Course description

The first part of this course seeks to explore how a school system, once the envy of the world, stumbled so that, in 2012, the performance in math, science, and reading of US students at age 15 fell below that of students in a majority of the world's industrialized nations. Examining the history and politics of US education, we identify the personalities and historical forces—progressivism, racial desegregation, legalization, and collective bargaining—that shaped and re-shaped US school politics and policy. Subsequent sections of the course seek answers to a second question: What are the best ways of lifting the performance of American schools to a higher level? To explore these questions, we look at ideas and proposals of those who want to save our schools—either by reforming the teaching profession, holding schools accountable, or giving families more school choices. By speaking with reform proponents and independent experts, we capture the intensity of the current debate. In the end, we do not find any silver bullets that can magically lift schools to a new level of performance, but we do pinpoint the pluses and minuses of many new approaches to saving schools under consideration today.


  • Portrait of Paul E. Peterson
    Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government, Harvard University
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