New Questioning of Old Values
Decline in U.S. Public Confidence in Education
American public education is going through a period of agonizing reappraisal. A mood of disenchantment has replaced the enthusiasm with which Americans once embraced their educational system. There is a growing feeling that somehow the schools, with their fancy equipment, scores of specialists and high-sounding ideas about the latest breakthroughs in methodology, have failed to do their job.
Public education has always had a special function in American society. Schools have been regarded not only as institutions of learning but as vehicles of social mobility—the means of providing equal opportunity for all Americans to move into the mainstream of American economic and social life. Education would be, in the words of Horace Mann, “the great equalizer of the conditions of men—the balance wheel of the social machinery.” As society came to place increasing emphasis on credentials, degrees and technical training, the role of education became even more important in determining one's chances in life.
The liberal, egalitarian faith in the efficacy of education fueled the drive to desegregate and reform the American school system during the last decade. Equalizing educational opportunity—through such policies as compensatory education, Head Start programs, and busing ghetto children to suburban schools—became a cornerstone of the Great Society's attack on poverty. Billions of dollars were spent but little evidence of success could be found.