Nearly 23 million American adults are functionally illiterate.
The US Navy Department reports that one quarter of its recruits cannot read at the ninth grade level.
There is a shortage of math teachers in 45 states, science instructors in 33 states, and physics teachers everywhere.
It is now acceptable to speak of a crisis in education, but it wasn’t long ago that criticism of school management, teachers, curricula, or the ever-growing tax bite for public education was viewed as unreasonable and even unsociable.
Over the years parents, taxpayers, and voters have increasingly and deliberately been left out of the “professional” educator’s equations for children. An elite establishm
ent, led by the powerful National Education Association (NEA), has gradually seized control of the multibillion-dollar learning industry. Try as they might to keep critics and competitors quiet, NEA and its political allies cannot cover up a generation of ill-trained and ill-equipped students.
The case against the academic and political elite has been building for some time. In the 1950s, Rudolph Flesch wrote the best-selling book Why Johnny Can’t Read, a prophetic critique of “progressive” education.
By the 1960s, experimental “new math” courses, classrooms-without-walls, radical social behavior studies (“sensitivity training”), and sex education made many parents feeling confused, alienated, and angry.
In the 1970s, famed black inner-city educator Marva Collins (“any child can be a real achiever”), Texas textbook critics Mel and Norma Gabler, Boston parents protesting the capricious bussing of students, and the exposé of radical textbooks in Kanawha County (Charleston), West Virginia, all captured the nation’s attention.
Something was obviously and seriously wrong with public schools, textbooks, and teaching methods. Parents were asking tough
questions and looking into educational alternatives.
But the education establishment elite, utilizing the National Education Association (NEA), fought back. Founded more than a century ago, ostensibly to promote the teaching profession, the NEA has evolved into something quite different.
Syndicated columnist James J. Kilpatrick notes, “In some minds there may be a tendency to think of the NEA as it operated in the 1930s and 1940s. Then it projected a good school-marmish image. This is long gone. These days the NEA functions as a trade union, pure and simple … in the whole field of public employee unionism, few outfits are as militant.”
NEA membership rose from 714,000 in 1959 to over 1.7 million in 1985. Its income is now more than $1 million a day, although of the $90 million that was spent on programs in 1985, only 3.4 percent was allocated for professional and instructional development. The rest of the monies went for union organizing, lobbying, public relations, politics, staff, and overhead.
In his February 1982 American Spectator article “A Relic of the New Age: the National Education Association,” Robert W. Kagan, observed: “NEA leaders have stopped representing the interests of their members and of American education. They have taken every opportunity to advocate left-wing social programs that in no way reflect the views of their members. But, most important, they have been uncompromising in struggling to increase their own power.”
Indeed, the NEA elite have been quite frank about their agenda and tactics. In the January 1969 NEA magazine Journal:
Schools are ‘clinics’ whose purpose is to provide individualized psycho-social treatments for the student, thus increasing his value… to society.
National Education Association President Mary Satwood Futrell’s boast to the Los Angeles Times in 1982 showed where the real action is for the education establishment: “Instruction in professional development has been on the back burner to us, compared with political action.”
NEA political action has been successful. From 1972 to 1982, the NEA supported 1,747 candidates for Congress in the U.S. Senate: they won 77 percent of these contests. More than 20 percent of the delegates and alternates to the 1976, 1980, and 1984 Democratic National Conventions were card-carrying members of the NEA.
The NEA’s political and philosophical goals were summed up by its former Executive Director Terry Herndon’s revelations quoted in the November 1978 Reader’s Digest: “The ultimate goal of the NEA is to tap the legal, political, and economic powers of the U.S. Congress. We want … sufficient clout … to reorder the priorities of the United States of America.”
Political clout has its perks: between 1970 and 1981, public school enrollment fell by six million pupils, yet from 1960 to 1980 spending on education at all levels of government rose by 163 percent and the ratio of public school employees per 100 students increased by 84 percent. More education money, more teachers, and yet there are fewer public school pupils. The NEA union certainly delivers for its members, but what about the students?
In a 1983 survey of the state of literacy, the National Commission on Excellence in Education reported that, “Our nation is at risk … The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity.” This landmark assessment went on to observe that if an unfriendly foreign power and attempted to impose on America the unexceptional education standards that exist today it would be viewed as “an act of war.”
The 1986 National Assessment of ducation Progress nationwide study of the writing skills of 55,000 students, concluded that “Most American students are unable to write adequately except on the simplest of tasks – despite a recent national focus on writing instruction in schools.”
School environment certainly must be counted as a factor in the assessment. Each month, three million high school students are victims of crime in schools, including 282,000 assaults; 1,000 teachers a month are battered badly enough to require medical care. Meanwhile, a US Department of Education 1987 report noted that, “57 percent of teenagers with cocaine habits bought most of their drugs at school.”
Education news stories are filled with reports of crime, drug abuse, and teenage pregnancies – in schools that turn out students who cannot read, write, or reason well.
There are more than 16,000 local school boards that are influenced and guided by the involvement of parents and taxpayers. Columnist Warren Brooks, commenting on last November’s election results, states that, “The predominantly black citizens of Detroit were throwing out members of Mayor Coleman Young’s school board, replacing them with a slate of reformers called HOPE, who ran on a platform of calling for educational choice, local control, accountability, and merit pay.”
An increasing number of parents who view the education of their children as their primary responsibility, are relegating schools and teachers to a supporting role. Many parents are increasingly turned to educational alternatives: Christian, parochial, and private schools are consistently ahead of their public-school competitors in terms of student safety, sensitivities to parental rights and values, and scholastic achievement. Families have begun to homeschool their children – a rapidly growing movement – successfully utilizing training materials and techniques long developed by professional schoolteachers and Christian educators.
However, too many parents and taxpayers have yet to take up the larger challenge of reclaiming the public schools within the local neighborhoods so they will reflect the common community values. This entails attending PTA meetings, reviewing school textbooks, getting to know teachers and administrators, and most importantly, networking with like-minded concerned citizens. The educational establishment is, by definition, a minority. They do not represent the broad consensus of ideals, values, and traditions embodied in the families of children they are entrusted to teach. If parents successfully meet their responsibilities as parents and community taxpayers, the educational establishment elite will be outnumbered and outwitted.
In a 1988 interview with Policy Review, former Secretary of Education William Bennett summed up the problem with public schools: “American schools are not where they should be. It is still a battle over who will control the schools – the people who gave us the education disasters of the 60s and 70s, when the people were going to fix those mistakes, that is, parents and other concerned adults.”
Education is a battle for priorities and principles. The outcome will determine whether parents and students or the educational establishment elite will prevail.
This article originally appeared in Coral Ridge Ministries’ Encounter, March-April, 1989