Alesia Montgomery and Robert Rossi
American Institutes for Research
Although average student performance was lower in the early 1900s than it is today, it is popular to reminisce about "the good ol' days" when (presumably) the quality of public education for all students was high, and family and community life were ideal. In reality, schools felt much less pressure than they do today to achieve equity and excellence. Many challenges that schools must now confront were also present in early 20th century America, but they were not addressed because they were not a priority to many policymakers.
When we romanticize early American society and its schools, we can not fully appreciate how much progress toward equity and excellence has been made since the turn of the century. Nor can we fully grasp the deep-rooted and enduring nature of the challenges that U.S. schools face. If we are now a "nation at risk," it is not due simply to recent educational, demographic, or social trends, but rather it is -- to a large extent -- the culmination of disastrous, persistent, and, in many cases, intentional disparities in our schools and society.
Immigrant children and children of color are two sources of diversity that have always aroused controversy. In the early 1900s, statistics collected by the U.S. Immigration Commission indicated that the majority of students in many large urban areas were children of immigrants. Their parents came from diverse corners of eastern and southern Europe -- Italy, Russia, Poland -- and diverse social backgrounds. Some immigrants were from middle- or upper-class backgrounds, arriving in the United States with substantial skills and savings. However, many were impoverished and poorly educated. Similar to today's immigrants, they often were fleeing from intense poverty or persecution in their homelands, lacked familiarity with American folkways, knew little English, and were resented by the dominant society. Many immigrants would live to see their children or grandchildren blend into mainstream society and rise to the ranks of the middle class. However, in the early 1900s, most immigrant children dropped out of school to obtain low-wage jobs. Some became involved in street crime, leading to anxieties about gangs of urban "delinquents."
Racial diversity is also not a recent trend: the expansion of the territorial United States incorporated a large, diverse population of people of color, the forebears of today's African-Americans, Alaskan Natives, American Indians, Guamanians, Mexican-Americans, Native Hawaiians, Puerto Ricans, Samoans, and Virgin Islanders. Similar to the European immigrants, the cultural and linguistic backgrounds of these nonwhite groups were perceived as "alien" by the dominant society. Unlike the immigrants, many native born people of color did not view or experience America as a "promised land." Instead, the territorial expansion and economic development of the United States divested many nonwhite peoples of land, life, and liberty, locking their children into a racial caste system by force of law and custom.