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Declines in education: a dangerous myth


Dear Diane,

Time to disagree!

First. Of course consistency is not always a virtue, still I am unclear about whether you think that the olden days were better or worse. In your 3rd paragraph you refer to being less nostalgic than I am about the "good old days." In your last paragraph you refer to the hope that we will "once again have a public school system to be proud of." Which? While I am older than you, it seems to me that for both of us "the old days" were the '30s through the '50s. A time before strong teacher's unions and, in many a city (e.g. St Louis) where women were often not allowed to teach if they were married, and where parents may have respected teachers, but surely principals and school authorities did not. And the success of our youngsters was nothing to brag about. At the time of my birth most kids hadn't yet "dropped into" high school, and it was only after World War II that a majority finally finished high school. And data for blacks vs. whites make today's "achievement gap" seem like a distant dream; not to mention the gender gap, and the fact that many special ed kids weren't even allowed to attend public schools, and on and on.

We expected a lot less of our schools and we got a lot less; so we probably were less dissatisfied. Thus the "romance."

The authority of principals rested on arbitrary power and on disrespect for women (whether teachers or mothers) more than on serious respect for intellectual merit.

When I started subbing in Chicago 45 years ago I was appalled at the intellectual barrenness of its schools—except for the most elite. And for the disrespect still shown daily to teachers and parents (read: mothers). And yes, much of this has a history that's very complex, and very "American"—a disdain for school smarts vs. practical smarts, for the Eastern elite vs. the "manly" west, our dumbing down the word "academic" (as in irrelevant, or as in "the 3 Rs"). A big subject—that I'll drop—except to say that it was the reason I got into teaching, because I was intrigued at discovering that our schools provided such a poor preparation for a robust democracy—starting with 5-year-olds!

I think the romantic myth about our "declining" education has been a dangerous myth, that undergirds the privatizers' success. It parallels an equally dangerous myth that I think you unintentionally support in this last piece: about the shortcomings of democracy.

Yes, the histories of school boards, like that of all forms of democratic control, are often a sad story. The people are not always wise. Thank goodness for those peculiar American institutions that have at times tempered their unwisdom—the constitution and the courts—and even states' rights—when it comes to some of our uglier majoritarian inclinations (like racism). But over the long run democracy must and will mirror our beliefs—good and bad. The question then is, when we think the people wrong, do we replace them?

In my youth, Diane, I had friends that took the position that "faith" in democracy was a form of petty bourgeois naiveté; the people had been brainwashed by the ruling class, and until they were unbrainwashed by wiser heads we could not have a true democracy. Thus they argued for the kind of "socialist" state that would be—for a time—a dictatorship, until the people were wiser and the authoritarian state could wither away. You and I know how dangerous that belief was. But, on a smaller scale, that belief lives on among many liberals and conservatives, not just old-fashioned Communists. Why? Because there was always some common sense truth to it!

The answer to school boards that try to bully school people into abandoning teaching about the U.N. or the NAACP—except to demonize them—is not less democracy, but more. The answer is persuasion, political action on behalf of our beliefs, including kids raised hearing a variety of interpretations.

Side note: the Regents in NY State are not merely exams; they are a curriculum, backed by an exam precisely to control what is taught. They DO spell it out. The more specific such state curriculums are, the more likely they are to be controversial and/or trivial. This goes back to an older argument we had—maybe 30 years ago—about whether any serious subject can be thoroughly objective and neutral.

Interpretation—the judging of the relationship and meaning behind the facts as best we know them—is inevitable, healthy and at the heart of a lively intellectual culture. Every time I've seen a state try to "spell it out" I cringe in embarrassment.

Finally, our hope lies precisely in you and I gathering our forces to insist on publicly contesting the vultures that are surrounding our schools. We need the widest alliance, including those conservatives who really believe in conserving, not just privatizing. We can't fight one elite on behalf of another; I think we're stuck having to defend "the people."

I read a piece lately about a new effort to privatize our highways! And our friend Klein in NYC is proposing, or maybe already has mandated, that principals be renamed CEOs. Ugh. And, did I mention, that in Boston they've fined the teachers union for "talking about" a strike? The fight for public education is a fight for democracy—with its warts. There will always be trade-offs, new fights over content, but as long as it's public there's a point to you and me fighting about it. Once "they" own it lock stock and barrel, we're all disenfranchised. It's all then "academic"—short for "boring".



Hello, once again I hear stories about the myths of declining education.

It may very well be that the schools of the 1930's were imperfect institutions but they had authentic standards and insisted on attendance, decorum and discipline. My parents and godmother graduated from MANUAL TRAINING HIGHSCHOOL in 1933 (later the notorious John Jay HS; it has been closed down).
My parents lived in Brooklyn until 1957 and kept in contact with friends who were graduates and with teachers. The decline from 1940 to 1955 was so great that my parents decided to move out of New York as soon as their children were of school age.

The exact cause for this precipitous decline is hard to prove but the fact of the precipitous decline of this school like many other NYC public schools is very real. It is no myth.

The causes are many but the fundamental causes have to be
1) The retention of students unprepared for and uninterested in academic work. Subsidies for average daily attendance made schools addicted to the retention of students with no aptitude, discipline or interest in education.
These rotten apples gradually corrupted the entire system.
2) Some flaw in the philosophical approach to teaching. We could argue that all day but the fact remains some schools are efficient, productive and well-run and others are not. An intelligent and open-minded person will look to the schools that are well-run.

As a classroom teacher in the Public Schools with more than 20 years experience, I am interested in what works. What does not work has to be avoided. We look to the experience of failed schools and failing school systems as examples of poor choices and poor leadership. We do not pretend to understand the exact cause of decline and fall of such schools as Manual Training High School and many others like it -with many famous graduates- but we know the decline and fall was very real. My cousins were all graduates of Washington DC public schools; they would not be seen dead in tthem now nor would big time DC politicians. Yet 50 years ago these schools were safe (yes, they were segregated) but produced many fine scholars of all races and most importantly were attended by the children of middle class and upper-middle class.

The last time I saw John Jay it looked like a prison for gangsters.

How about today’s students? Well, once again there are always good students. I have never had a class completely hopeless.

But the biggest difference between today and 20 years ago is in the decline of manners, civility, respect and self-discipline.

Students today have so many distractions and philosophically resent any authority or discipline at all.

They cheat incessantly rather than studying. Their chief interest is their personal social life which includes ample doses of alcohol and a life dedicated to physical pleasures chiefly sex, eating and drinking. Obesity among young students today is shocking. I have seen many High School students gain thirty pounds a year due to primarily excessive alcohol consumption, early multiple pregnancies, over eating and a coach potato lifestyle (TV, movies, videogames). It is not unusual to have 16 year old students male and female who weigh in excess of 250 or 300 pounds.

They (I am generalizing here but in general this is true for between 50-80% of all students) refuse to do the simplest homework assignment. One is lucky if a student has an 8th grade reading ability by the 11th or 12th grade. I have many students who are functionally illiterate in any language.

Most teachers of immigrant or general students like myself have to try to advance using class time only and even then many students have high absenteeism and come tardy 5, 10, 30, even 50 minutes late on a REGULAR BASIS.

Once again we are told to count these students as present -for financial reasons -ADA addiction again.

This is very deleterious to discipline not to mention academic performance.

Fifteen years ago a teacher could lock his or her door and put up a SIGN : "NO one admitted after FIVE MINUTES WITHOUT A PASS". Fifteen years ago students with ten cuts were dropped to study hall with an F. There were no questions asked. Mind you I would always welcome a student back at any time who followed the class rules and made an attempt to concentrate, persevere and complete their assignments. A teacher has to have patience and has to be able to forgive. But there have to be boundaries and limits. There have to be standards of discipline, attendance and academics.

Today students like this are merely shuffled from one class and one school to another. This is a source of constant stress, disruption and inefficiency. Young teachers are overwhelmed.
An old vet like me plays hard ball and I tell my STUDENTS to COMPLAIN TO THEIR PARENTS about unruly students who throw papers covered with spit at other student or sharp objects like paper clips or pencils.

I have found that irate parents are the best ally and the fastest way to get rid of troublemakers. Yes, like an old soldier going over the bags I do not expect to save the world. I just want to survive and teach as many students as possible. From day one -in a class with 39-to 45 students i know at least 5 and probably 10 will be gone. Some migrant students I see one or two days and then they disappear. Some come in January and stay a few weeks and then disappear. I hear rumors they are out of state or working illegally in construction, gardening or restaurant work.

I cannot teach the unwilling. I invite all students to learn but it is increasingly difficult.

Students use cell phones to record and take pictures in class. Teachers now live in fear that one slip of the tongue or one angry moment of frustration and their careers will be over. It simply means teachers will take fewer risks and the end result is not good for education.

They use cell phones to play videogames or to send text messages and photocopy tests and cheat. Teachers are not allowed to take them away (due to the liablity and treat of lawsuits).

Student are not supposed to use them during class BUT the onus is on the classroom teacher to notice their use and then laboriously write up the student.

Are there good American schools? Yes, of course. But sometimes the inmates are running the asylum and that is never good.

We could do much much better. We are spending money like mad on testing and supplies and not getting as high returns as we could. Of course that is just my informed opinion.

Kern County, California.

Yes, one can dismiss first hand information if one wants as anecdotal only but in my experience people on the ground know -they are a dipstick that lets you know the system is breaking down or running inefficiently.

By the way I have read several of your books and admire your spunk and the fact that you value REAL EDUCATION and care for kids.
But I disagree when you say there has been no decline in US public schools or in the civility or literacy of the average American. There is too much evidence to the contrary.

But it is the opinion of someone who has visited and observed dozens of schools in Washington State, Washington DC, New Jersey, New York, Virginia and Southern California. I have been a Mentor Teacher and Support provider for dozens of young teachers.
See TEACHERMAN, LOSING OUR LITERACY read contemporary accounts and of course interview teachers and graduates of American schools of the 1930’s and 1940’s and 1950’s.

The overwhelming opinion is that schools are very lax today by comparison in discipline and academic standards to schools of seventy years ago, fifty years ago or even 25 years ago.

With respect,

Teacher of English, history and Spanish
Bilingual Certificate of Competence

This is a response to Richard,
The good old adays again! I know of plenty of schools today that are as respectful and demanding as the ones you describe. Were they more the norm then than now? Hard to know. If they were (which I am not sure of), it may be becasue only the most successful at school bothered to stay in school. Today we keep in school even those who don't like it and aren't good at it. Therefore they are more likely to be disrespectful. Back in the good old days, those who weren't "school smart" could mcuh more easily leve school for the job market--and they did in large numbers. A high school diploma was not required to get a decent paying securre job with a future.

You say you cannot teadher the unwilling. But where did they learn to be unwilling? I argue we are not born unwiling to learn. We learn that stance from how we are treated by schools. I say it is the teacher's job to convicne students that what you are tecahiing is worth their while. otherwise it seems quite undemocratic to insist they be there.

Get rid of the trouble makers you say. But where do they go? To the streets, to gangs, or just lost. Is that the type of society yyou want. Survival of the "fittest," a terrible bastardization of Darwin's ideas.

Instead maybe we should examine why they have become trouble makers, and how to more successfully invite them back in.
I wold argue that it would take a rethinking of the organzition of schools and our modes of teaching to be successful at that.

Opinion may be that they are more lax, but opinion does not mean it is true.

Sounds like it is time for you to get out of teaching, sicne you do not seem committed to helping all students learn, but rather only the one's who you think deserve it.

And the evidence on literacy is very strong--upwards. That has been very well documented in study after study (see the book "The Way Things Were"" by Rothstein for a good summary of the research)

Should Auld Munro pack it in, runaway and retire?

Nicholas Meier, I must say, makes me laugh. It is easy to dismiss or devalue a classroom teacher. Isn't that what American education is all about?

But a person of candor like myself is not afraid or unused to criticism.

I have know many Teacher-Ed know it alls in my time most of whom would not survive a week or even two days in a hard as nails inner-city school.

It reminds me of the old story of a Pommy Officer -a rear echelon man- who chastized the old veteran NCO with 20 years loyal and couragous experience of active service for his lack of spirit, courage and drive.

Later said Pommy Officer commented to the O.C. that in his opinion the NCO didn't have it any more and should retire.

The O.C. looked at the opinionated Pommy offcer and said, "The problem with this organiztion is we have too few of the likes of him. Paper pushers like you I can find anywhere; men of experience, practical knowledge, loyalty, fortitude, integrity and candor are rarer and harder than diamonds."

Sic ars deluditur arte.

Should You Retire?

I just had to respond to your saying teacher ed types would not survive teaching in the inner-city.
I taught for 14 years in public schools serving some of the poorest students in Oakland, Salinas, and San Jose California, of mostly Mexican American and African American descent, before coming to the University to work in teacher education. All of my colleagues have also worked at classroom teachers, many with low-income minority students. Our University serves a large percentage of students who are first generation college attendees, and are what are known as “under prepared.” I, nor my colleagues are strangers to working with difficult students and those who need a lot of support.

I have always seen my job at any level of teaching as trying to reach every student. While I admit I often fall short of that goal, that continues to be my goal. Any attempt to blame it on the students I see as a cop out. Any teacher that has given up on their students, or any subset of their students is, in my opinion, a teacher that should consider retiring. Can you go back to school every day asnd say, "Today I will try again to see what *I* can do to help each and every one of my students learn?"

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