Were Teachers Better in the Past?

Posted: 2011/02/24 in Education

Let’s say you’re a high school teacher back in 1951. One of your students turns 16 and decides to drop out of school and go to work in his uncle’s gas station. Ten years later this young man has a steady job in a factory, has started a family, and is saving up to buy a modest little house.

Would you consider yourself a failure as a teacher?

We’re told schools are failing because too many students aren’t finishing high school, or are simply behind in reading scores. And I have to agree that we’re failing those students.

But let’s ask two questions:
1. Did schools do a good job of meeting the needs of those same students in the past?
2. When did we start expecting that American public schools are supposed to prepare every student for college success?

There was a time when grandpa could leave school after 8th grade and earn enough to raise a family at a decent standard of living. Grandpa could even look forward to sending his children to college. But American society in the 21st century doesn’t have many opportunities for 8th grade dropouts. In current day America, if you don’t finish high school your life is likely relegated to the junk heap.

Yes, our dropout rate is too high. But back in the good old days (good days for whom?) what was the dropout rate? What percentage went on to college? When my mother left school after 8th grafde to go to work in a department store, did anyone even use the word “dropout”?

And while we’re asking questions, what percentage of kids in 1951 could’ve aced the standardized tests that schools live and die by today? Oh sure, the good kids, the ones from nice families who listened to their parents and always got A’s and B’s. But what about “those other kids”? In some ways the world isn’t so different from 60 years ago.

I’m not defending today’s schools. I’m inside one. There are kids falling between the cracks and that’s tragic. We worry today about a young person who doesn’t complete high school. We worry about the earning potential of those who don’t go to college. And rightly so.

Let’s say in 2011 we find the magic bullet that will improve schools to the point where we can get every kid through to high school graduation. We still need to ask the question of how our society will deal with the fact that there are no more decent jobs for high school grads who don’t go on to college.



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