Dreams of Better Schools

Andrew Delbanco reviews E.D. Hirsch Jr.'s The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools and Mike Rosein's Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us in the NYRB:

Ever since its beginnings in antebellum Massachusetts, public education has been regarded as a national imperative, yet running the schools has generally been left to the states. Before the Civil War, when one western state school superintendent observed the “futility of attempting to operate a Free School System, without proper supervisory agents,” supervision was considered a state responsibility, and so it has remained ever since. During the short-lived experiment of Reconstruction, Congress did seek to influence local educational practices through its oversight of the new state constitutions, and through the Freedmen's Bureau, which set up schools in the South for black Americans who had previously been denied access to education. But it took nearly a century till the US Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), issued its order that all public schools must be integrated. And it was not until the presidency of Lyndon Johnson that the federal government got substantially involved in school reform by directing funds to the states through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), with the goal of improving schools in high-poverty neighborhoods.[5]

So it is all the more remarkable that it was under George W. Bush, a president full of platitudes about the virtue of local autonomy and the folly of “big government,” that Washington entered the field of public education more aggressively than ever before. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, supported by many liberal Democrats, notably the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, required that states institute standards defining what students must learn grade by grade, test student achievement school by school and district by district, and improve—or, in the absence of improvement, eliminate—schools that fail to meet the standards.

In general, the Obama administration remains committed to such mandates.