The Atlantic

The Problem With Generalizing About ‘America’s Schools’

It’s an abstraction that has obscured the true workings of the country’s education system for decades.
Source: Bettmann / Getty

Thirty-five years ago, in April of 1983, Ronald Reagan appeared before the press to publicize a government report warning of “a rising tide of mediocrity” that had begun to erode America’s education system. Were such conditions imposed by an unfriendly foreign power, the authors declared, “we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

Despite its grave tone, the report, titled “A Nation at Risk,” had little direct impact on policy. It did, however, establish a new way of talking about public education in the United States, a master narrative that has endured—and even subtly changed American education policy for the worse—over the past several decades.

Across that stretch of time, politicians and policy makers have spoken often of and have regularly discussed the nation’s schools as a cohesive whole. This phrasing is useful shorthand for a national official, but it obscures the fact that the United States does not actually have a national education system. Many countries do. In , for example, a centralized ministry of education governs schools directly. But in the U.S., all 50 states maintain authority over public education. And across those 50 states, roughly 13,000 districts shape much, possibly even most, of what happens in local schools.

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