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No Golden Age for Schooling
By David W. Kirkpatrick (April 17, 2008)
Senior Education Fellow
U.S. Freedom Foundation www.freedomfoundation.us
Human memory often forgets the negative and overemphasizes the positive. This phenomenon might be termed Ye Good Old Days Syndrome, or Ye GODS. Thus it is that both reformers and defenders of the public schools often refer to a time that never was.
Although a Massachusetts Bay Colony law in the 1640s called for every community of 50 households to establish a common school, such institutions were the exception in all 13 colonies prior to the American Revolution. Nowhere was there a school "system." The Founding Fathers were products of private, mostly religious, schools, tutoring, home schooling and/or self-taught.
Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison wrote a series of newspaper articles in New York in support of the proposed constitution. Known as The Federalist Papers, these articles meant for the common man are rarely used in schools today, even at the college level, because they are deemed too difficult.
Economist E.G. West concluded the general public in both England and the United States were more literate in the mid-19th century, prior to the establishment of a government school system, than is true today.
A Richard Grant White 1880 essay, "The Public School Failure," said no institution had as much public confidence and pride as the public schools, and none were so unworthy of it. It "has failed so completely to accomplish the end for which it was established ... the result has been deplorable, and threatens to be disastrous."
In 1907 Woodrow Wilson said "with all our teaching we train nobody...with all our instructing we educate nobody." In 1912 and 1913 The Ladies Home Journal, in an eight-part series, concluded that, for the most part, schools were not educating students.
In 1930 Thomas Briggs, in the annual Inglis Lecture series at Harvard, said "there has been no respectable achievement even in the subjects offered in the secondary school curricula." In 1933, the U.S. Office of Education found that teachers commonly promoted students they thought were failures.
The New York Times reported in 1942 that only 6% of college freshmen could name the 13 colonies, less than half knew of two congressional powers granted by the Constitution, or knew of four rights in the Bill of Rights. One in four didn't even know who was president during the Civil War and, lest anyone think this fact is new, education majors usually scored lower on standardized tests than did other college students.
LIFE magazine ran a series, "Crisis in Education," in 1958. The March 24 issue said, "For years most critics of U.S. education have suffered the curse of Cassandra -- always to tell the truth, seldom to be listened to or believed. But now the curse has been lifted. What they were saying is beginning to believed. The schools are in terrible shape."
Roger Hurley, in 1969 wrote: "statistics demonstrating the failure of the public school system to educate the poor completely outnumber the isolated examples of success. Harvey B. Scribner, then New York City's school chancellor came to a similar conclusion: "the unassailable fact is our schools are failing large numbers ... for every youngster who gains intellectually and psychologically...there is another who is pushed out, turned off or scarred as a result of his school experience."
A Nation at Risk in 1983, written by establishment figures, found a rising tide of mediocrity and, in a memorable comment, said that if another nation did to us what we are doing to ourselves we would consider it an act of war.
Thomas Toch, then education correspondent for U.S. News and World Report, wrote for ASCD Update, March of 1993, "the golden era of U.S. public education that contemporary critics like to evoke never existed."
In 2000 it was reported that "Seventy-eight percent of kids in high school say...school means nothing to them."
It has been famously said that insanity consists of repeatedly doing the same thing and expecting different results and that those who don't know history are condemned to repeat it. This is perhaps nowhere more applicable than in the constant attempt to improve the public schools by doing more of what has been done.
For millions, it hasn't worked; it doesn't work; and it won't work.
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"History shows that in crises the people in power tend to refine and intensify the status quo system which eventually destroys them. This is the present movement in education." --p. 697, L. Thomas Hopkins, "The Overlooked Factor," Phi Delta Kappan, June 1974, pp 694-697
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Copyright 2008 David W. Kirkpatrick
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