Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Uncle Sam Is in the Classroom

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Uncle Sam Is in the Classroom

Article excerpt

Now that teachers are being challenged to produce a bottom-up sea change in their own classrooms, the presence of Uncle Sam in the back of the room may be more of a problem for teachers' morale than those who invited him in have considered.

NO DOUBT about it! Uncle Sam is in the classrooms of 2 1/2 million American public school teachers. Private school teachers will continue to formulate their own standards for the content of courses and the performance of students. But Uncle Sam is sitting in the hack of public school classrooms, and he's whispering. He's not up front telling the teacher what to teach, though the well-meaning educators, political leaders, and business magnates who put him in the classroom wanted him up front. But a cautious Congress, harassed by a motley crew of objectors to his presence, prevented that. Congressional legislation opened the door to him but labeled his recommendations for change "voluntary." That might turn out to be very limited protection from classroom control. When Uncle Sam whispers, people listen.

After many years of commitment to the sanctity of local control of the schools and in the wake of the past decade's growing control by states, the "feds," as they are affectionately called, are seeking leverage over the inner workings of public schools -- what is taught there and how it is evaluated. For a national government that operates under a Constitution that never mentions education, much less schools, this is an immense change. Yet it is a change that has been accepted by most Americans with only a modicum of concern, none of it loud or persistent. For example, the desegregation of the schools by the reds in response to the unanimous Supreme Court decision in Brown raised a hullabaloo that was at least a hundred times more intense than that over Uncle Sam's quiet tiptoeing into the classroom.

Why did this immense shift in the role of the federal government in schools come about? To put it bluntly, it was caused in the main by the widespread and probably erroneous belief that the American economy was heading for disaster because the schools were failing to educate children. This highly questionable assertion was launched with a glittering display of rhetoric in 1983 when a group of distinguished Americans bamboozled one another into believing it. The document they produced, A Nation at Risk, has been quoted so often that I will refrain from doing so here.

A Nation at Risk was followed in 1989 by a less emotional, but still fervid, argument from the members of an equally distinguished group, the directors of the National Center on Education and the Economy. Their document, To Secure Our Future, was more balanced than A Nation at Risk but still dramatically effusive. They wanted to overtake Singapore in 12th-grade biology by the year 2000 and to overtake our leading economic competitors in Europe and Asia in functional literacy by that date as well. These gains were to be achieved by having the President "join with Congress to meet the challenge."

By mid-1994, however, the evidence was growing that, without substantial changes in the schools, the economy of the country was doing quite well. A column in Education Week, written by Larry Cuban, a Stanford University professor, effectively summarized the situation. Cuban lauded government actions focused on helping down-and-out kids to get started in jobs and then went on to say:

But other governmental policies setting national goals, curriculum, and tests stem from the illusory belief that such goals, standards, and tests in public schools will improve the economy. Such reforms have little to do with increased productivity, job growth, low annual rates of inflation, and other economic indicators. They have little to do with helping impoverished youths in cities to get jobs.(1)

Cuban goes on to mention the "skillfully concocted deception about the causal connection between better schools and a healthier economy. …

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