One Size Fits All: The War on Excellence in Public Education

Women’s garments labeled one size fits all, generally a dress or blouse, bear more resemblance to a tent on slender women than to a stylish frock. It’s an illustration that we are all not the same, but different and have different needs. The same principle applies to education.

Prior to the unionization of the teaching profession and the imposition of a standard left-leaning single curriculum for all students in the mid-1960’s, public schools offered several programs of instruction: vocational, general studies and college-prep. The latter track was further divided into honors classes for the most gifted students and regular classes for average students.

Students were separated by interest and academic rank. The system worked well for decades to prepare students for their chosen career path, be it an auto mechanic, secretary or physician. In big cities such as New York, there were also public high schools that offered unique curricula in science and fine arts such as the Bronx High School of Science (whose graduates include seven Nobel Laureates and six Pulitzer winners).

Similar schools included the High School for Mathematics, Science and Engineering at City College, Staten Island Technical High School of American Studies at Lehman College, the High School of Music and Art and the Performing Arts as well as nationally ranked academic institutions such as Stuyvesant High School.

These institutions accounted for the phenomenal success of the baby-boom generation, the last to reap the benefits of an education system that was unrivaled in the world. Sadly, public education in America has retreated from that position ever since.

The breadth and depth of the curriculum at these schools and the amount of work expected of its students in those days bear little resemblance to the watered down multicultural, politically correct curriculum at most public high schools today. This has resulted in an uneducated student population whose mediocre scores on international assessments of academic achievement are a global embarrassment and a worrisome barometer of the nation’s future.

In their despair at this massive decline in standards, parents, educators and private entrepreneurs have developed alternative institutions such as charter schools, online academies and home schools which have proven highly successful in reversing the downward decline in the state-controlled system.

An example of this success is the recent graduate in California, Hannah Ling of Irvine, who took all of her courses online and got the state’s top score plus a full scholarship to study engineering at UC Berkeley.. Home schooled graduates generally score twenty to forty percentage points higher than their public school peers. [1] A higher percentage of charter school graduates enter colleges than those of public schools. The lesson to be learned is that a good education produces good results. A glance at an 1895 eighth grade final exam proves the point. [2]

One size does not fit all in public education. Teaching geared to the average or slowest students in the class harms the brightest, severely limiting their achievement. The best hope to restore America’s former level of academic excellence must be to adopt the techniques provided in the programs offered by the charter and home schools, the specialized high schools like those in New York City and Catholic schools that have made them so successful.


Most importantly, there must be no mistake about the motivation behind the war on excellence. It is pure unadulterated envy. With Common Core, the president’s signature education program, it is envy writ large. It is part of Obama’s efforts to debase American excellence that, sadly, appear to be bearing fruit.

War demands an appropriate response. It is essential to understand the psychology of Common Core and to mount an effective response. With the vast amount of funding available to public schools, more must be demanded.

There was a time when excellence was the gold standard. Those days must be restored for our country’s children to have any hope for a bright future. To do that, however, we must first win the war.

About the Author: R. Claire Friend, MD, is the Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, UC Irvine Medical Center, and the editor of the UC Irvine Quarterly Journal of Psychiatry. She is a retired psychiatrist and frequent commentator on the psychological dimensions of education and social welfare policies.




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