Sputnik and Charter Schools: Neither Has Moved American Education Off Center

The failures in American education are due to fundamental aspects of American society -- our religiosity, spirituality, and irrationality, and our failure to integrate African-Americans into the mainstream.
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American leaders have been concerned to improve education since the 1950s, when the Soviet launching of Sputnik in 1957 prompted endless soul-searching about deficiencies in American scientific education. It is now hard to recall the political and social turmoil Sputnik spawned. James Rutherford, a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, compared two seismic events that focused Americans on the country's unpreparedness for an overseas enemy -- Pearl Harbor and Sputnik:

"The military and the politicians received the blame for Pearl Harbor, not educators; in the Sputnik instance, the finger of blame quickly and sternly pointed at the schools."

Among the educational concerns Rutherford identified in the aftermath of Sputnik were these:

  • Should, progressive, child-centered education or basic, discipline-centered education have precedence in the schools?
  • Who should decide what students are supposed to learn: the school community (teachers, school administrators and trustees, parents) or university scholars (scientists, mathematicians, and engineers, in our case)?
  • Thank God we resolved these matters! I'm being ironic, of course. In regards to the last, there is a state-by-state movement in the United States to teach creationism in the schools, while elected officials from the top to the bottom of the Republican Party (which, in case you missed it, controls Congress) speak about biblical interpretations of history and the universe in lieu of legislation and action based on science.

    By the way, when might you reckon that Rutherford was writing -- since his concerns seem quite contemporary? He was, in fact, writing in the 1970s, due to renewed American alarm at the time about our unpreparedness in the face of global competition coming then from Japanese superiority in producing automobiles and electronics.

    That identical issues in teaching science appear in different parts of the century makes clear that America's educational failures are fundamental to the spirit of the country -- for good and for ill. By this, I do not mean solely our ironclad commitment to religion: I refer also to the prevalence -- on television, in the movies, and in print -- of new-age beliefs in angels, communicating with the dead, and seers who peer into the future and travel into the past.

    The 1950s saw a parallel movement to that spawned by Sputnik, represented by the Supreme Court's outlawing of segregated education in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. The decision -- and the movement it prompted -- was led by psychologists (specifically social psychologists -- I was trained in this context 40 years ago) and focused on the need to equalize educational performance among the races (really, between two races at that time -- white and black Americans).

    Over a half century later, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert summarized how we are doing on this front:

    Now comes a report from the Council of the Great City Schools that ought to grab the attention of anyone who cares about black youngsters. . . .The report, titled "Call for Change," begins by saying that "the nation's young black males are in a state of crisis" and describes their condition as "a national catastrophe." It tells us that black males remain far behind their schoolmates in academic achievement and that they drop out of school at nearly twice the rate of whites.

    Whereas failure in scientific education traces to deep-seated irrationality among Americans, religious and otherwise, the failure Herbert adumbrates is due to our inability to improve the situation of African-Americans. As Herbert reviews the failures to do so:

    Black children -- boys and girls -- are three times more likely to live in single-parent households than white children and twice as likely to live in a home where no parent has full-time or year-round employment. In 2008, black males were imprisoned at a rate six-and-a-half times higher than white males.

    This publication has hooked its educational wagon to charter schools -- as expressed by the election by its readers of Geoffrey Canada as the Ultimate Game Changer in Impact for 2010. Canada is founder of Harlem's Children's Zone and especially charter schools, notably Harlem Success Academy, featured in the hit film, Waiting for "Superman".

    In October, the New York Times reported the following:

    Mr. Canada and his charter schools have struggled with the same difficulties faced by other urban schools, even as they outspend them. After a rocky start earlier this decade typical of many new schools, Mr. Canada's two charter schools, featured as unqualified successes in "Waiting for 'Superman,' " the new documentary, again hit choppy waters this summer, when New York State made its exams harder to pass. A drop-off occurred, in spite of private donations that keep class sizes small, allow for an extended school day and an 11-month school year, and offer students incentives for good performance like trips to the Galápagos Islands or Disney World.

    Canada functioned in the charter-school-encouraging environment created by departing New York Schools Superintendent Joel Klein -- generally recognized as an unqualified success in that role (and whose reputed success was in turn responsible for much of the acclaim for Michael Bloomberg's performance as mayor). As Klein leaves his post, the Times announced in September that, due to new testing standards: City Reports Nearly Fivefold Increase in Students Repeating a Grade, undercutting both Klein's and Bloomberg's ultimate claims to success.

    Finally, for those who take as gospel the message of Waiting for "Superman", that charter schools are the answer, Times columnist Gail Collins reviewed the abundant evidence nationally and internationally showing that, (a) charter schools do not outperform ordinary public schools, but rather the reverse; (b) cities, states and nations with strong teachers unions do not underperform other districts and nations educationally, but rather the reverse.

    I realize that critiquing the man popularly elected by HuffPost readers as their most admired figure -- as well as attacking the realty basis of a highly popular movie -- is unlikely to make me popular.

    But -- in a tribute to its role in good education -- I thought I'd try to tell the truth: the failures in American education are due to fundamental aspects of American society -- our religiosity, spirituality, and irrationality, and our failure to integrate African-Americans into the mainstream. Reversing these elements of American life are, admittedly, formidable -- perhaps impossible -- tasks. But failing to do so guarantees the failure of all education reform efforts.