Rise Above

How Did We Get Here? (Part 2)

About five years ago I wrote and published an article entitle “Nos Censuimos Igitur Essemus—We Thought Therefore We Were.” In that article, I explain the history of the American public education system and how the issues citizens decry evolved over time from America’s founding. I decided to post it in excerpts and to change none of the original language or tone. At the time, I had experienced public and charter school environments and was highly discouraged by the lack of care or consideration given to the learning/teaching process. While my verbiage has become far less combative, my sentiments remain unchanged.


The Post-Modern Era

By 1950, every state in the Union at that time had imposed, and was vigorously enforcing, compulsory education laws along with methodologies for funding their public schools with taxpayer dollars. In the time between 1850 and 1950 (a short but eventful century), America had endured Civil War, Reconstruction, WWI, the Suffragette Movement, Herbert Hoover, the Great Depression, and WWII along with the realization of manifest destiny (the informal doctrine that enumerated the belief that the United States was destined to stretched from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast). We may have been knee deep in the Cold War, but we knew we really had nothing to fear because we were enriching uranium and building a nuclear arsenal so vast that for the next few centuries we will be armed to the teeth (despite the "Red Scare," which was probably politically motivated to limit civil liberties because the government was scared of being overrun by the communists availing themselves of the democratic process. But we digress.). By the middle of the 20th Century, the United States had emerged as the leader of the free world. We were, arguably, "the greatest country in the world." Or were we?

At the same time we were becoming a major power broker on the world stage, our domestic social policy was still being held hostage by the Plessy v. Ferguson doctrine of "separate but equal." While young Americans were abroad fighting and dying for the world to be free, domestically an entire subset of our population was legally required, via de jure (legal) segregation, to sit in the rear of buses, enter homes and hotels through the kitchens, work for asinine wages, and then pay taxes without the ability to exercise the right to vote! (Can someone say "taxation without representation?" Did we not revolt against the British Empire for this exact type of tyranny?) Likewise, this same social caste was expected to attend sub-standard schools with sub-standard materials and teachers who may or may not have attained proper teacher education and training. Perhaps the meaning of the word "equal" has been misconstrued, but these circumstances indicate, with certainty, that our educational system (not to mention society) at that time was most assuredly not.

Nevertheless, and despite the many obstacles in their way, this caste spoke out. They found the right advocates and appropriate poster-children to mount a decent enough counterstrike concluding with the reversal of "separate but equal" in 1954 by the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Warren states that segregating children "from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone." The Court also ordered that every publicly funded school in America serve all students regardless of race, class, or gender, and, at that time, to do so "with all deliberate speed." But:

the federal courts did not simply say what states and educational officials could not do in the struggle for equality of opportunity; they moved actively and positively to tell officials and school boards what they must do to eliminate discrimination in school systems and promote equality of educational opportunity. States and school boards were ordered to take 'affirmative action' against segregation and prejudice (Rippa, 1984).

Also, the passage of "the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the education amendments of 1972 [which went into effect in 1975] specifically applied to affirmative action to benefit women" andspecifically ordered that: "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance" (Rippa, 1984 pp. 277, 280). We can conclude, therefore, that among Blacks and other non-majority ethnic groups, women were also a minority being shafted by our educational and social system. However, these judicial actions came with a price-tag that no one could have foreseen we would still be paying for more than seven decades later. Civil Rights has proved to be a double-edged sword and yet another nail in the coffin of our public educational system; not because of the policies themselves, but their implementation.

As previously stated, the Supreme Court ordered public schools to make all of the aforementioned changes "with all deliberate speed." The problem with legalese is that it tends to be vexingly literal and ambiguous. Consequently, with reference to Brown, states were able to interpret the phrase almost unilaterally as long as the perception was that the policies were being implemented. Combining the study of history with eyewitness accounts, the upset to the status quo prompted a societal backlash that we are still combating today.

To start: many majority parents (who could afford it) removed their children from the public schools, pooled their resources, and created private institutions where they could continue to educate their children without the pressures of liberal legislation that would force them to integrate. In some locales, like Prince Edward County in Virginia, the local officials, predominantly comprised of majority citizens, shut down their public school system altogether. Apparently, so many districts took up this practice that in 1968 the Court required all of those that followed suit to reopen their public schools and develop "workable" desegregation plans. The Court then went even further to decree that federal judges could order schools to integrate their staff (Rippa, 1984). To boot, the Court upheld the Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg (1971) decision to support the practice of busing. Busing was a:

remedial plan [that] required a massive, long-distance transportation program: students residing closest to inner-city schools were to be assigned to suburban schools; students residing closest to suburban schools were to be assigned to inner-city schools. Thus the neighborhood school concept, a principle argument against busing, was substantially weakened by the Court decree. Although the United States Supreme Court did not outlaw 'schools all or predominantly of one race in a district of mixed population,' it did create conditions that would make such schools difficult to maintain (p. 283).

As an added blow, many of the qualified majority teachers, who deigned to teach students they did not deem worthy or capable of higher scholarship, found positions elsewhere. The quick fix was to fill the vacated teaching positions with majority teachers who may not be as qualified but were willing to teach in an integrated classroom. Likewise, they system mostly hired minority teachers who would not rock the boat or make too much noise about unjust business practices (also not usually the crème de la crème in their field). Consequence: a substantial number of vacated teaching positions with those remaining being less likely the best in their field and classrooms filled, and later overfilled, with students of a certain income bracket with the prejudices and etiquette to match.

So, over two decades, in our efforts to speedily build a more inclusive society, we instituted protocols that filled the public schools with: (a) Untrained and under-qualified teachers, many of whom would refuse to collaborate with one another because they were relegated to work in the same schools aside colleagues against whom they were prejudiced, (b) Large, diverse classrooms filled with a number of angered majority students with deep prejudices for many of their classmates fostered by their parents (many of whom were also highly displeased with the upset to the status quo and the transition to a new social order) and chronically stressed minority students trying to get a substantive education equal to that of their majority counterparts with no other options, and (c) Highly disgruntled administrators and districts who believed the federal courts robbed them of their rights to operate their own schools the way they saw fit. Then we placed all of these people under one roof and expected them to attain and maintain the same level of academic rigor before the shifts. Selah.

Forgotten by most, but at this same time our society was also caught up in the Deinstitutionalization Movement. This social movement was emptying mental hospitals and institutions en mass. This action, coupled with the nascent but ironclad civil rights legislation, would eventually require public schools to fully include students with "handicaps" in the already disturbed school environment. It would also require schools to develop academic programs that appropriately met these students' needs. Noble and morally just? Of course. Should this have happened? Absolutely. The problem, again, was timing and implementation.

Chris Koyanagi prepared a report entitled "Learning From History: Deinstitutionalization of People with Mental Illness As Precursor to Long-Term Care Reform" for the Kaiser Foundation in 2007 where he explores the history of deinstitutionalization to explain how we can learn from our mistakes. (To reiterate: mistakes.) He notes that initially "the early focus was on moving individuals out of state public mental hospitals and from 1955 to 1980, the resident population in those facilities fell from 559,000 to 154,000." That means at least 405,000 known mental patients were suddenly on the streets; and that is just on paper. While that difference may seem trifling, being that many of these types of institutions are localized in densely populated urban areas, the impact was not. Koyanagi goes on to say that, "only later was there a focus on improving and expanding the range of services and supports for those now in the community, in recognition that medical treatment was insufficient to ensure community tenure" (p. 1). Without knowing the exact statistics on the number of patients released who were of school age, suffice it to say that the number was significant enough for Congress to enact the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975 (now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, reauthorized in 2004).

Let it be said that the other social reform movements occurring concurrently were not the driving force for this movement. Koyanagi explains that "governors and state legislatures were strongly motivated by cost concerns..." And historically, when money management is a factor, reforms happen quickly, sloppily, and with little concern for future consequences. "Yet Deinstitutionalization initially progressed very slowly. ...It only accelerated into a full-scale, nationwide policy in the late 1960s and 1970s, when the federal government became involved" (p. 4). It got involved mostly in response to the report entitled Action for Mental Health commissioned by the Joint Commission on Mental Health. However, one could also argue that the feds became involved because they were already dealing with an existing public outcry over civil rights and wanted to avoid angering another sect of the population (and given the time that would not be a real stretch).

Logically, one can deduce that this sudden influx of students with emotional and intellectual disorders and disabilities put further pressure on the public schools. They had just been ordered to ensure that all students receive a free appropriate public education (FAPE) and this now included students with disabilities. Noble? Yes. But, we must consider that at the same time they were dealing with the social pressures of racism and sexism, teachers and students, already reeling with a severe case of culture shock, were yet again charged to deal with another extreme upset to the status quo absent desperately needed resources and training.

As these radical social movements, and consequent social tensions, raged on in the 1960s and 1970s, unforeseen obstacles to the effectual administration of public education emerged. Educationally focused sociological and psychological research took the country by storm as we began to realize that the quality of our public schools was quickly plummeting. As such, many schools began to implement programs and practices with novel ideas and rhetoric like "multicultural," "whole language," and "constructivist." The damage of this type of rhetoric will be discussed later as the consequences of its adoption would not be realized until generations later.

Now enter the deleterious effects of technology: In the 1970s and 1980s, there were many books and articles written decrying the effects of widespread access to recreational and time-saving popular technology—television, microwave, radio, walkman, etc.—on children (and, by extension, the classroom). The issues enumerated are almost verbatim what teachers complain about today. These decades developed the progenitors of the subsequent "popcorn" generations.

The progeny of these progenitors have become increasingly more loathsome and slothful with each decade as they become more and more accustomed to the fast food lifestyle—quick, cheap, and convenient. People who become accustomed to this type of lifestyle also tend to develop an extremely low tolerance for sacrifice and hard work and an increased dependence on instant gratification and learned helplessness. Now, imagine having thirty to forty intellectually lethargic students in a single classroom. Then imagine having to be accountable for the substance and quality of their work. Then imagine that if these students refuse to work or act out to avoid work (and they do so regularly) and you dare to even imply that the student is ill-equipped or just plain lazy, you, the teacher, are reprimanded. Why? Because the public has decided that personal accountability for one's own education is no longer a reasonable request of students because personal accountability requires sacrifice and hard work.

Astoundingly, as if the complete and utter degradation of the public K-12 classroom was not enough, we turn our attention to the publicly funded college. With the problems previously enumerated from the 1960s and 1970s, one can only assume that the quality of the general product of the public school system was greatly diminished. The natural consequence was a decrease in college admissions in the late 1970s and early 1980s, especially of students from inner-city high schools, which were affected far worse than their suburban counterparts. To combat this “social crisis,” many state funded colleges and universities increasingly relaxed admissions requirements and crafted (oxymoronic) remedial college courses designed to provide students with the skills and knowledge they should have acquired in secondary school.

Monetary incentives were also given to many students to attend these “colleges." The "greatest country in the world" could not retain or justify such a title if its college admission or graduation rates fell below those of other developed countries. According to eyewitness accounts, it appears that there was very little oversight, regulation, or vetting of the recipients of these incentives. Many did not matriculate or graduate on time, if at all. It was also during this time that the average number of years it takes the average American student to complete a four-year degree increased to six years, and it remains six to this day (if it has not risen).

Public colleges were in a potentially perilous state. Low enrollment or graduation rates meant decreased income from tuition, decreased government funding, and inevitable closure. Coupled with having a limited pool of scholars truly qualified for higher scholarship and saddled with an alarming number of sub-standard students, there was only one intervention left: lower the standards of the American college.

(A quick note about college education: Students get from their collegiate experience what they put into it. Higher scholarship is not like secondary education where the teacher is trying to engage students in the pursuit of skills and knowledge they will need to matriculate to college or a career. The college professor and environment is a haven where the student academic is encouraged to creatively and freely apply all that they learned in high school about the world and themselves and to safely and securely challenge it. That being said: it is a black mark on the history of our public school system that our colleges were, and still are, relegated to accept and promote the gross mediocrity of the average American academic that we should be ashamed to call their work "American.") 

(To be continued...) 


©2017 Kevin J. Quail, II. All rights reserved


Kevin J. Quail, II is an experienced, certified Special Educator and Advocate. For over a decade, he has worked as a direct hire and independent contractor in public, private, and charter K-12 as well as college school environments in various capacities, including: Test Prep teacher, IB Librarian/Media Specialist, Tutor, Substitute, ESL teacher, Humanities/College Prep teacher, English, and GED prep teacher. He currently works as an independent research-practitioner and service provider serving in both the Honolulu and Washington, DC metropolitan areas to provide tutoring, homeschool support, test preparation, substitute teaching, special education services, curriculum design, advocacy, professional development and coaching for students, parents, schools, and other independent educators.