What’s Missing From Education Reform in America?

1980s: The Pendulum Swings Schools Back to the Basics

By 1980, declining test results showed that an alarming number of students couldn’t read at grade level and had the attention of amoebas. Discipline had also deteriorated as children of the seventies had been taught that freedom meant the right to do or say whatever made them feel good.

While every classroom had the handful of students who could read and wanted to learn, most viewed teachers like TV. If they liked the lesson, they tuned in. If not, they slept, chatted, passed notes, drew, tuned out, or registered displeasure with the utterance of the word, “Boring.”

Officials swung schools back to the basics. Administrators from the President on down began telling kids that the only way they could make a lot of money was by going to college. In-service presenters urged teachers to “make learning fun for kids” and give them candy for work well done. So while teachers were under pressure to raise achievement to college-prep standards, they were also competing with the entertainment culture in overcrowded classrooms filled with dated or insufficient books, bad air, and cheap plastic desks that had all the comforts of a body cast. Computers were the hot new thing, but few schools had more than one or two.

Buffered from reality in district offices, school officials remained oblivious to the learning and discipline problems accruing since the late sixties. In 1983, a government commission warned that declining achievement made America “a nation at risk.”


“People who have been schooled down to size let unmeasured experience slip out of their hands . . . Consumer-pupils  are taught to make their desires conform to marketable values.”  — Ivan Ilich, The Deschooling of Society