But it wasn't. Instead, shopworn panaceas -- larger teacher salaries, smaller class sizes -- were pursued as colleges were reduced to offering remediation to freshmen.
In 1976, for the first time in its 119-year history, the National Education Association, the teachers union, endorsed a presidential candidate, Jimmy Carter, who repaid it by creating the Education Department, a monument to the premise that money and government programs matter most. At the NEA's behest, the nation has expanded the number of teachers much faster than the number of students has grown. Hiring more, rather than more competent, teachers meant more dues-paying union members. For decades, schools have been treated as laboratories for various equity experiments. Fads incubated in education schools gave us "open" classrooms, teachers as "facilitators of learning" rather than transmitters of knowledge, abandonment of a literary canon in the name of "multiculturalism," and so on, producing a majority of high school juniors who could not locate the Civil War in the proper half-century.
In 1994, Congress grandly decreed that by 2000 the high school graduation rate would be "at least" 90 percent and that American students would be "first in the world in mathematics and science achievement." Moynihan, likening such goals to Soviet grain quotas -- solemnly avowed, never fulfilled -- said: "That will not happen." It did not.
Moynihan was a neoconservative before neoconservatism became a doctrine of foreign policy hubris. Originally, it taught domestic policy humility. Moynihan, a social scientist, understood that social science tells us not what to do but what is not working, which today includes No Child Left Behind. Finn thinks NCLB got things backward: "The law should have set uniform standards and measures for the nation, then freed states, districts and schools to produce those results as they think best." Instead, it left standards up to the states, which have an incentive to dumb them down to make compliance easier.
A nation at risk? Now more than ever.
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