Public education is sure taking a pounding. Kids today can’t read and write! Math instruction doesn’t add up! Where can American employers look for their future workers?
An article that typifies the concerns starts this way:
“All over the country, this month and next, most of the 28,800,000 pupils in the public schools are being given standardized year-end achievement tests. A question that both educators and parents will want to see answered by those tests is: Are our young citizens learning to use the language well enough?”
Or, as former President George W. Bush put it: “Is our children learning?”
Except this article, written by Pulitzer Prize winner John Hersey, is from the May 24, 1954, edition of Life magazine, when Bush was a second- or third-grader. Education expert Alfie Kohn mentioned it in a piece he wrote for the Huffington Post, so I looked it up and found that adults back then were just as concerned about the schooling of children.
It’s a timely reminder that our public education system has always been under fire, while at the same time producing the very people who have made the United States the wealthiest nation, the lone superpower and a leader in so many important fields.
While Americans liked Ike, they were ambivalent about public schools. The Life article continues:
“This question has been more and more frequently asked in recent years. Parents have cried in dismay that their children could not read out loud, could not spell, could not write clearly enough to read their own pen tracks. Businessmen have complained that they could not find stenographers to write grammatical letters. Employers have said that mechanics could not read simple directions.”
What’s interesting is that many of today’s worriers were the subjects of concern in this article. And the alleged culprits were similar.
Colleges blamed high schools for not being sufficiently rigorous. High school teachers blamed colleagues in lower grades for passing unworthy students. There was a battle in reading circles over teaching “whole language” vs. phonics and a debate over instructing “the whole child” rather than stressing individual skills. Spelling, grammar, reading and writing became integrated into “language arts.”
Critics today zero in on “teaching to the test.” Back then, the worry was teaching to the text, which produced uniformity and discouraged individuality. Today the concern is keeping up with Asian and Scandinavian students. Back then, it was keeping up with countries behind the Iron Curtain.
The Life article also identified the usual suspects outside of school. The “cult of entertainment” was dumbing down reading primers. “Howdy Doody” and other TV shows were diverting children from reading. Students were watching “Superman” while unwittingly waiting for him.
As Roseanne Roseannadanna instructed us on “Saturday Night Live,” it’s always something. The cover story in the March/April edition of the Columbia Journalism Review gives a good synopsis of the decade-by-decade concerns.
In the 1950s, the schools were deemed too soft to compete in the Cold War. The 1960s brought equality in education to the forefront and introduced the challenge that a family’s income status was the best single predictor of a student’s likelihood of success.
By the time the 1980s rolled around, we learned we were “A Nation at Risk,” because of the federal education report by the same name. This begat the era of accountability, with more tests and challenges to the traditional educational structure, which continues today.
Still, all of this activity has yet to quell the criticism of public education in general and teachers in particular. And, no doubt, today’s students will grow up to worry about “kids today.”
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