“There isn't any perfect curriculum. The next program with the catchy name isn't going to fix anything. The problem is one of freedom and time. No one has enough of either. Teachers don't for all the reasons you've listed in your post. Parents don't because they are struggling to make ends meet and families are stressed to the breaking point. And children don't. They are herded from class to class and then after school their schedules keep them from processing the day's events and careful reflection. Imagine someone in charge trying to suggest that we actually do less, or have more recess and time outdoors. Imagine parents having time to engage their children in conversation instead of just being the nightly homework police.”
is one of the best encapsulations of the American elementary/secondary education situation I’ve ever seen. Of course, the American penchant for filling whatever time there is with diversions and entertainment, along with spectacle-fixation and busybody concern over peripheral matters, rather than true reflection and meaningful work for meaningful change, means we also have to address that flaw before the quite necessary other adjustments you so astutely outline can have good effect.
The question you ask about how education “jumped off the track” is in some respects a direct one, and in others, a complex one. For true understanding, it requires “deep history,” going back far into the 20th and even 19th centuries, but in many respects, American education has been caught up in anti-progressive strategies of the upper-upper class for many decades now. In their transformation of society, they have sometimes transformed education directly, often because of finances, but even more so done it indirectly, again, because of finances. It has often been disguised as “reform,” and as they are accomplished masters of long-term strategy, deception, deflection, mis/disinformation, and emotional manipulation, they enlisted many witting and unwitting assistants along the way.
It is not to say the ground was infertile for their methods. A Nation At Risk, a document I’ve always had ambivalent feelings about, came out of a time when a fair amount of what I term unmoored, fuzzy liberal foolishness, along with initial bureaucratic growth and the results of the beginning of student catering, helped to focus a backlash. In typical fashion, pieces of the report were concentrated on and the rest ignored. The conservative rising tide found ready ears in calls for increasing the number of school days in a year, longer school days, etc. All in the name of more “rigorous academic standards,” a mantra that would culminate of course in No Child Left Behind, with its standardized tests to quantify and measure “achievement”—and punish school systems (and teachers) who did not meet those “standards.”
The sagging fortunes of the middle class coincided with slashing of state budgets for education, leaving the property tax emphasized even more as the discriminator between abled and disabled school districts. Federal aid became more and more needed, but came with more and more “strings,” leading to increase in directly and indirectly associated bureaucracy. As schools struggled to respond to the unceasing chorus of criticism from a society unable to truly look at itself, they got more administration, more “counselors,” more special assistants, etc. to try to meet the impossible demands and “standards.”
More and more requirements were made on students’ time outside of the teacher-directed classroom. Less and less latitude was permitted the teacher on the how, what, and how much of that what the teacher taught. As society became The Nation of Strangers that Vance Packard tried to warn us so eloquently about, schools became less and less a student body and more and more a collection of individuals (and their parents who emphasized that individual separatism). Sometimes they were coddled individuals; at other times they were excessively structured (stifled) ones. The increasing stress factor on nearly all helped to make school less a shared experience of community (and perhaps wonder), and more a required feat of endurance.
Visionless legislators teamed up with visionless administrators to find visionless education “reformers” that inflicted continual rounds of “reform” and “initiatives” to address the symptoms of the above, but of course, they only made most everything worse (a few things got a bit better, at least statistically, but the exceptions only proved the pattern).
Today’s result: More well-off school districts fare better, of course, but, with only a few exceptions, to find great performing schools and great performing students of the kind your memory remembers, you’ll have to look to those that are generally private—and not all private schools, but primarily only those of the upper-upper class.