I want to offer up a third, distinct, wacky explanation. This is related to Proposition 13 in California, which started the movement called Tax Revolt that ushered in the Reagan Revolution and that ultimately led to making the Federal Income Tax structure much less progressive than it had been, with much lower marginal rates for high income earners. The consequences are many but to make things simple, let me focus on two core consequences, one beneficial, the other pernicious. Lowering marginal tax rates at the high end encouraged economic growth. It also, however, increased income inequality. These dual effects, in turn, raised both the cost of a college education and the return to it.
Education has always been both a thing in itself and also a passport to the good life. The wacky argument is that the Reagan revolution changed the balance between the two, with a much heavier emphasis on the passport part. Then, what happened is a kind of unfolding. If College education means that much more as a passport, good grades in high school and going to a good high school matter that much more, and on and on, all the way down to pre-school. So parents of toddlers are out there trying to rig the game in favor of their little angels, in an earnest but misguided effort to secure their future, while instead they should be promoting the kids' interests in the here and now, irrespective of the long term consequences.
Truthfully, I don't think these explanations are so wacky, though they are highly stylized. If each is part of the story then the cumulative effect can reasonably be pretty large, though you really have no way to see what typical kid curiosity was like when your parents were school-aged children. Nor is there a way for you to see how alienated as a group they may have been as teenagers and in that way make some comparisons with your own generation.
The list of explanations can be made longer (more TV and computer games and less reading, more time alone without parents or friends, more interactive time that is pre-programmed rather than spontaneous) and I bet you can come up with some others. Rather than do any more of that, I want to briefly talk about the consequences.
And in doing that, I want to make clear that I'm offering up my opinion, not a consensus view of right minded folks everywhere. Other reasonable people might strongly disagree with this perspective. With that disclaimer, my view is that education is in crisis but that we haven't come to realize it yet. We're in much the same state now as mortgage lending was in 2006. All the problems were there then and evident too, but the systems wasn't yet bursting at the seems. I believe the same thing is happening in education from K - 20. Pathology seems more the rule than the exception. I've written about this in the first chapter of my book. Perhaps it is better to have those of you who are interested about this pathology to read there rather than to discuss in class at a later date, returning to the theme only when we get to Declining By Degrees, which is when I planned to discuss it with you. (I will post the Doodle poll soon so we can find our movie night time.)
Also, here is the Jonathan Kozol page at amazon.com. Reading him makes you ashamed of what is happening across the nation at inner city schools.