Do you remember when American public schools were widely regarded as the best in the world?
You know, the golden era of education when academic standards were high, all third graders loved to read, middle school students were motivated and engaged, and children graduated from high school ready for work or college? The good old days when educators were respected and treated as professionals?
Nope? Me neither.
Well, in case you missed it, a prominent magazine has published yet another blistering indictment of public education in America.
“In recent years, parents have cried in dismay that their children could not read out loud, could not spell, could not write clearly,” while “employers have said that mechanics could not read simple directions. Many a college has blamed high schools for passing on students…who could not read adequately to study college subjects; high schools have had to give remedial reading instruction to boys and girls who did not learn to read properly in elementary schools…”
Pretty depressing, isn’t it?
That is until you consider that there are not many educators alive today who were in the classroom back when this devastating critique of our education system was written.
It was published in Life Magazine on May 24, 1954, over 63 years ago. The title of the article was “Why Can’t My Child Read?”
In his eleven-page feature, journalist John Hersey provides a summary of findings from the Citizens School Study Council, a committee assembled by citizens of Fairfield, Connecticut. The group was commissioned to study the challenges associated with teaching children to read three generations ago. It is posted HERE on Google books.
It is an interesting jaunt down memory lane.
I was intrigued to discover that even in 1954, adults were growing increasingly concerned with children’s preoccupation with the “cult of entertainment,” though back then it revolved around children’s growing access to comic books, “picture” books, “slick magazines,” and, of course, TELEVISION, which Hersey refers to “the enemy!”
That didn’t realize how good they had it. Today, we’re dealing with the fact that many students carry the equivalent of a television in their hands, 24/7!
Hersey also delves into some of the same debates about teaching and learning we are still engaged in today: whole child education, the role of standard textbooks (often unrelated to children’s real world experiences), sight-reading vs. phonetics, the respective roles of teachers and parents, and the challenges of teaching across ability levels.
Of course, the narrative about failing schools is one teachers continue to hear as it echoes from one generation to the next.
In 1957, after the successful launch of a Soviet spacecraft into Earth’s orbit, we had our first “Sputnik moment.” The term Sputnik moment is now defined as the moment when a country or a society realizes that it needs to catch up with apparent technological and scientific developments made by some other country, in other words a “wake up” call of significant urgency.
Yet, a generation after Sputnik, American schools were ostensibly still playing catch-up.
In 1983, The Reagan administration’s ominously titled “A Nation at Risk” reported to Americans that our schools were getting worse, test scores were falling, millions of Americans were illiterate, and our teachers weren’t educated enough or paid enough. In fact, education in America was so awful that the reports author’s compared it to being attacked by an enemy power.
“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. … We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”
Then, in 1994, President Bill Clinton used the narrative of substandard schools to push for his Goals 2000 – Educate America Act, to “provide resources to states and communities to ensure that all students reach their full potential.”
In 2001, President George W. Bush took aim on America’s schools and sought to bring his “Texas miracle” on education to Washington as the “education president.” Bush and Senator Ted Kennedy famously got together and enacted No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002, laying the groundwork for federal testing and accountability which still dominates the educational scene today.
A few years later, after the release of international tests scores of 15-year-olds in 2009, highlighting the so-called poor performance of American students, President Obama and his education secretary Arne Duncan hearkened back to 1957, calling the PISA report our generation’s “Sputnik moment” and a “serious wake-up call.”
And, of course, the performance of American public schools in 2017 continues to be lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon rut. Just ask our current President and his education secretary.
So, how do we defend such an argument when people have been saying exactly the same things about America’s dysfunctional education system since before most of us were born, before the Civil Rights movement, before computers, before space travel, and before cell phones, the Internet, and social media?
For over sixty years now, pundits and policy makers have been throwing up their hands about schools on the decline, about students who could barely read and write, about how we’re now being beaten by China and Estonia and whoever else. It all leads to an obvious question.
When exactly were the “good old days” when it comes to public education in America?
Was it during the long, disgraceful era of segregated schools when children of color were provided a “separate but equal” education that was far from equal? Was it back in 1960 when only 40% of white adults and 23% of black adults had a high school diploma and only 3% of black Americans had a college degree? Was it during the time we pulled children with special needs out of regular schools and educated them in classrooms or portable buildings on the other side of the school, or in a different building altogether, or not at all? Was it when we held children back regardless of their age or life experiences. When we refused to provide specialized programs to educate children who didn’t speak English as a first language? Was it when wealthy communities exploited the system to appropriate significantly more resources and funding for their schools than those communities and students on the other side of the tracks?
Here’s the truth. If you are looking to find the golden age of public education in America – one that strives to serve all children equitably – you’re looking at it.
It is far from perfect, but public education is better than it has ever been.
We live in a time when all children regardless of race, national origin, religion, gender, income level, sexual orientation, or disability are promised a free and appropriate public education. When a large number of children from poverty are offered a seat in the same classroom as their affluent peers. When children from struggling families are afforded at least two decent meals each day and often provided clothing, health and dental care, free eye glasses, and counseling services. When children with special needs are provided an education tailored to meet their individual needs, including life skills training, specialized communication supports, occupational therapy, and inclusion with same-age peers.
We live in a time when the goal of public education is to provide EVERY child with the skills, knowledge, and support necessary to overcome the burdens of his or her life and find their unique purpose in the world.
Again, I am not naive. We have many significant challenges in public education today. Yet, I have never worked in a school where the bulk of my fellow educators were not consistently focused on getting better and improving the outcomes for children.
In America, we will always have children who excel in school and those who struggle, and a whole bunch of other kids in the middle. We will always have great schools, a few under-performing ones, and a whole bunch in between. We will always have some parents who are full partners in their children’s education, a few who are completely detached, and a large majority in the middle. And, yes, we will always have some teachers who are absolute rock stars, a few that are not so great, and a whole bunch of good ones in the middle.
And we will hopefully work together and strive to do the very best we can. Because kids are worth it.
I will close by sharing one last paragraph from Hersey’s 1954 article that is as accurate today as it was then:
“Our public schools have done a heroic job during a period of enormous expansion and in the face of ever-tightening budgets, to maintain standards in teaching. The seriousness of purpose, the selflessness, and the integrity of public school teachers are manifest.”
Nostalgia’s a funny thing.
It’s fun to remember the past. But we need to remember it as it really was. Not the way some wish it had been.