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