Educational researcher Jerry Bracey wrote this great piece, which appeared in the July/August edition of Stanford Magazine.
The Life magazine cover he mentions is above.
Here's an excerpt from the essay.
Criticism of schools, always present, intensified in the tense Cold War era, when CIA chief Allen Dulles fed the Pentagon statistics indicating that the Soviet Union was producing twice as many engineers, scientists and mathematicians as the United States. Then, in October 1957, the Russians launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to orbit the earth. Everyone blamed the U.S. lag on the current condition of schools even though those working in rocketry had long since departed them. (Cremin quipped that Sputnik proved only that the Russians’ World War II German scientists had gotten ahead of our World War II German scientists.)
In red letters against a black background, Life magazine’s cover of March 24, 1958, shouted “Crisis in Education.” A stern-looking Alexei Kutzkov in Moscow and an easy-smiling Stephen Lapekas in Chicago, both high school juniors, stared out at the reader. Pictures showed Kutzkov conducting complicated experiments in physics and chemistry and reading aloud from Sister Carrie in his English class. Lapekas was seen walking home with his girlfriend, dancing in rehearsal for a musical and retreating from a geometry problem on the blackboard. “Stephen amused his classmates with wisecracks about his ineptitude,” read the text.
One leaves the Life article convinced that without massive and immediate school reform, the Russians will bury us. (Lapekas became a Navy pilot, then a commercial pilot for TWA; I am told Kutzkov works for the Russian equivalent of the FAA. The article so devastated Lapekas that he will not talk about it even today.)
The schools never recovered from Sputnik, getting pummeled by report after report. Current reform efforts were launched in 1983 by A Nation At Risk, from the National Commission on Excellence in Education. A treasury of selected, spun and distorted statistics, it was often called “the paper Sputnik.”
These reports produced a syndrome we might call “The Neurotic Need to Believe the Worst.” Americans uncritically accept gloomy statistics about their public schools. For example, claims that in 2004 China produced 600,000 engineers, India 350,000 and the United States a mere 70,000 flowed without resistance from a 2005 Fortune article into a National Academies report, the New York Times and popular culture. The real figures emerged from a Duke University study in late 2005: China, 341,000; India 112,000; United States 131,000—more per capita than either of the others. Yet spring 2006 found the bogus numbers in the New Yorker and in speeches by Sen. John Warner, Education secretary Margaret Spellings and Commerce secretary Carlos Gutierrez. Bad statistics are hard to kill.