Since the publication of A Nation at Risk1 in 1983, attempts to reform our K-12 educational system have steadily mounted in scope, complexity, and cost.
Within the reform debate powerful voices have promoted a “calamitist” view of public schools. Calamitists argue that American schools are in an unprecedented state of academic and moral decline, that immediate and drastic steps must be taken to reverse this decline, and that the most promising solutions are those that undo much of the recent history of public education. These solutions include mandating curriculum; linking promotion and graduation to statewide, standardized tests; retreating from past commitments to affirmative action, bilingual education, and special needs; undermining teachers' autonomy and seniority; and providing public funding for alternatives such as vouchers and privatization.
The calamitist view is found in particularly virulent form in cities, where parents, voters, mayors, and state legislators have lost both faith in and patience with the failing status quo. In the most celebrated case the Illinois legislature dismantled the central office of the Chicago Public Schools, transferring control of a multimillion dollar budget to individual school councils and granting them unprecedented autonomy. In a second phase, the legislature placed control of the school system in the hands of the mayor, who appointed his budget manager, a fiscal expert with no experience in education, as Superintendent of Schools.
The closely watched Chicago experiment has had a national ripple effect. By June, 2000 at least five major school systems, including America's three largest, had turned to non-educators to fill the superintendent's chair.