – the answer is simply that wages for teachers have never been very good, and unionization provides a means of empowering educators to seek better pay (Wood 107). The problem, then, comes in the fact of diminished oversight, where teacher’s unions may make firing a staff member difficult. As with the issue as a whole, one can see the utility in such a measure: job security for teachers is important, and it should, in some scenarios, be difficult to let a teacher go, such as in the case where their curriculum contradicts the wishes of a vengeful parent.

However, it is also true that flexibility in managing a staff base may be critical to the effective management of a school system (107).When considering these defects, one must examine the means by which they may be fixed. The most immediate of these can perhaps be seen in an overall change in the way schools are funded and maintained. Instead of schools being beholden to their communities’ abilities to fund them, the American educational system should be reformed into a single, unified body entirely funded by federal means (Hoyle and Kutka 358). The most recent relevant federal legislation, 2015’s Every Student Succeeds Act, does not advance towards this goal, and does little to change the status quo of American education. Ultimately, the history of education in America must be examined for its achievements and its faults. Its historical accomplishments in rapid establishment and near-universality ought to be praised, as should its democratic mission. Its shortcomings, largely contemporary, should be noted and criticized, and the cause of these shortcomings must be clearly identified as an

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