We are not likely to turn the tide in our battle for a more effective educational system until we achieve a better understanding of the true nature of the crisis. Scant attention has been given to the question of what caused a “tide” of mediocrity to “rise” in the first place. Ironically, at least some of the culpability of our public schools, with regard to any increase in mediocrity, is directly related to the success of our efforts to keep students in school. Throughout the history of public education in America, we have been engaged in a delicate balancing act with regard to the conflicting goals of excellence and inclusion. Maintaining excellence is much easier when opportunities for advanced schooling are limited to the academically talented. Mediocrity is more difficult to avoid when all children are allowed, encouraged, and/or required to remain in school.
Over time the scales have tipped slowly, but surely, toward inclusion. The United States has come tantalizingly close to achieving the goal of a high school education for every member of our society. The percentage of students attending, and graduating, from high school has grown steadily throughout most of the history of public education in America. In 1890, only 6.7% of people between four- teen and seventeen years of age were enrolled in school. By 1970 that percentage had increased to over 90%. In 1890, a mere 3.5% of adults between the ages of 25 and 29 had earned high school diplomas. As recently as 1940 that percentage was still only 38.1%. Between 1940 and 1980 it more than doubled to 85.4%. Since 1980 the graduation rate has more or less leveled off, although efforts continue to lower the drop-out rate still further. At the present time a significantly greater percentage of adults in our society have earned degrees from four-year colleges than had earned high school diplomas in 1920.
This success has not come without a price. Standardized test scores peaked in the mid-1960s and then entered a lengthy period of slow, but steady decline, only recently beginning to rebound ever-so-slightly. It is worth noting, however, that during the period from 1970 to 1980 the percentage of Americans between the ages of 25 and 29 who had graduated from high school rose from 75.4% to 85.4%. Percentage-wise, that increase is greater than the decline in test scores during the same period.
The “bell curve” is a reality. Just as some people are gifted with more musical, artistic, or athletic ability than others, some people learn faster than others. Some people are able to retain more knowledge than others. Even within the realm of education some students are gifted readers, but weak in math, or vice versa. While extraordinary effort on the part of students with less natural academic ability can narrow the gap, there are limits to how much each individual is capable of learning. There will always be differences in achievement.
It may well be the case that the percentage of people within our society who are capable of meeting the standards we claim to expect of high school graduates is less than the seventy-five to eighty percent who are presently receiving diplomas. The easiest way to increase test scores would be to stop requiring and/or encouraging students with limited academic abilities to remain in school. On the other hand, making it even easier to get a high school diploma by lowering standards and reducing requirements is the easiest and most logical method of increasing the graduation rate. As much as we might like to achieve both excellence and inclusion, there will always be a trade-off between the two.
Keeping marginal students in school longer has contributed to lower average test scores. On the other hand, the welfare of our children is more important than test scores or other statistics. Convincing students to stay in school is a worthwhile goal when they are putting forth a reasonable effort to learn what is being taught. Keeping students enrolled in school is a hollow victory, however, when they are putting forth little or no effort to learn. We have been increasingly successful in our efforts to keep students in school longer. We have been noticeably less successful in helping marginal students achieve at the levels we claim to expect.
In spite of the fact that published standards have been raised in many states and school districts, de facto standards have been lowered at many schools, primarily through social promotion and grade inflation. To accommodate students who work during the school year and to keep marginal students from becoming discouraged and dropping out, we have lowered our expectations with regard to both the quantity and the quality of work required. Students are passed along from grade-to-grade and given credit for classes, despite the fact that they have not truly mastered the objectives within the approved curriculum for that class or grade level. As a last resort, summer school and night-school classes offer marginal students an easy way to earn credit without having to meet the alleged standards for a particular course. The end result of all these machinations is that many under-performing students are awarded high school diplomas without acquiring the knowledge or developing the skills that we claim to expect of a high school graduate.
The key to striking the proper balance between excellence and inclusion is to stop obsessing about both test scores and drop-out rates. We should do everything possible to improve the quality of the educational opportunities we offer through our public schools. We should make a broad range of meaningful alter- natives available to students, especially those who are not succeeding within the present system. We should encourage every student to put forth their best effort in learning. On the other hand, we should allow young people who are not interested in formal instruction to choose a different path. A system of public education that afforded every member of our society the chance to discover and fully develop their gifts and talents would be an “excellent” system, even if some people failed to take advantage of the opportunities available to them.