Education Then and Now

It’s September again and most of the kids are going back to school, or going for the first time. But it isn’t like it used to be. Not by a long shot.

When I went to school from the late ‘40s thru the early ‘60s (I know. I’m dating myself.), the object was to learn. And learn we did. Instead of kindergarten and pre-kindergarten …which is now preceded by various forms of child care when the kid presumably learns to relate to his or her peers and be part of a group… we started school in the first grade.

If a child didn’t know how to read before he got to school, he started learning right away. Not just reading but spelling, the multiplication tables, arithmetic and how to tell time. They were even taught penmanship. You know, how to hold your pen or pencil and write clearly? How many people today do you know whose scrawl rivals that of doctors? And when it comes to the way they hold their pens….

As for learning to get along with their peers, that was a natural progression of teacher influence and playground interaction. It also didn’t hurt that most parents were exactly that. Parents. They taught their children to behave, have respect for authority and not talk back to their teachers.

Way back when, report cards were totally different from what they are today. First of all, you had to earn your grade. There was no such thing as social promotion. Even more shocking was that at least half the report card was devoted to…Shock! Amazement!.. something called Citizenship. You were actually graded on citizenship. Areas of concern included Courtesy, Cooperation, Obedience, Industry, Effort, Thrift, Dependability, Health, Neatness, Orderliness and Self-reliance.

If a child was frequently sick or severely underweight, it wasn’t reported to the Child Protective Service. The teacher or principal talked to the parents and/or accepted a note from the doctor and the word of the parent.

Good thing, too. I was the sickly kid in the crowd, due to major chest surgery when I was five. I was in school barely more than I was out and couldn’t gain weight if you handed me an anvil. Despite the fact I was blessed with good parents, CPS would’ve put me in protective custody and investigated my parents for child abuse. To give you an idea of just how scrawny, when I graduated from the 8th grade, I was 5’4” and weighed 78 pounds. Today I’m
6’1” and weigh about 189.

Being absent so much wasn’t a detriment to me. Thanks to my parents and, I suppose, a fairly decent level of intelligence, I had no problem keeping up with my classes. I was using a telephone and reading before I was three, knew the multiplication tables and how to tell time before starting school. I also had a full-blown set of adult encyclopedias that I used to satisfy my curiosity. It didn’t hurt that my mother, when I asked a question, didn’t say “go look it up.” Instead she said “Let’s go look it up.”

According to the teacher, I was reading on a 6th grade level when I started 1st grade, but the truth was that I could pretty well read anything you put in front of me by that time.

For practical purposes, I was partially home schooled before home schooling existed as an industry. Between that and an insatiable curiosity that drives self-education, I’ve wound up with an education substantially beyond the GED that I can claim on a formal level.

But it isn’t that way for a lot of kids today. Education has been dumbed down and many schools are little more than prisons with the teachers acting as wardens. If you doubt that, spend some time on the internet to find out how many schools have metal detectors and the number of weapons they’ve confiscated. School security guards routinely patrol student parking lots to spot weapons that the students forgot they had or didn’t hide sufficiently.

High School graduates can barely read on an 8th grade level. In Texas there’s a test called TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) that students must pass at specific points. Since teachers are evaluated in part on how many of their students pass the TAKS …or more accurately, how many fail it… they wind up teaching to the test and not bothering to teach anything not directly related to it. Other problems that teachers have to deal with are students who cannot speak English and are still required to take the TAKS, even though they will most likely fail it. Finally, special ed students are now being mainstreamed into classes, even though they are not capable of performing at grade level.

But the problems go even deeper. For example, a member of my family is a history teacher in what are called AP classes…and no, that doesn’t stand for Associated Press. It is a very rigorous international program called Advanced Placement. While all students have to pass the TAKS to graduate from high school, those who complete the AP class and make a certain score or higher on the AP test qualify for college credit.

This year, they wound up 40 books short, but not according to the administration. Their logic is that the teachers somehow lost 40 books when the truth is that 40 additional students enrolled. So, you have the same number of books as last year but 40 more students. But will 40 more books be ordered to replace the ones the teachers ‘lost’? Your guess is as good as mine.

Public education today is a lost cause in many parts of the country. Teachers and the better educators are fighting a valiant rear guard action, but it’s essentially a losing proposition. Federal regulation, federal funding, fantasyland promises of free college education for every child, escalating costs and a general dumbing down of the curriculum offered is destroying what’s left of quality education and preventing its revival in most instances.

What’s left? Self-education, home schooling, Christian schools, private schools and internet-based schools. None of these answers are perfect, but they do work and work well.

No matter how you slice it, all of the choices just listed are far and away better than the public option.

Richard Marmo

September 14, 2009