The 1980s Education: Topics in the News

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The 1980s Education: Topics in the News



Four independent education studies released by 1984 confirmed what many Americans already knew: The teaching profession was in trouble and getting worse. Part of the problem was a drastically reduced pool of students going into the profession. In 1973, two hundred thousand high-school graduates planned to go into the field. A decade later, just over half of that number of students planned to study to become teachers. Falling salaries might have been one of the reasons behind the decline. In the early 1980s, starting teachers made only thirteen thousand dollars a year, compared to seventeen thousand for beginning accountants. Newly opened opportunities in the business world for women, who traditionally dominated the teaching field, drew away some of the best and the brightest for higher-paying careers.

The studies also indicated that poor teachers led classes in schools across America. Because school administrators feared lawsuits, incompetent teachers were rarely fired in any state in the country. Most alarming was the report that many good teachers were leaving the profession, fed up with hard work for low pay and low prestige. Many were especially upset with the recent trend of testing teachers for basic academic competency.

The American public demanded accountability from the nation's teachers. Since competency testing had been instituted for many high-school students as a standard for graduation, many state legislatures decided that teachers should be similarly tested. Although teacher groups vigorously opposed instituting tests for practicing teachers, they did support testing beginning teachers in basic areas. Politicians and others countered that such tests would not measure the important aspects of teaching: the abilities to maintain order, to inspire students, or to communicate effectively.

In 1983, teacher-competency tests given in thirty-six states produced some embarrassing results. In Houston, where practicing teachers were tested, 62 percent of teachers failed the reading segment, 46 percent failed math, and some tests had to be declared invalid because of cheating. By 1986, forty-two states required competency testing of future teachers.

To reinvigorate the teaching profession, there was widespread agreement that students in teacher training should take more courses in their subject areas and fewer in education. By the end of the decade, this idea was widely accepted by many universities as the basic model for training teachers. Another popular idea was to keep good teachers in the classrooms by designating them "master teachers," a category that would financially reward excellence, not just experience. Plans for master teacher status or merit pay increases were considered by a majority of the states. Typical plans offered annual salary increases of $1,000 to $7,000 to teachers based on an evaluation of their performance.

While many of these plans were hailed as ideal, they were also deemed impossible. The 1980s was a decade of tight financial budgets for most states, and the amount of money required to meet the merit increases was simply not available. Yet another problem was the inability of school administrators and teachers to agree on guidelines for the required evaluations. Although some states instituted merit pay schemes for teachers, the vast majority of these schemes were abandoned by the end of the decade.


During his campaign for president in 1980, Ronald Reagan (1911–) told a religious group in Dallas, Texas, there were "great flaws" in the theory of evolution, and he suggested that along with the scientific version of creation, public schools should teach the biblical story of creation. Not surprisingly, after he was elected there was a significant rise in the number of objections to textbooks and curriculum nationwide. In fact, attempts to censor books tripled in the 1980s over the previous decade. Numerous efforts were made to censor classes, textbooks, and library books. Literature classes were the most frequent targets, followed by science, health, sex education, and drug education classes. These censorship attempts were made primarily by religious groups.

Public Elementary and Secondary School Enrollment: 1985

Grades K-827,034,000
Grades 9-1212,388,000

In the 1980s, parents who held strong religious convictions filed many lawsuits against the textbooks their children studied in school. Of these, two stand out as representative of the attacks on school textbooks: Mozert v. Hawkins County Public Schools and Smith v. Board of School Commissioners of Mobile County.

Replacing the Canon

The literary canon is a name given to a body of works that are considered in some way superior, central, or most worthy of study in a culture. Traditionally, in Western culture these works have been those of Western European writers and thinkers, including ancient Greek poet Homer (eighth century b.c.), Greek philosopher Plato (c. 428–347 b.c.), Italian poet Dante (1265–1321), and English dramatist and poet William Shakespeare (1564–1616).

In the 1980s, many students on college and university campuses across America began to protest against required courses in which only the works of writers in the traditional literary canon were taught. The students claimed that these courses, which were called core courses because it was believed they formed the basis of a college education, disregarded the works of women, minorities, and others. Because they did so, the students argued, the courses were racist, sexist, and elitist.

In the spring of 1986, a small but vocal group of students at Stanford University in California occupied the university president's office for five hours, demanding the university eliminate a required freshman course called Western Culture. The debate over the course continued until 1988, when the university decided to replace the Western Culture course with one called Culture, Ideas, and Values. In the old course, the reading list consisted of fifteen books of Western philosophy and literature. Under the new course, individual instructors had the right to decide the new content yearly, including works by women and minorities in the reading list.

In the decade, Stanford became one of hundreds of colleges and universities that reconsidered the literary canon, broadening traditional courses to include formerly overlooked thinkers and writers.

In the Mozert trial, parents who brought the suit charged that the use of certain textbooks promoted values that were offensive to their religious beliefs. They were especially upset with any textbook containing stories that encouraged the process of imagination. Through their lawsuit, they sought to establish the right for all students to receive individual instruction that conformed to their religious beliefs. While the Tennessee judge ruled in favor of the parents, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit rejected that ruling. The appeals court stated that the U.S. Constitution does not require school curricula to be changed in order to accommodate religious beliefs.

In the Smith trial, parents and the religious groups that funded their effort sought to ban forty-five different elementary and high-school textbooks used in social studies, history, and home economics courses. They pointed out that the books made no mention of the beliefs of organized religion. Instead, the books promoted ideas such as a positive self-image, decision making, and personal responsibility. The parents argued that these ideas are part of secular humanism, a philosophy that stresses human values without reference to religion or spirituality. They wanted the court to declare that secular humanism was actually a religion and its ideas should be either removed from textbooks entirely or balanced by the inclusion of Christian teachings. The original court hearing the lawsuit in Alabama decided in favor of the parents, but, as in the Mozert case, the local appeals court overturned that ruling. The appeals court decided that the textbooks promoted important social values such as tolerance and self-respect that neither encouraged nor discouraged any religious beliefs.

Objections to reading material in schools were not limited to religious issues during the decade. Works by many heralded American writers were challenged. In 1985, Huckleberry Finn, written by Mark Twain (pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, [1835–1910]), became the subject of intense controversy over perceived racism in the novel. A group of African American parents in Illinois, led by educator John H. Wallace, succeeded in having the book taken off the required reading list in local schools. They argued that the book, a classic narrative about the friendship between runaway Huck and runaway slave Jim, should not be taught in schools because characters in the book casually utter racist remarks and frequently use a derogatory term to describe African Americans. Although many literary scholars defended the work, a significant number of school officials across the country followed suit, banning Huckleberry Finn from their required curriculum (though not from their library collections). The debate over the place of the novel in classrooms continued into the 1990s.

Perhaps the most controversial issue surrounding censorship in the 1980s was the debate between the teaching of evolution and creationism. The modern theory of evolution, as proposed by English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809–1882), holds that present-day life on Earth evolved from previously existing life-forms through a process of gradual, continuous change over millions of years. Almost all scientists consider evolution one of the most fundamental and most important general concepts in all of the biological sciences. Creationism is a theory about the origin of the universe

and all life in it, based on the account of creation given in the Old Testament of the Bible. Creationism holds that Earth is probably less than ten thousand years old, that its physical features such as mountains and oceans were created as a result of sudden calamities, and that all life on the planet was miraculously created as it exists today. Because creationism is not based on any presently held scientific principles, members of the scientific community dismiss it as a possible theory of how the universe was created.

Spurred on by the remarks Reagan made during his campaign and by his push for a constitutional amendment authorizing school prayer during his first term as president, religious groups argued that teaching the theory of evolution as fact violated their religious rights. In the many lawsuits they filed during the decade, they maintained that evolution should be taught in sciences classes only if creationism is also taught as another possible explanation for the origin of life.

Scientists responded to these claims by pointing out that a scientific theory is not just any unproven idea: It is a hypothesis that has been backed by empirical results (those derived from observations or experiments) and is subject to further testing. Evolution, they said, has withstood so many tests that virtually the entire scientific community accepts it. Creationism, on the other hand, is a religious belief that is not subject to testing. Therefore, scientists argued, giving equal weight to each in science textbooks would be misleading.

Although the courts almost unanimously sided with the view of scientists in the debate, the decision to teach evolution as the only scientific theory of human origins was made by someone else. In 1984, the Texas Board of Education voted to repeal a ten-year rule restricting the teaching of evolution. Because Texas spent approximately $65 million per year on textbooks (more than 10 percent of the market), publishers hurried to fit the new Texas standards not only for Texas but for the rest of country, as well. By the end of the 1980s, science textbooks used by students across American explicitly outlined evolutionary theory.


In 1984, prominent Texas business executive H. Ross Perot began a campaign in his state to bar failing high-school students from participating in sports. Perot's reform efforts were successful, and the following year the Texas legislature passed a law requiring students to achieve a 70-percent average in every course for six weeks in order to be eligible to play a sport. Other states around the nation quickly adopted similar measures.

A research study conducted three years later concluded that the Texas law was succeeding. The percentage of students failing dropped from 15.5 in 1984 and 1985 to 12.8 in 1987 and 1988. Although opponents had predicted that students would opt for the easiest courses in the curriculum to assure sports eligibility, the number of athletes enrolled in honors courses remained constant. Also, most students interviewed for the study said the rule encouraged them to achieve.

In 1984, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) voted to establish minimum eligibility requirements for freshmen college athletes based on standardized test scores and to implement drug testing at championship events. Student-athletes applying to universities with large athletic departments (Division I and II schools) had to score the following on national college admission examinations: seven hundred on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or fifteen on the American College Test (ACT). They also had to have maintained a minimum GPA of 2.0 or better in at least eleven courses in core subjects in high school. These new NCAA rules were called Proposition 48.

Many college and university coaches and athletic directors applauded Proposition 48, believing the rules would benefit all student-athletes by forcing high schools to pay more attention to academics. However, some coaches and others were critical. One of the most outspoken opponents of this new rule was John Thompson, Georgetown University's African American basketball coach. Thompson admitted that some athletes were unprepared for college, but he complained bitterly that the new rules would mainly harm minority students.

Those who agreed with Thompson criticized the rules on the grounds that standardized tests were culturally biased against African Americans

and other minorities, many of whom were enrolled in some of America's most troubled urban schools. Statistics from the SAT in 1987 showed the average score for African Americans was 728, just above the 700 level required by Proposition 48. Indeed, after Proposition 48 was enacted, the vast majority of freshmen college football players who were disqualified under the rules were African American. In response, Thompson announced that he would boycott any NCAA-sanctioned Georgetown basketball game until Proposition 48 was changed. His protest soon ended, and Proposition 48 remained in effect, setting a clear standard of academic achievement for high-school athletes.


In the mid-1970s, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that non-Englishspeaking students in American schools have the right to receive schooling in their native language. This ruling marked an official recognition of bilingualism in the United States. Schools were thus required to offer courses that students with limited English-speaking ability could understand. However, during the years following this decision, two

competing philosophies regarding bilingual education emerged. According to one educational philosophy, the goal of bilingual education was to adapt students as quickly as possible to mainstream American culture. Advocates of this philosophy believed students should be immersed in the English language in short-term bilingual programs so that they may better succeed in other subjects that are taught wholly in English. The competing philosophical view asserted that promoting cultural differences was a valid educational goal. Advocates of this view believed students should be taught all of their subject-matter classes in their native language.

The debate over bilingual education took on greater significance in the 1980s as the percentage of households with Spanish as the primary language grew. The number of Hispanic students who required bilingual instruction in school was estimated to be 3.6 million in 1981. These students progressed through school at an average of two to three levels behind their peers. Clearly, improvements in education for this segment of the population were needed.

The administration of President Ronald Reagan (1911–), however, tried to cut federal funding for bilingual education programs. Reagan and his education officials criticized bilingual programs based on the cultural-difference model, believing they failed to help students enter the larger American culture. Instead, they suggested that all bilingual education programs should follow the short-term immersion model.

Ethnic Makeup of Public School Students, K to 12: 1985


In 1988, the National Advisory and Coordinating Council on Bilingual Education released a report to the U.S. Congress on the state of bilingual education in America. The report stated that the quality of student instruction was more important than any particular method or philosophy.

Apartheid and Campus Protests

Beginning in the late 1940s, the government of South Africa officially adopted the policy of apartheid (pronounced ah-PART-hite), a system of legal and economic racial discrimination that not only separated whites from nonwhites but also groups of nonwhites from each other. By the 1960s, demonstrations in countries around the world arose against the policy. International religious organizations and even the United Nations voiced opposition to apartheid. Protests organized by churches and students continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

In 1985, the administration of President Ronald Reagan defended its refusal to apply economic sanctions against South Africa as a means of ending that country's policy of apartheid. On April 4, 1985, to mark the seventeenth anniversary of the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968), students on campuses all across the United States demonstrated against racism in general and South Africa's apartheid system in particular. Twenty day later, thousands of students around the country took part in what organizers named National Antiapartheid Protest Day and A Day of National Solidarity. On many campuses, the students demanded that their university sell any stock it owned in companies that did business in South Africa.

Some universities did agree to rid themselves of any holdings connected with South Africa. In 1985, Stanford University trustees voted to sell the university's five-million-dollar stock investment in Motorola if the company resumed sales of electronic gear to the South African military or police. That same year, Harvard University announced it had sold its stock holdings in Baker International Corporation after the company refused to provide evidence that its South African operations were ethical. Although Harvard had taken an official stand against the apartheid system, this sale was the first time that the university had sold part of its stocks to back up its position.

In some settings, one bilingual instruction approach was more successful; in others, it was not. The best bilingual programs were judged to be those taught by teachers who maintained high expectations of their students while remaining sensitive to their students' linguistic and cultural needs.


Throughout the 1980s, newspaper headlines across the country announced shocking occurrences of violence and abuse in the nation's schools. Many of these problems were associated with illegal drugs. In 1979, surveys of student drug use indicated that 54 percent had tried drugs at least once. In annual survey from 1980 to 1987, parents consistently listed drug use as their greatest worry about their children's schools.

To combat the growing drug problem in American schools, First Lady Nancy Reagan started a "Just Say No" campaign in the early 1980s. The targeted audience was elementary-school students. The "Just Say No" program replaced the usual lectures about the dangers of drugs with sports, games, and programs aimed at helping children develop the ability to decline offers from drug dealers. When he became president in 1989, George Bush (1924–) set aside more than $250 million for drug-related programs in the schools. William J. Bennett, President Bush's coordinator of drug policy, warned that schools without valid drug-use policies would not receive federal funding.

U.S. High School Dropout Percentage: 1985

Total, all races12.6
Total, white10.4
Total, black15.2
Total, Hispanic27.6
Male, all races13.4
Male, white11.1
Male, black16.1
Male, Hispanic29.9
Female, all races11.8
Female, white9.8
Female, black14.3
Female, Hispanic25.2

These and other programs that stressed the dangers of illegal drugs all seemed to work. By the late 1980s, studies indicated the use of alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, PCP, and other drugs by students appeared to be declining. Only cigarette smoking remained constant, with 29 percent of students reporting regular usage.

Although drug use appeared to wane in the 1980s, violent episodes in the schools, especially those involving guns, increased dramatically. Violence may not have been the norm, but it also was not an isolated problem. In New York City in 1989, metal detectors in only five high schools uncovered more than two hundred guns. At Lindbergh Middle School in Long Beach, California, a ten-foot-high, nine-hundred-foot-long concrete wall was erected between the school and a nearby housing project to protect students from flying bullets. At the end of the decade, the American Federation of Teachers reported that 66 percent of member teachers surveyed were scared of violence and gang activity; more than 70 percent knew colleagues who had been victimized by teens. Teachers attributed the problems to the easy access to guns and drugs, a lack of parental supervision, and the influence of violence in the media.

In this culture of drug use and prevalent violence, suicide attempts by teenagers became all too frequent. Schools reacted by adding suicide prevention information into their curriculums. Teachers' workshops frequently centered on ways to detect potential problems regarding suicidal students. As early as 1982, California became the first state to mandate a state task force to train teachers how to counsel students in the aftermath of suicide attempts by their classmates. Several state departments of education also added a required college course in suicide prevention.

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The 1980s Education: Topics in the News