Throughout their history, American public schools have always had critics. In some periods, such as the 1950s and 1980s, criticism of education quality reached a crescendo. But critics have prospered for most of the past 150 years. The schools seldom, if ever, have matched the expectations that society holds for them.
According to the religious tradition that dominated education in the early years of our republic, the schools were supposed to shape the character of the rising generation; the lingering effects of this tradition make it easy to blame the schools (and to add a new course to the high school curriculum) for whatever ails society, including divorce, teen pregnancy, alcohol and drug abuse, and traffic accidents. Since the time of Horace Mann in the 1840s, the public schools have been counted on to supply social and economic equality. To the extent that these goals remain unachieved, the schools can be reproached for having failed. There is some comfort in remembering that our disappointed hopes have a long history.
We may like to think reverentially of a golden age that has disappeared, but we need only read Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life to be reminded that "the educational jeremiad is as much a feature of our literature as the jeremiad in the Puritan sermons." Writing more than forty years ago, Hofstadter charged that the schools seemed to be dominated by "athletics, commercialism, and the standards of the mass media." He recited a litany of complaints that included not only "underpaid teachers, overcrowded classrooms, double-schedule schools, [and] broken-down school buildings" but also "the cult of athleticism, marching bands, high-school drum majorettes, ethnic ghetto schools, de-intellectualized curricula, the failure to educate in serious subjects, [and] the neglect of academically gifted children."1 Critics today, whatever their ideology, would very likely echo Hofstadter's complaints and add a few more of their own. The educational jeremiad is alive and well. [End Page 1]
In an effort to examine the other side of the proposition, the 2004 conference of the Brown Center on Educational Policy at the Brookings Institution was devoted to examining hopeful signs of change in American education. Implicit in the topic was the assumption that hopeful signs of change do exist. Yet to counter an excess of optimism, the format of presentation and critique guaranteed that every positive assertion would be met by a critical response.
Why examine such a topic at all? As editor, I made the decision to seek out reasons for hope about the future of our schools. I did so for both professional and personal reasons. Since the publication of the landmark federal report A Nation at Risk in 1983, the nation's schools have experienced two decades of sustained examination and reform.2 No state or community or school has been untouched by the efforts to improve schools. The upheavals of these past two decades have by no means ended, and it is too soon to assess which reforms have succeeded (though not too soon to recognize that some have failed). Since we are still in the midst of major changes in how we organize, finance, and manage schools, it seems a good time to look for reforms that are especially promising, if only because some sense of success is necessary if we are to continue to pursue important goals and perform difficult tasks. We cannot persist in our efforts to improve our schools if we become convinced that nothing helps, nothing changes, and the status quo always wins. Faint heart never won fair lady, and defeatism never produced success.
In addition, I had personal reasons for deciding to look for hopeful signs of change in American education. I launched the first annual meeting of the Brown Center on Educational Policy in 1997, from which came the first Brookings Papers on Education Policy (1998). That first conference concentrated on the question of student performance: How well were American students doing, as compared with the past and with their peers in other nations? Which policies and practices seemed to be most important in raising or lowering student performance? In subsequent years, the Brown Center organized conferences on...