Forty years ago, President Ronald Reagan announced the findings of a study on the state of education in America. Citing the infamous report “A Nation at Risk,” the president declared, “Our education system, once the finest in the world, is in a sorry state of disrepair.”
Four decades later, how are America’s government schools doing? That’s the subject of “Mediocrity: 40 Ways Government Schools are Failing Today’s Students,” the new book by Connor Boyack, president of Libertas Institute and creator of children’s series “The Tuttle Twins,” and Corey DeAngelis, senior fellow at the American Federation for Children and executive director at Educational Freedom Institute. I asked Boyack what parents need to know about the public school system.
The Epoch Times: “A Nation at Risk” was a shocking indictment of America’s schools and is today considered a landmark event in the country’s educational history. What were some of the key factors that led to such a dire assessment?
Connor Boyack: The group that published “A Nation at Risk” felt that America’s educational system was not adequately preparing young people for a changing economy and competitive workforce. The report highlighted various studies indicating academic underachievement, including declining test scores—and low performance compared to many other industrialized nations.
The Epoch Times: Are America’s public school students better off today than they were in 1983?
Mr. Boyack: If the educational foundations of our society were in 1983 being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity, today they are fully submerged. Our book “Mediocrity” highlights 40 ways that government schools are failing kids—from pushing propaganda and activist teachers to dumbed-down curriculum and rising levels of remediating needed in college because students are so ill-prepared.
While there are certainly exceptions where things have improved, we argue in the book that the general output of educational attainment has declined substantially.
Consider the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the “nation’s report card.” Just 26 percent of eighth graders [in 2022] perform math proficiently, down from 33 percent in 2019. And reading scores saw their biggest drop in three decades, falling back to 1992 levels, when the first reading test was used. Only 33 percent of fourth graders were reading at a proficient level in 2022, down from 35 percent in 2019. Eighth graders declined from 34 percent to 31 percent. You read that right: Fewer than one-third of eighth graders in America can read proficiently. Mediocrity indeed.
The Epoch Times: How informed do you think the average parent is about the state of schools?
Mr. Boyack: As “Zoom school” emerged during COVID-19—the video-enabled remote instruction as schools were shut down—many parents suddenly had easy access to review what was being taught to their children, and by whom. One teacher in Philadelphia publicly voiced frustration that “We’ll never be quite sure who is overhearing the discourse” between him and his students, and wondered, “How much have students depended on the (somewhat) secure barriers of our physical classrooms to encourage vulnerability? How many of us have installed some version of ‘what happens here stays here’ to help this?” And he made clear his concern that parents would interfere with his propaganda efforts: “If we are engaged in the messy work of destabilizing a kid’s [sic] racism or homophobia or transphobia—how much do we want their classmates’ parents piling on?”
Many parents have woken up to the reality that too many teachers consider their closed-door classrooms to be an opportunity to brainwash a captive audience. This is among the reasons why homeschooling tripled and why so many families are now demanding alternative options that can better educate their kids without much of the nonsense found in government schools.
The Epoch Times: What do you wish more American parents understood about public schools?
Mr. Boyack: Many parents feel that the school system is broken. They believe that the system is malfunctioning and simply needs to be fixed.
I don’t believe that. I believe that the problems we see in today’s schools are simply the result of how the system was architected by people like Horace Mann.
Mann was an admirer of the schooling system being developed in Prussia, featuring a standardized curriculum, widespread testing, compulsory attendance, professionalization of teachers, and career training. It was an authoritarian, top-down model that emphasized the collective over the individual.
Following a trip abroad to see this system in action for himself, Mann became a strong advocate for its implementation in America. His lobbying effort was swift and successful. Mann was instrumental in getting Massachusetts to adopt the Prussian model of education statewide in 1852, and other states soon followed.
What emerged in the years ahead was a new kind of school called the “factory model school,” where both the design of the school building and the processes used within it were modeled after an actual factory. It was a linear system, moving students through standardized information, regulated processes, and grade levels by age—akin to a conveyor belt process in a factory.
People like Mann who shaped how today’s schools operate wanted kids to be subordinated to the state, so they could be molded more easily. Other early architects like John Dewey had this as their core focus. For example, Dewey once wrote that the new school system they were creating would “build up forces … whose natural effect is to undermine the importance and uniqueness of family life.” He didn’t say that with concern, but praise. He wanted “the relaxation of older family ties” so children could effectively be brainwashed to believe differently from their parents. That’s not unlike what we have today.
The Epoch Times: Many parents believe that if you live in a town that has a highly rated school district, their children will receive a great education. Is that a safe assumption?
Mr. Boyack: This is only a safe assumption if you’re content being graded on a curve. Having a highly rated school district doesn’t really mean that children are receiving a high-quality education. It just means that the district is doing better than other districts. It’s like in eighth grade math, when you were graded on a curve and got an A for being at the top of the class. That didn’t mean you scored perfectly—it just means you didn’t do as awful as your peers.
With the “rising tide of mediocrity” leading to a significantly dumbed-down curriculum, what counts today as a “highly rated” school district is based on a depressed standard. Parents should demand far more.
The Epoch Times: What most concerns you about today’s public school system?
Mr. Boyack: My chief concern is how poorly we prepare young people for adulthood. Generations of voters have come out of this school system, historically ignorant, civically apathetic, and supporting socialism. That is a recipe for societal disaster, and it’s the chief reason for all the toxic garbage we see in our culture today.
For too long, we have delegated the education of our children to this system, only to have it pump out mediocrity. We’ve all laughed at videos of college students or adults who can’t answer the most basic questions about government or current events or history. It’s humorous, but it’s also profoundly sad to see how awful the school system has performed in preparing young people for being competent, critically thinking adults.
The Epoch Times: What other options do parents have outside the public school system?
Mr. Boyack: There’s never been a better time to get off the conveyor belt and pursue alternative options that better support our kids’ educational journeys. There’s homeschooling, where you tough it out as a family; homeschool co-ops, where you join together with other families in your community; online schooling, with hundreds of awesome websites and curricula to choose from; micro-schooling, a low-cost option where one or a few teachers offer a mini school without all the bureaucracy that makes schooling expensive; or traditional private schools with large campuses, sports, and social opportunities for the students.
Even better, many states are now passing Education Spending Account laws that allow parents to use some of the money that would have been spent on their child’s education in government schools, and direct those dollars to private school tuition or for homeschooling expenses so families can more easily afford to pursue education alternatives for their kids.