There is no excellence without labor. One cannot dream oneself into either usefulness or happiness. -- Liberty Hyde Bailey, American Botanist (1856 - 1954)There are two “impediments” to achieving excellence in American public schools: diversity and compromise. The problem is that both diversity and compromise both contribute positively to our pluralistic, democratic society.
Diversity is a fact, an historical development. Luckily, it has been for the major part -- tightly shutting our eyes to slavery and aboriginal annihilation -- benign. As the United States of America has grown and become more “free,” so have we become more diverse: in religion, culture, gender roles and ethnicity. Indeed, it has been the result of the struggle of minorities, all kinds of minorities, to have our Constitution protect their citizenship rights, which has brought about the extension of our liberties.
The mechanisms have been de facto segregation and compromise. People who really hated, or were hated by, their neighbors could move out into the vast frontiers and isolate themselves for protection. Those who could not escape suffered and had to struggle, with the help of majority members, to bring about the legal articulation of their constitutional rights.
But many people, even those who have benefitted, have little tolerance for diversity and compromise. You’ll hear them complain about diversity as “conceding too much to those people.” You’ll hear them put compromise down as showing a “lack of standards” or as “a sellout.”
The reason public schools have not been able to “achieve excellence” is that there are diverse and often incompatible ideas about what schools are and what “excellence” is supposed to be. And the reason we Americans can’t reach a compromise on this issue is that compromise is not seen as a win-win situation; but, as a sellout, a yielding, an inferior position.
Private and parochial education has long been able to live, thrive, even with the opposite of diversity, a sort of “cultural multi-unitarianism.” It remains to be seen whether public education can survive with diversity. More than a hundred years of recurrent school reform suggests that it is unlikely.
For references and to examine these issues further, see School Image: Expectations & Controversies