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"Decline" Is Not the Issue


Dear Deborah,

Were the olden days better or worse? In some ways, they were better, in some ways worse. The answer to every question, I find, is: It depends. Certainly the schools were not the punching bag that they are now. Certainly as we both agree (I think) there was a reverence for the idea of the public school that seems to have seriously eroded. And, for better or worse, both principals and teachers were respected by parents and the general community more than they are today. In this last respect, education may be the victim of its success; half a century ago, teachers were often among the best educated members of their communities. Not necessarily true today.

I have never argued--not here and not anywhere else--that our schools are in decline (although it is true that SAT scores went into a dive from about 1964-1980, and while the math scores have rebounded, the verbal scores never did). No, they are not in decline. In fact, I think that the schools are better today than they were a generation ago. But the world is not standing still. Being better than they were a generation ago is not good enough at a time when many other nations are ratcheting up their education systems and trying to overtake us. That's like saying that our cars are designed as well as they were forty years ago. Who cares? To stay abreast of new technology and new energy needs, they have to be far better than they were forty years ago. A generation ago, we had the highest high school graduation rate in the world. There are now more than a dozen other nations whose graduation rate is higher than ours.

I said in my earlier post that anyone who wanted a good education would find it in most public schools today; the opportunity is there, no question. Are students as willing to work hard for their education as students in China and India and other striving nations? Thomas Friedman, in his best-selling "World Is Flat" book, says they are not. He says that the difference in motivation between our students and students in other nations is obvious.

My personal frame of reference is not the 1930s and 1940s but the 1950s and 1960s (I graduated from high school in 1956). My professional reference as a historian is longer. Again, no question that schools today expect more, teach more, have more resources than they did half a century ago. And, having gone to segregated public schools, I am very glad about the social changes that have eliminated segregation and created a better society for more of us. Nonetheless, I still think we must do better in our education outcomes. Too many kids leave school without graduating. Too many coast through school hardly exerting any effort, just watching their teachers work hard. Too many graduate without the knowledge and skills to make their own way in higher education or the modern workplace. Nationally about a third of all college freshmen require remedial work; in some states, half of all entering freshmen require remediation in reading, writing, or mathematics.

You yearn for the good old days when there were 100,000 school boards. Were those "good old days" better? I yearn for a time that may have never been: a time when teachers are well-educated, well-respected, and imbued with a love of learning; when principals are admired for their thoughtfulness and love of learning; when students come to school eager to learn; when parents provide the support and encouragement at home that kids need. We will never go back to the days of 100,000 school boards; the way things are going, school boards may become obsolete. And we may never realize the utopia for which I yearn. But for me, those are the ideals that guide my work.

Meanwhile, both of us see a wave of change taking place that borrows from ideas that we have both embraced at various times: And as others take hold of what we thought we valued and as they transform these ideas into our nighmares rather than our dreams, we are left to wonder where we went wrong.

Last week the state of Missouri took over the public schools of St. Louis; one shudders to think what "solutions" the state managers will impose and whether they will revive the Alvarez & Marsal cost-cutting model that helped to bring down the St. Louis schools. And just a couple of days ago, the school board in Detroit voted to close more than a dozen schools to try to reduce its deficit. Is public education endangered? Yes. Will it survive? I don't know.



Diane: you make a good point but if you think about it you are coming very close to saying that schools are in RELATIVE DECLINE compared to schools in other places such as Singapore or Finland.

To that the legions of AD378 were as well trained and motiviated as the legions of 100AD is not the point. The point is Rome lost its leadership, organizational and technological advantages so by the end of the 4th century they met so to speak their Waterloo or better yet their Little Big Horn when Valens and his legions were wiped out by the Visgoths.

Relative decline is a decline because it is a very competive world.

I know that we have excellent public schools and excellent elite programs. Today we experienced on the day after Easter break almost 50% absenteeism. But most teachers were not unhappy they were almost relieved. What was the reason why? The school, for one day was populated by 90% A, B, and C students for one day. Everyone noted the calm and academic atmosphere that prevailed. After school students stayed in my classroom for 2 1/2 hours ttyping and editing their papers for their English class on my computer then doing peer editiing and showing me the final product. As none of these children have English-speaking parents, I was glad to offer my services and help them on this project EVEN THOUGH THIS WAS FOR A PROJECT NOT IN MY CLASS BUT FOR ANOTHER TEACHER. They thanked my profusely and one said, "I am sorry Mr. Munro for wasting so mouch of your time." I answered, "On the contrary, my dear, it was a pleasure. You studied, you wrote, you read, you discussed and corrected each other while I graded papers; then I taught and encouraged a little and we talked about literature and the future over bottles of water. It was as delightful as a book club. Wasting time is trying to talk over noise or stopping our lesson on Homer to break up a fight. THAT IS A WASTER OF TIME; not learning. Learning and teaching IS NEVER A WASTE OF TIME! Remember you kids are always welcome here." Then I told them that with such persistence they would be able to carry on at the local junior college and then more advanced programs as the years wore on. They worried about their insufficient English but I complimented them on the clarity of their speech -something many immigrants never achieve. All they need to do was to continue to read, write and dedicate themselves to cultivating and polishing their English. You should have seen the smiles on their faces! That kind of teaching moment is never a waste of time. But I caution you these are a distinct minority and tragically and paradoxically they are mostly female.

I think our best students are as good are better than the best in Singapore for any number of reasons. What concerns me is the absolute decline in general and so-called College Prep classes not only in academic performance but in the respect their render teachers and in their personal ambition. Saturday evening I spoke with active teachers and retired teachers in many disciplines. These teachers have taught all over the world in DOD schools and in public schools in many cities. All agreed that there has been, despite the explosion in school spending and erosion in school performance among the lower third in particular. The USA spends almost 6% of is GNP on primary and secondary educationmore than any otehr OECD country except Canada and Denmark (the Economist, April 1, 2000 pg 13. According to a report by the National Endowment for the Arts the number of non-reading adults has increased bu more than 17 million in recent years. We have almost 100 million adults who did not read a single book last year or any year in the previous 15 years! The decline in reading among every segment of the adult population -but particularly- the less well-educated and minorities reflects -in my opinion- a general decline -almost a collape in advanced literacy. One wonders if we can maintain our democracy or even our independence amidst such an impoverished intellectual culture.

It seems a self-evident truth that a nation as great as ours must have a national educational policy that reinforces and celebrates our universal system of public schools, junior colleges , public and private universities or else we are doomed.

We must retain a sense of charity, of deep civic virtue, a sense of our common humanity, of seeking of common ground for the common good. These must be our preeminent values as Americans.

What is life, what is prosperty, what is liberty without wisdom and a without respect and understanding for the diverse dreams and interpretations of life that abound? With education, kids have a chance and a hope and America has a chance. And yes, like our national defense, we dare not leave such important matters to chance or to the "invisible hand" of free markets alone.
You write "No, they are not in decline. In fact, I think that the schools are better today than they were a generation ago." I hope you are right but your are also not a trimphalist:
you wrote "the world is not standing still. Being better than they were a generation ago is not good enough at a time when many other nations are ratcheting up their education systems and trying to overtake us."

Auld Munro says, "Aye, lassie, aye! We maun sgrug doon oor bonnets, hoke the praties and aye gang trang-like (busily) tae work wi' the hairt, heid and hand!"
Aye, work before wages and lavish praise!
(in three languages)
That is your ticket to success!

The majority of US students can't read!!!! WHY??? Our K-12 system must change & mandate READING as the entry requirement into 1st grade. We are graduating dopes from our High-schools!! Bi-lingual is a dragged-out process that is not helping. We a basic education system that is destroying the US!! We have thousands of administrators with no answers. We have teachers who are not allowed to participate !?

I find the nostalgia to a better time a bit odd. I attended elementary and high school through the50's and into the early 60's. When I think back to those days, I can remember highly motivated students, barely passing students, several dropouts, and one particulat high school student who actually made it his goal to achieve straight "D" grades as a personal protest to the "outdated and silly grading system". Students that I encounter haven't changed greatly. They still feel imprisoned and bossed around. They still find it difficult to understand why anyone should want to read a "classic" novel. some students religiously complete homework assignments, while others hurriedly attempt to finish up math homework in english class or pray for a fire drill. One student brought in his saliva soaked and shredded assignment that was actually chewed up by his dog. While many countries may appear to be achieving at higher levels, i sincerely doubt that any nation is graduating a higher percentage of its' young people in programs similar to the U.S.. Some national systems have mandatory attendance only up to the equivalent of 9th grade, with strict requirements for entering senior high schools. at the pace that the world is changing today, there will be some lag in education. This is neither a bad or a good thing. Many technologies, while being useful and convenient, do little to increase the knowledge of individuals.

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