The “Good” Old Days? Not really.

One of my pet peeves is when people–be they veteran teachers, adults who remember their own schooling, or pundits on the airwaves–bemoan the low state of American public education.  When they hear that I am a teacher, many strangers start off the conversation with some statement about how hard my job must be.  This is usually followed by some version of “I can’t believe how little kids learn in school these days.”

I just smile and nod and change the subject because there’s really no polite, non-confrontational way to tell them that I disagree.  Don’t get me wrong: I know that there plenty of aspects of the education system in this country that need fixing, from funding sources to high-stakes assessments to curriculum alignment.  But, despite these failings, I have great confidence in the potential of our schools to make a difference for the children for this country.

More importantly, I have yet to see any evidence that our schools are academically behind where they once were.  There were no “good old days”, just different times with different standards.  Need proof?  Check out this excerpt from an eighth grade exam from 1895:

Now, at first glance, it may seem like the bar was much higher over a hundred years ago.  In fact, the title of the article that reprinted the exam above was “Are You Smarter Than An Eighth Grader from 1895?”  But, look a little closer, and maybe you’ll see what I see.

Take, for example, just the verbs from each of the questions above: give, name, define, illustrate, write, show.  What do these words have in common?  They all come from the lowest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  These are not higher order thinking skills.  These are not creative or collaborative skills.  These are not even career-relevant skills.  These are minutiae that do not contribute to a responsible citizenry or develop critical thinking.

So, the next time someone complains to you about how much kids used to learn in schools, remind them of the creative, collaborative, engaging, brain-based, constructivist, differentiated things happening in our schools today.  Point out that today’s generation of teachers dig deeper and reach further than any generation before.  Our students today are learning skills, like teamwork and problem solving, that were important a hundred years ago, but weren’t taught then.  They weren’t the good old days.

These are the good new days.  Let’s make ’em even better.

2 thoughts on “The “Good” Old Days? Not really.

  1. Since reading this post, I’ve thought a lot about it. I suddenly remembered so clearly this letter from a school marm to her mother that was in a textbook when I was working on my Master’s degree in teaching over ten years ago. In it, she depicts the state of education and the life of a teacher in early America.

    Her students’ ages spanned what would be K-8 today. She relates her frustration that her students arrive hours late or have to leave hours early due to their very long walk home, and how some miss months of instruction because of harvesting or other family business obligations. She had students speaking German, Russian, and several other languages, and she obviously had no “English as second language” support. A big part of her job was having the Christmas play ready for parents to see. While I am sure it was lots of work to get all the costumes ready and make sure students had their lines memorized, just like your test example, it would not get high marks today for higher-level learning. I could not find this same letter to share, but did find another letter that also gives really great insight to what a classroom was really like back then, from the perspective of a student:

    I think “These schools today” is the cousin of “These kids today.” Every generation seems to think that they were the last polite, respectful generation of teenagers, and “these kids today” are the beginning of the end of civilization. When I was faced with the same conversation you describe, I used to share my opinion by paraphrasing the following quote:

    “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”
    -Socrates (c. 469 BC–399 BC)

    Wonderful post. It reminded this veteran teacher that great things are happening in our schools every day, even now as we are being told to do more and more with even less. Moreover, it reminded me that this was something I already knew.

    Thanks for that.


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