A superintendent looks at the “good old days” of school

I am trying to do better this year in posting interesting e-mails that I receive. This one just arrived in response to a statement I made earlier today about how many people overestimate the quality of Georgia schools in the past.

Dr. Jim Arnold, superintendent of the Pelham City Schools, said he wrote this piece a while back and wanted to share it with me. And I think it is worth sharing with the rest of you. With his permission:

By Jim Arnold

Occasionally time has a way of playing tricks on us.  I have heard, especially in recent years, comments and calls from teachers, parents, grandparents and yes, superintendents for a “return to the good old days” in education.  Before nodding my affirmation of a need to return to what we imagine are the “good old days” let’s look at just how good those days actually were.

If we talk about the good old days when reading and writing and ‘rithmatic were king, then we also must bring into the discussion the social ills of those times and talk about how few people really were expected to go to high school, much less finish. In the early 1900’s less than 10% of the population was expected – or allowed – to attend high school, and fewer than that actually graduated.

Graduation rates in the 1970’s were below 50% nationwide.  “Separate but equal” schools were just beginning to end and going to college was not a goal for most students.  They were able to find good paying jobs with little or no high school education so getting that high school diploma was not always where they had set their sights.  Special needs students were often told schools didn’t have the money or resources to help them achieve their educational goals, and women were not usually expected to be high academic achievers in math or science.

My mother graduated from high school, but I was the first person in my family – many years ago – to graduate from college. Since there were no compulsory attendance laws, many students simply left school never to return.  Some were even “pushed” out when they became disciplinary problems or simply didn’t want to do the work required to pass.

How many of you have told your children about the licks you received at school that were automatically followed by the switching you received at home when your parents found out?  My kids have heard too about the walk to school through rain and snow that was uphill coming and going.  Maybe the “good old days” were not quite as good as we thought they were.  Selective memory is a sometimes thing.

Today’s teachers take on an enormous number of challenges that teachers 20, 30 or 50 years ago were never expected to meet.  First, they are expected to educate EVERY student regardless of motivation, ability level, achievement level or behavior.  That’s an admirable goal, but the reality is that teachers have to have more specialized training than ever before; that expectations for student achievement have increased exponentially in a relatively short period of time and that, in many cases, teachers are expected to solve 21st century learning issues with outdated books, technology and methodology.  They also operate in too many cases without the support they need from parents and the community.

What my parents – and probably yours – would have considered “home issues” have now become things our schools are responsible for teaching, including citizenship, sex education, behavior, physical education, bullying, cyber-bullying, study skills, social interaction skills, nutrition, obesity, financial literacy and career planning.

It has become fashionable in this decade to blame teachers for many of the shortcomings that are in truth societal problems.  The Georgia Legislature, following the governor’s lead, has developed an anti-public education agenda that has succeeded in directing over $3 billion dollars away from educating the 94% of students in public schools and toward other areas funded by the state.  They are sacrificing the needs of the many for the benefit of a privileged few.

Newspapers are filled with national and local stories about the “failure of public education” and how terrible it is that so many of our kids leave school without a high school diploma. They are right. It is a terrible thing when a child leaves school without a high school diploma, but they are incorrect in that this is not a new phenomena or a recent development.  More kids are graduating than ever before in our nation’s history, and many students are still achieving at high academic levels.  What is a more recent development is that EVERY child is now expected to achieve at high levels.

These expectations are great, but failure to reach those expectations does not automatically denote failure on the part of public education.  It simply means we have to try new things and new ways to convince students – and their parents – that education is more important to individual success than every before.

I believe that public education has achieved far more and at a much higher level than we are given credit for.  The true test of whether a child has been educated cannot be measured by a standardized test; neither can a “one size fits all” approach succeed in education students other than in a superficial nature.  By their very nature students are individuals.  All have separate needs, separate strengths and weaknesses and learn in different ways and grow at different rates.  The most effective and efficient forms of education are local, and respond directly to local needs and local concerns. That IS one advantage from the “good old days” that education is largely missing now. Neighborhood schools, in most communities, are a thing of the past. That is unfortunate.

Schools respond best to the individual needs of a community and not to the “top down” leadership mandates and financial carrots of a state or federal agency.  Those agencies themselves will tell us that “top down” leadership is not an effective tool in our daily fight against ignorance, yet it is the tool they themselves use most often.  These same agencies will tell you that every child must be treated differently, yet they issue educational mandates that insist that every child must meet the same standards and follow the same curriculum regardless of interests, background, achievement level or motivation.  They are guilty of a double standard, and while their intentions are honorable their positive effects are, at best, minimal or, at worst, harmful for kids that do not fit their predetermined mold.

Schools, to be effective, transformational and functional members of any community should respond to the particular needs of that community.  That’s one thing we did get right way back then.  I hope our leaders learn that, like politics, all education is ideally local, and I hope they figure it out soon.  Be careful who you vote for.

–From Maureen Downey, of the AJC Get Schooled blog

43 comments Add your comment

Really amazed

January 19th, 2011
1:56 pm

Maureen, please don’t avoid the Creekview Cherokee county issue. Even though I know it’s happening many places. I believe you have the power to make this public. I would hope that you aren’t trying to hush this up.

Shamus

January 19th, 2011
2:02 pm

I agree with the writer that we are accomplishing much more than we were in the “good old days.” At the same time, we can still be doing much better. I think we should learn to hear that “we should do better” without getting too defensive. We are professionals, and in part because we are professionals, we know the best that we should do better. Yes, there are things we wish our parents and administrators do differently, but that’s not under my control. I know I should be doing better because I can. When someone says I should be doing better in ***, that tells me where I need to work on, not just pure criticism of me as a professional – certainly not as a person. I think when they look at me and just shrug their shoulders, then I am in trouble as a professional.

GA Teach

January 19th, 2011
2:07 pm

DeKalb Educated

January 19th, 2011
2:16 pm

Thanks. Excellent post. There were no special education courses/classes for students back in the good ole days either. You either went into an “appropriate class” in the local school or your parents had to send you to a special school. Things have improved in many areas of education. We just have the budget to do such a good job and we are failing as we try to make each student fit into the same hole.

Elizabeth

January 19th, 2011
2:31 pm

I disagree. In the “good old days” of the fifties and sixties when I went to school ( and they were integrated until I returned to Georgia,) there were no ADHD kids to tear apart a class. Kids came to school, if not ready to learn, at least ready to behave for the most part. This made teaching 35 kids in a class possible. When I began teaching in 1970 my biggest discipline problems were gum, tardiness, talking, and MAYBE 5 kids out 150+ that refused to do any work. Most parents were supportive and backed the school if there was a problem. I was given a curriculum guide and told to go teach. And I did and my kids learned. Now I spend all my time with problem students and parents, and jumping tthrough hoops to “prove” that I am really “teaching”. I would go back to “the good old days” in a heartbeat.

Dedicatedandtired

January 19th, 2011
2:46 pm

@really amazed…you too have the power to make it public…if it is worth it.

Dr NO

January 19th, 2011
2:55 pm

I agree with Liz perspective. The problems today are due to ineffective or Zero parenting and lack of discipline in the home. In my younger grades I knew better than to bring in a failing grade.

Also if the student cared or acted as if they did and the parents cared then the teacher would care. Today the very students that society is attempting to reach so badly dont care and have absentee parents.

And thats the bottome line cuz StoneCold say so!!

oldtimer

January 19th, 2011
3:00 pm

I, too began teaching in the 70s. And kids were much easier to control and more fun to teach. Parents were supportive and at my school we did have special education..but not as much as today. Teachers were also very supportive to each other. An..I could if I had to, leave my room and run to the restroom. My 6th graders in Decatur would stay in their seat and work!!

Math Maestro

January 19th, 2011
3:04 pm

The only reason education is perceived to be less effective now is because administrators want more money dumped in. And the news media is essentially picking up those “talking points”. When was the last time that the news media asked the Teachers’ Unions or the teachers how to save the districts’ money, or where the problems come from?

We hear the bantering about better parenting, but no news media gives that credence since that is not part of the districts “talking points”. If anything, we need more people to follow the example from the movie “The Blind Side”, and be surrogate or adoptive parents to these students with poor parenting.

Can all the poorly parented students have “The Blind Side” surrogate parents?

Ernest

January 19th, 2011
3:31 pm

Good piece! I think the current labor opportunities have also had an impact on Education. In the ‘good ole days’, this country was still a manufacturing power. If you had a strong back and good work ethic, one could probably get a job at the plant. They could provide for a family and had a chance for a middle class lifestyle with a High School diploma or less. I believe the graduation rate then reflects the job options available for those without a High School diploma.

Fast forward to today and many of those jobs have been sent offshore. Many jobs now require post High School education/training. Factoring in increased automation, the landscape is far more competitve for the remaining manufacturing jobs. As a result, there is more visibility to what is going on in our schools and their output. It’s much tougher now to be an educator than it ever was due to the expectations placed on them. When you also consider the impact on the local economy, it makes things that much tougher.

The Responsible Conversant

January 19th, 2011
3:37 pm

Great post! Thank you for sharing. And thanks to the writer for reminding us to stop glorifying the good ole days.

Really Amazed

January 19th, 2011
3:45 pm

@Dedicatedandtired, I have contacted Action News, CNN and Clark Howard. We will see if this makes the news. This is only going to happen if DOE isn’t in on getting the schools to do this so they can meet AYP. If this doesn’t get published then we will know the answer to that!!

Clueless

January 19th, 2011
4:21 pm

What’s going on in Cherokee County?

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Virtual Girl. Virtual Girl said: A superintendent looks at the “good old days” of school: … including citizenship, sex education, behavior, phy… http://bit.ly/g1c9lT [...]

Jordan Kohanim

January 19th, 2011
4:33 pm

Great points here! Thanks, Dr. Arnold.

Julie Worley

January 19th, 2011
4:42 pm

Schools in 20 states including Georgia legally allow school employees to hit children with wooden boards to deliberately inflict Pain as Punishment in 21st Century Classrooms, a clear violation of our nation’s children’s human/constitutional/civil rights! Please Demand U.S. Congress Enact H.R. 5628 “Ending Physical/Corporal Punishment in Schools Act” Immediately, already Illegal in Schools in 30 States and prohibited by Federal law as punishment against convicted murderers and other felons in prisons!

An American Patriot

January 19th, 2011
4:47 pm

Mr. Jim Arnold obviously did not grow up in the forties and fifties. Using a “Black phrase”……”It’s a black thing, you wouldn’t understand”…….”It’s a fifties thing…..you wouldn’t understand”. Growing up in those two decades was the most wonderful thing that one could experience and were truly the “good old days”……and please, don’t bring up the “Plight of the Negro” in those years…….I didn’t have anything to do with that. It was when JFK and LBJ started their “Great Society” fiasco that this country started the downhill slide…..it was “entitlement mentality” from then on…..I would say that has been a complete and utter failure with twenty eight and one half percent of blacks in this country on some sort of welfare. You know, different people have different perspectives on issues….it just all depends on the circumstances of your birth. The good old day of which Mr. Arnold speaks, were not….he’s absolutely correct. And, the above is not, I repeat, not a racist comment, so Maureen, please, pretty please, don’t censor me :)

B. Killebrew

January 19th, 2011
4:51 pm

Great article, Dr. Arnold. Awesome-to-the-max.

Obvious

January 19th, 2011
4:56 pm

Excellent point- bring home a failing or poor grade was at a minimum a ground and probably the business end of a switch.

Obvious

January 19th, 2011
4:57 pm

Ole Guy

January 19th, 2011
5:20 pm

Dr Arnold poses some excellent issues. However, in some manner, I still advocate a return to those vaunted “good ole days”…here’s why: CONSEQUENCES. We live in a period of time where we enjoy (what I feel may be an excess of) privilege within a void of responsibility. How many “second chances” must be awarded the wayward kid who simply insists on doing things ala Sinatra…”MY WAY”. Of course, this mindset does not stop at the graduation ceremony when the kid accepts a diploma which he may or may not be able to read. This very mindset spills over into the adult world, where the very same “to hell with everyone else, I’m going to proceed with absolutely no regard for anyone except my own desire” mindset.

In the “good ole days”, this behavior was quickly “rectified” in manners which we, today, find distastefull. Rather than turn the kid’s six into a fireball, by way of a good paddling, we prefer to tie up all sort of “expert” with Phd bolted onto their names…we prefer to tie up the courts with all kinds of issues which, essentially, revolve around the question, “why can’t Little Johnny get his stuff together”?

Maybe, just maybe, we have become “too big for our britches”. Maybe the “old, tried, and proven” methodologies of character development, of self-control, and of discipline are all considered too easy, too simple. While we have PHDs, lawyers, and a whole battalion of “experts” to deal with “little Johnnys’” problems, we can’t simply revert back to some young teacher swinging the wood on the poor hapless child whose errant behavior is everybodys fault EXCEPT the kid.

Have we come a long way, or what?

Mike Honcho

January 19th, 2011
6:50 pm

What is going on at Creekview in Cherokee county?

[...] Here is the original post: A superintendent looks at the “good old days” of school | Get Schooled [...]

HStchr

January 19th, 2011
7:33 pm

I think those who look nostalgically back are overlooking the fact that our entire society has changed. Technology has significantly altered the way we entertain ourselves, learn, think, and interact. Much like TV did in earlier decades, we’ve seen families and kids change as the world around them absorbs new ways of living. It’s not because kids don’t care about their education, it’s that they care about different things in different ways. We can either learn to teach them or sit and nurse our misery with nostalgia. I am amazed many times by how much even my lowest kids know now, even if they challenge my patience and creativity trying to contain them. They are much smarter than many of the “good ‘ol days” folks realize.

Really Amazed

January 19th, 2011
7:52 pm

What’s going on in Cherokee County isn’t really that new it’s just that Creekview High School in Cherokee County placed on there home web page that if you are only out of school two days you will get 10 extra points added to each on of your exams in each class. This is totally grade inflation and cheating. Not really any different than what is going on in APS. Creekland Middle in Cherokee was also charged with helping students change answers on CRCT last year too. More counties need to be investigated. Tthe 10 extra points on each exam is totally grade inflation at it’s max!!! Now everyone should have an easy A. I am sure this is happening at a lot more schools here in Georgia. So sad for the students that have truly earned there grades. How are the colleges going to know the difference. The SAT will become the final deciding factor. I believe that the HOPE Scholarship will start taking into account SAT score instead. That 3.0 means totally nothing.

ABC

January 19th, 2011
9:08 pm

Back then not everyone went to school. And they SHOULDN’T HAVE either. That’s the main problem today. Teachers are expected to teach to everyone and that’s just not possible. Not deserves an education.

Beck

January 19th, 2011
9:49 pm

Really amazed – I agree it’s unethical to add 10 points to a student’s final exam grade if they are only absent 2 days. HOWEVER that is not the same as cheating on a standardized test AT ALL; that’s not even a fair comparison. Also, TRUST ME when I tell you as a high school teacher that I did not have 1 child of the 150 some odd children I taught last semester that 10 points on final would have made the difference between them passing and failing the class.

Let me put it in perspective for you: if the final exam is worth 15% of the child’s average as it often is in high school classes, 10 extra points raises their final average whopping 1.5%. Is it right? Absolutely not. Would I advocate it? No. I do not work in that school system. However, it is not the huge deal you’re making it out to be in comparison to the issues that today’s blog is supposed to be about.

YG&B

January 19th, 2011
9:49 pm

To American Patriot, it is interesting that you provide an (estimate) of how many Blacks receive economic assistance from the government, but do not provide the same percentage for Whites. Is it because the percentage is higher for Whites? Yes, there are more Whites who receive economic assistance than Blacks. As to not having anything to do with the “plight of the Negro” as you termed it, if you are a White person you have most definitely at one time or the other benefited from being born into the “privileged” race and have at one time or the other had your “Whiteness” place you at an advantage over someone from a marginalized group. The “entitlement mentality” you reference is what one may also term a race of people who enslaved another race of people based on the color of their skin and because at the time they had the resources to do so and feel justified in their doing it. I suppose it’s appropriate to long for yester year, however; I find it more exciting to live in the present and embrace the possibilities.

TeacherinGA

January 19th, 2011
9:53 pm

Georgia teacher

January 19th, 2011
9:57 pm

I believe that there is a motivation from the Cherokee County Schools to add points to final grades. If a school system is below a certain percent of absences, they will not be held back from making AYP for No Child Left Behind.

bigguy

January 19th, 2011
10:05 pm

Why don’t we anonymously drug test all students in all high schools to see what percentage of students are taking drugs? Do we want to know the answer to this question?

Speak the Truth

January 20th, 2011
7:29 am

Creekland Middle was not charged with helping students change answers on the CRCT. ONE teacher was charged with this who was subsquently let go. There most certainly was no systemic cheating going on at Creekland. It was an isolated incident and was handled appropriately. To compare it to what has gone on in APS is not fair. Many schools provide attendance incentives for their students. As previously stated, these points are not a “make or break” situation. You sound like a disgruntled parent whose student is not making the grade and you are trying to shift the blame.

An American Patriot

January 20th, 2011
11:05 am

@YG&B

January 19th, 2011
9:49 pm
To American Patriot, it is interesting that you provide an (estimate) of how many Blacks receive economic assistance from the government, but do not provide the same percentage for Whites. Is it because the percentage is higher for Whites?

As a matter of fact YG&B, approximately six percent of whites in this country receive welfare, which, when you take it as a whole number, the number of whites and blacks receiving welfare are about the same. As to my having benefitted from being born white, do not even try to lay a guilt trip on me for that. I live my life for me, my family, my god and my country and I do no harm to anyone else……and yes, the “good old days” were exactly that and I’m proud to have lived during that time…..the best in American History. It beats the heck out of what’s playing out now in this country…..

gamom

January 20th, 2011
11:58 am

what Julie Worley said

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Fife WOW, Schlechty Center. Schlechty Center said: http://blogs.ajc.com/get-schooled-blog/2011/01/19/a-superintendent-looks-at-the-good-old-days-education/ [...]

Elizabeth

January 20th, 2011
12:48 pm

The students are not accomplishing more today because today the curriculum is too watered down, there are no consequences for one’s actions, and teachers are vilified on a daily basis instead of being respected as professionals. Anyone who believes otherwise is someone who has not been in a classrooom in the last 5 years. It would not matter how different kids are today if there were still the standards and consequences of “the good old days” were still in place and enforced. Studetns today may be more street wise and savvy about some things, but their knowledge of reading, writing, and math is pathetic compared to what studetnsa in the 70″s( or 50’s and 60’s) accomplished.

Really amazed

January 20th, 2011
12:58 pm

@Speak the truth, Yes, discruted because my son and his friends school refuse to grade inflate, extra points on exams for showing up to school is pathetic!!! His school expects the students to show up and they do, they enjoy school. They don’t dread it nor take advantage of their education they appreciate it and truly learn not expecting an easier grade. How very sad that you are o.k. with this type of incentive. We are more interested in our children learning and earning on their own. This is why GA schools are 48th in the country. Disgrunted with this type of mentality!!

Really amazed

January 20th, 2011
1:00 pm

@Elizabeth, so very true!!

Speak the Truth

January 20th, 2011
1:14 pm

Who said that the students don’t enjoy school or dread it? The students didn’t demand the reward. They aren’t “taking advantage” of anything. The point is, it is an incentive and it doesn’t make that big of a difference gradewise.10 points are not going to make the difference between a child wanting to learn or not nor do they make for an “easy grade”. You do realize it is not 10 points onto their final GRADE, don’t you? It is 10 points on their exams. Many teachers use a total point system. For instance one exam might be worth a total of 180 or 200 points. 10 points are not going to cause a major swing. There are a lot worse problems with grade inflation going on other places than this. The major point is that you are making a mountain out a molehill. I really doubt this is going to be a headline on CNN anytime soon.

What is disgrunted???

Really amazed

January 20th, 2011
1:32 pm

@Georgia teacher, this is exactly what I thought too.

Speak the Truth

January 20th, 2011
2:30 pm

There are many attendance incentives offered up at schools all over, not just Cherokee County. I’ve seen bike raffles, certificates, free food, attendance parties, assemblies etc. Is the idea to have the kids at school as much as possible so that they can learn or is that wrong too? If this will motivate a child to be in school, this is a good thing. It’s great if your child is self motivated but please recognize that not all students are and sometimes an extrinsic reward will do the trick. Schools cannot win. If they don’t make AYP, they are splashed all over the paper. If they do make AYP, they must be cheating somehow.

[...] Originally Posted by arjay57 What's the story on Georgia's miserable performance? It's clearly not money — we spend a lot more on education than comparable Southern states like Virginia and North Carolina and still have much lower graduation rates. You may appreciate this link/article: A superintendent looks at the “good old days” of school | Get Schooled [...]