HomeSchool Reform NewsCommentary: The Roots of America's Education Decline

Commentary: The Roots of America’s Education Decline

The stage for today’s low-achievement, politically radicalized education system was set decades ago. It will take a long time to reverse the damage.

As somebody who is right in the middle of the “boomer” generation, I often hear or read my peers lamenting the good old days in education, before the radicalization of the late 1960s and 1970s ushered in disastrous changes.

What they fail to realize is that the K-12 education we received in the post-World War II era was not only already severely degraded, but it paved the way for the radicalization they decry. Here’s how it happened.

The founders of our country recognized that, for an electoral-based government to work, the voters had to be knowledgeable and capable of ethical reasoning. At first, voting was restricted to those citizens most likely to be educated: prosperous farmers, skilled craftsmen, professionals, and merchants.[1]

As the voting franchise spread to the lower classes, so did education. By the late 1800s, roughly 95 percent of American children either attended school or were privately tutored for at least a few months a year.[2]

The education they received was surprisingly standardized, given the huge geographic area and relatively slow communications in those days. This was because textbook publishers reprinted what had been previously successful.[3]. Plus, the goals of education were the same throughout the country: to prepare children for participation in democracy and the free-market economy as rapidly as possible.

This education emphasized basic numeracy and literacy and rote skills such as reciting and performing mental calculations. Instilling discipline and character were important. As one U.S. Commissioner of Education said, education was to elevate, not just train for employment. [4]

Reading textbooks were the main vehicles for this “elevation.” McGuffey’s Reader series was the best-known of these texts. Students using the texts read quality material from the start: Greek and Roman myths, Anderson’s and Grimm’s fairy tales, Bible passages, original source materials from the nation’s founding, and even Shakespeare. Not only did such texts encourage reading—after all, the material was interesting—but they helped to solidify a diverse and disparate people into a common nation with a common culture.

The system, though far from perfect, worked remarkably well. Though many students had only a few years of formal schooling, literacy spread, culture advanced, and the nation became a world leader in technical innovation.

But then the education schools appeared. In 1890, the first school of education at a major university was established at New York University. [5] Others soon followed, the most important being Columbia Teachers College. Previously, K-12 teachers had been given a couple of years of college at the so-called “normal schools” to make sure they knew the material they were going to teach and were then thrown into a classroom to learn how to teach on the fly. [6]

Teaching the “how” was the focus of these new education schools, and they developed theories that would supposedly make education more scientific and pragmatic. [7] Instead, during the first decades of the twentieth century, they initiated three waves of change that transformed the nation’s educational practices—and American education suffered.

Natural learning. The first was “natural learning” of the sort first proposed by French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau in his 1762 book Emile, or On Education.[8] Man was considered naturally good; society’s constraints inhibited a child’s natural curiosity and creativity; therefore it was considered best that the child be allowed to learn naturally according to his or her own interests. Education theorists tinkered with the concept throughout the nineteenth century. By the early twentieth century, education theorists such as John Dewey promoted “child-centered learning,” in which children directed their own educational paths. In addition, theorists advocated “constructivism,” which focused on complex internal mental processes instead of rote learning and results. Both of those theories can work, experts say, but they require an impractical amount of adult attention to be fostered on each child.[9] Without a very low (and very expensive) teacher-pupil ratio, the result is often pedagogical chaos.

Social Efficiency. The next wave came after World War I and was directed toward “social efficiency.”[10] It was intended to help students blend seamlessly into the new, industrialized America. Greater emphasis was placed on vocational training and “life skills.”

Educators assumed that only a small number of students could advance very far academically, so students were divided into tracks based on aptitude or socioeconomic backgrounds. Students were incorrectly assumed to be interested only in their own lives and neighborhoods, rather than in far-away places and previous eras. Elementary education was dumbed down; instead of the inspiring McGuffey’s Readers, reading was taught using simplistic texts such as the Elson Readers (“See Dick run. Run, Dick, run”). [11]

Collectivism. The third wave was collectivist; it arose during the Great Depression. Many of the leading educators of the time, such as Dewey, Harold Rugg, and George Counts (all of Columbia Teachers College), were openly socialists; many took tours of educational facilities in the Soviet Union and came away impressed with what they saw.[12]

These influential educators sought not to improve education but to effect a complete transformation of society. They envisioned a “Great Technology” in which social engineers would design a new society, with educators producing the mass understanding needed to make the endeavor successful.[13] During the 1930s, educators sought ways to shift the American mindset from one of individual responsibility to one of collectivism and to insert them into the curriculum.

The excesses of the educational theorists and social engineers—and the patriotism stoked by World War II and concerns over communism—brought on a backlash. One of the leading opponents to the collectivists was the Progressive Education Association, which wanted to return to the first wave of Progressive reforms, the child-centered education championed by Dewey. [14]

By the end of the Second World War, the extreme innovation of the first half of the 20th century ended, and American education reached a relatively stable consensus.

The consensus, however, had made elementary education less interesting and more confined. Conformity, rather than individualism, was emphasized. It was instrumentalist rather than educational in the fuller sense: it dismissed cultural knowledge while focusing on the acquisition of skills.

Traditional moral education gradually disappeared: teaching from the Bible in public schools was phased out. The curriculum placed the United States at the center of the universe, rather than as part of the continuum of Western civilization. The Greeks, Romans, and Middle Ages were largely gone from the elementary curriculum, replaced by a new emphasis on colonial America, Native Americans, and the founding of the nation.

That was the education that many Boomers recall fondly. Perhaps its major legacy is that its moral and cultural emptiness created a vacuum into which new mischief hatched by the schools of education would rush. Today, many of our public schools mix skill-building with political indoctrination and “safe spaces” patronizing, resulting in technically proficient but “woke” generations that favor socialism over capitalism, narcissism over decorum, and nihilism over reasoned discussion.


  1. Jay Schalin, The Politicization of University Schools of Education (Raleigh, NC: James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, 2019), 3.
  2. Diane Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 20.
  3. Ravitch, 21.
  4. Ravitch, 32-38.
  5. New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, “Teacher Education Reinvented: Supporting Excellence in Teacher Education,” Feb. 5, 2018,
  6. Ravitch, 21.
  7. Schalin, 5.
  8. E.D. Hirsch, The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them (New York: Anchor Books, 1996), 74.
  9. Terry Stoops, “Teacher Training and the Construction of Illiteracy,” James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, June 15, 2008,
  10. Ravitch, 123.
  11. Schalin,  11.
  12. Schalin, 9.
  13. Ravitch, 225.
  14. Schalin, 9-10.

For more information, see Schalin’s paper on “The Politicization of University Schools of Education: The Long March through  the Education Schools.”

Jay Schalin is director of policy analysis at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal in Raleigh, North Carolina.

This article was originally published at Jane Takes on History and is republished with permission.

Jay Schalin
Jay Schalin
Jay Schalin is director of policy analysis at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. His articles have appeared in Forbes, the Washington Times, Fox News Online, U.S. News and World Report, Investor's Business Daily, Human Events, and American Thinker. His op-eds have been published by the McClatchy News Service and the Raleigh News & Observer. He has been interviewed on ESPN, National Public Radio, and UNC-TV, and his work has been featured on ABC News and Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor.


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