Peter Schrag

Peter Schrag, a longtime education writer and editor, is the co-author of When Europe Was a Prison Camp: Father and Son Memoirs, 1940-41 (Indiana University Press, 2015) and author of Paradise Lost: California's Experience, America's Future, and California: America's High-Stakes Experiment. He is a former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee.

Recent Articles

Affirmative Actions' California Afterlife

The debate about affirmative action at the University of California isn't over yet.

F or all the controversy it has generated, the decision of the University of California regents to prohibit race and gender preferences in admissions is likely to become better known for its unintended consequences than for what its backers said they meant to do. For Governor Pete Wilson, of course, it was an effort to jump-start a moribund presidential campaign, and for the moment it paid off handsomely in a windfall of free media attention. Wilson, as one shrewd observer pointed out, is a colorless politician who derives far more political juice from the negative charge of his opponents than from any passion he can create on his own behalf. On that score, both Jesse Jackson and the Clinton administration were eager volunteers, the first by vowing to go to jail, if necessary, to stop passage of the regents' resolution, the other by threatening Justice Department investigations (subsequently withdrawn) to determine whether Wilson and the board had violated federal civil rights laws...

The Diversity Defense

A pluralist, diverse society doesn’t depend on racial quotas at elite institutions. To pretend otherwise abuses the idea of merit and relies on tortured social science.

If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, is social science the last resort of a losing cause? We may not know the answer for some time, but there's no question that some of the heaviest hitters in the fight to preserve race preferences in college admissions are now desperately trying to convert the findings of social research into an argument for what lawyers for the University of Michigan call "the compelling need for diversity in higher education." With the strong backing of the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education, they are also trying to prove that some of the traditional measures colleges use in admission—test scores in particular—are biased and unrelated to college success. The attempt is understandable, but it's likely to be an uphill fight, and not a pretty one. In the past half a dozen years or so, the news for the defenders of race preferences in such things as public contracting and university admissions has been almost invariably bad, both in...

The Burden of Western History

There have been revisionist histories of America and the American West at least since the middle of the sixteenth century, when the priest-historian Bartolomé de las Casas accused his fellow Spaniards of the mass murder, essentially the genocide, of millions of Native Americans. In 1879, even as Manifest Destiny and the dream of the open West dominated popular mythology, Henry George warned of the monopolization of western land and concentration of ownership in what Huck Finn was shortly to call "the territory." In 1950 the great literary historian Henry Nash Smith identified the central contradiction in the American agrarian tradition and the romance of the American West: If nature and the frontier were perfection, what became of civilization and progress? "A system which revolved about a half-mystical conception of nature and held up as an ideal a rudimentary type of agriculture," he wrote, "was powerless to confront issues...

Smells Like School Spirit

"N o other people," wrote Henry Steele Commager, the most widely read American historian of the generation following World War II, "ever demanded so much of schools and of education as have the American. None other was ever so well served by its schools and its educators." A lot of us, bombarded by the educational controversies and the ongoing schools-are-failing rhetoric of the past two decades, may now find Commager's words a little quaint--even preposterous--either because he was writing about some long-gone golden age or because he got carried away by his own celebratory fervor. The four-part PBS documentary School: The Story of American Public Education, which will air September 3 and 4, is an ambitious attempt to show Americans how accurate Commager's assessment was and still is. No institution--certainly no cultural institution--is more pervasive, more deeply embedded in the history and hopes of our democracy, or more central to our debates about that democracy than public...

The Great School Sell-Off

Vouchers would auction off our future.

L ong before Bill Clinton appeared on the presidential horizon, he had, as governor of Arkansas, established himself as one of a half-dozen national leaders in the public school reform movement of the 1980s. The movement was determinedly bipartisan, pragmatic, and nonideological. In addition to Clinton, it included Republican governors Thomas Kean of New Jersey and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, as well as independent Califormnia State School Superintendent Bill Honig. These reformers sought, and generally achieved, tougher graduation requirements; more rigorous curricula and textbooks; competency tests for both students and teachers; merit pay or other incentives for outstanding teachers; longer school days and school years; and better funding for K-12 schools almost everywhere. But before the decade was over, a combination of recession, budget cuts, impatience, and political expediency helped start a deep and very ideological current running in the opposite direction-- a retreat from...

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