In 1998, as California was in its first year of a counter- revolutionary mathematics curriculum framework thanks to efforts led by anti- progressive mathematics education groups like Mathematically Correct and HOLD, Richard Rothstein's THE WAY WE WERE? The Myths and Realities of American's Student Achievement was published as a Century Foundation Report. The first chapter should be required reading for anyone who thinks s/he knows about the history of American public education. It explores and debunks many widely-believed myths about "falling" achievement in literacy, general academic knowledge, and the whole notion that our public schools are failing us, kids today are far less competent in basic skills than were those of previous generations, and that our lousy schools are paving the road to hell for our kids and our nation. In particular, Rothstein examines two currently hot-button topics - social promotion and bi-lingual education - and reveals many surprising realities about the history of these two educational practices that will likely shock many readers, whichever side of these issues they might support.
In particular, the first chapter of the book is an eye-opener. It looks at the views held by critics of contemporary American public education during past eras from the 1960s and '70s all the way back to before the American Civil War. What he concludes about nostalgic portrayals of a bygone "Golden Age" of American schooling is something I and many other advocates have long said about mathematics education in particular: if there was such an age, it goes back more than 175 years. In fact, there is no evidence to support the notion that anyone in this country lived in an era in which contemporary critics were not bewailing the decline and fall of our schools and the abject ignorance of the next generation's young people.
Although this is not a long book (all told, it's only 140 pages) and even new it costs only about $12.00, it's possible to pick up a used copy for under $2.00 on-line. But for those who want to get a direct sense of what Rothstein says and don't want to take my word for it, Richard C. Leone's Foreword, as well as Chapter 1: Our Failing Public Schools and Chapter 2: It Just Doesn't Add Up, are available to read on-line free of charge on the Century Foundation's web site.
I urge everyone to read at least the first chapter. It will likely whet your appetite for the whole book. And it will give you both food for thought as well as some well-documented ammunition the next time someone starts telling you about how wonderful things were in American schools (at least compared to today) and how brilliant all the students were back in some previous decade. To quote Rothstein's clever paraphrase of Will Rogers: "The schools ain't what they used to be and probably never were."