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The public education system in the United States provides education to more than 50 million students a year. This system was part of the vision of the Founding Fathers so that the American public could make educated choices about its leadership and meaningfully participate in democracy. In twenty-first-century, postindustrial society, education has become the sine qua non of preparing oneself to effectively compete in the global economy, not only as an individual, but as part of a nation as well. However, many studies find that the United States is falling behind in the international rankings in science and mathematics at important benchmark points during the education process. In response, the 1983 report “A Nation at Risk” articulated a number of ways in which the education system could be improved so that students were more competitive on a global level. However, some three decades later, indifferent progress has been made toward these goals. Far from education reform no longer being needed, it has become more important than ever before.
Keywords Back to Basics; Education Reform; Globalization; Grade Inflation; Multiculturalism; Postindustrial; Public School; Society; Socioeconomic Status (SES); Technology
Public Education Reform
The public education system in the United States is made up of about 14,000 locally governed school districts that provide education to more than 50 million students from prekindergarten through twelfth grade. In the 2009-2010 school year, this education cost $638 billion in public funds. However, the public education system of the United States stands apart not only because of its size and scope, but also because of the principles on which it was founded. Thomas Jefferson held that governments degenerate when trusted to the rulers or political leaders of the country. As a result, Jefferson advocated public education, proposing that it is necessary for citizens to improve their minds in order for democracy to work. Similarly, Benjamin Rush, another founder, stated in his "Plan for the Establishment of Public Schools" that education is favorable to liberty, promotes the ideas of laws and government, and is important to the economic well-being of the country. James Madison summarized the ideas of the Founding Fathers on public education in this way: "A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy: or, perhaps both" (as cited in Fazzaro, 2007, p. 56).
Based on this impressive philosophy, one might reasonably assume that the public school education that one can receive in the United States would be among the best in the world. However, according to the 2011 International Mathematics and Science Study performed by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (an international organization of national research institutions and governmental research agencies), United States eighth-graders rank ninth in mathematics and tenth in science out of more than forty nations tested (U.S. Department of Education, 2011). Education in today's postindustrial society is therefore important not only to individuals who are trying to improve their socioeconomic status by learning skills that will make them more marketable in local and global marketplaces, but also to the society as a whole as it attempts to remain a world leader.
Arguably, education reform has been around as long as education itself, as interested parties attempt to prepare citizens to lead the nation and secure its future. In recent years, however, the United States faces new challenges in reforming its education system (Andersen & Taylor, 2002). The United States is becoming an increasingly diverse society, a fact that makes the development of a public education system that will meet the needs of all its members more challenging than in the past. In addition, inequalities exist among many schools. This is due to a number of complex factors, including the fact that not every school receives equal funding. In addition, problems have arisen over the focus of education. For example, the late twentieth century saw a trend toward attempting to widen students' education by teaching them about important current issues (e.g., the environment), allowing them to learn at their own pace, or not forcing them to endure the rigors of traditional classroom discipline. Although such trends may have been well-intended, they often meant that the basics of reading, writing, and mathematics were given less emphasis in order to expand curricula. As a result, student discipline began to decline, functional illiteracy rose, and teachers were inadequately prepared to teach the basic skills necessary for students to succeed.
Recent Education Reforms
There are a number of approaches that have been taken to try to reform public education in the United States. One of the obvious ways in which to reform the education system is to reduce inequalities between schools. In the United States, this is one of the enduring problems of education reform. Funding inequalities can be observed across the nation, and also for different school districts within the same city or region. Although this might seem a simple enough problem to solve, public education is primarily funded through local property taxes. As a result, school districts in which home values are higher typically have more money for public education than do school districts where property values are lower. As a result, school districts in more prosperous communities have greater funding available to purchase textbooks, laboratory equipment, and computers that form the infrastructure for education today. Greater funding means that a school district can attract better teachers with the offer of higher salaries, and have smaller classroom sizes so that students can receive more individual attention. All these things affect the quality of education.
However, although most people understand, at least on some level, the need for a superior education in order to maintain one's competitive edge, most people are also reluctant to pay higher taxes. In an attempt to promote public education reform, therefore, a number of states have shifted the source of funding for public education from property taxes to other sources, such as state income tax.
Back to Basics
Another common feature of most movements for public education reform is an increased emphasis on giving students a firm foundation in basic educational subjects. One way in which this is done is to return to an emphasis on the basics of education rather than on more politically correct or popular contemporary issues. This approach to education reform was precipitated at least in part by the 1983 report A Nation at Risk: An Imperative for Educational Reform. In this report, the National Commission on Excellence in Education concluded that the United States is no longer preeminent in commerce, industry, science, and technology, and that the edge had been gained by other countries. According to the commission's report, if this edge is not regained, Americans' culture and way of life could also be negatively impacted and could become more reliant on assistance from outside groups (e.g., advances in science and technology, access to high tech products). The report cited functional illiteracy rates, lower average achievement on most standardized tests, decline in Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores, steady decline in science achievement, lack of higher order intellectual skills for high school juniors and seniors, and the increasing dollars spent on remedial education programs for basic skills (e.g., reading, writing, spelling, arithmetic) by the military and business in the United States.
In the wake of the publication of A Nation at Risk, the slip of the United States in international rankings of educational excellence as cited above, and various other studies on the quality of education in America, a back-to-basics reform movement developed that placed greater emphasis on basic skills (e.g., reading, writing, spelling, arithmetic) and teaching the standards of classical literature than on other subjects and skills. In addition to placing more emphasis on teaching basic subjects, there has been a concomitant trend for more objectivity in grading at all levels, from elementary school through college. This is in reaction to accusations of grade inflation, which occurs when an excessive number of high grades are given to students or when average students who earn average scores are given above-average grades instead. Grade inflation effectively lowers the value of the top grades earned by higher-achieving students, making them less competitive in the marketplace, whether or not they have the knowledge and abilities to win top positions. The practice of grade inflation also makes lower-achieving graduates poorly prepared for the realities of college or the working world, and...