There are those who are saying it is time for schools to get back to basics. Going back to something suggests that things were better in the good old days, and the best way to reform the future is to rediscover the past. Basics aside, we are generally not very specific about when these good days were. It was probably in the lifetime of anyone who suggests going back, but the truth of the matter is that things will never be as good as they were in the good old days - and never were. Whatever the good old days were like we seem for the most part to feel good about them, probably without good reason.

In his best seller, "Legends, Lies and Cherished Myths of American History," Richard Shenkman says that the good old days of education just weren't. He has the support of Colin Greer, who in 1972 wrote in "The Great School Legend" that in the early decades of this century more students failed than succeeded in schools. The claim is that few students in the large city schools worked at grade level in the good old days.A national study of the dropout rate in the 1920s and 1930s showed that 56 percent graduated from high school and that the rate in New York City was 40 percent. According to Shenkman, a study in the 1940s shows that in Boston 50 percent of the ninth-graders failed to complete high school. One of the difficulties with these data is that we don't know how the high school graduate of the past compares academically with the graduate of today.

It may have been even worse at the start of the century. According to Greer, only 33 percent of the nonwhites ever enrolled in school in the 1890s. It may be that we only began to make progress when the Supreme Court integrated the schools with Brown vs. Board of Education in 1957.

Maybe the answer to the question about the quality of education past can be found by looking at the problems that the educated of the past have been unable to solve. Some would say that the world environment is in more danger today that ever in the past. The problems of global warming and poll-u-tion have not been solved by the past but were created by our past. Neither have we taught people to be more human and compassionate. The crime rate is frightening and peace in the world seems distant even when relationships between superpowers improve marginally. World War I didn't solve the problems in Bosnia, and those we have educated since the Great War have not solved the problem.

In Utah we are still working on environmental protection. We have yet to decide how much wilderness is appropriate. Perhaps learning to discuss rationally and compromise has not been a successful part of the school curriculum.

These problems of the present are inherited from the education systems of the past and may serve as evidence to indict these systems.

The test then of our current effort to educate our youths will be answered as they try to solve the problems we have failed to solve.

A Charles Krauthammer essay in Time magazine noted a standardized mathematics test that was given to students in six countries. The best 13-year-old math students were Koreans, and the Americans finished behind Spain, Britain, Ireland and Canada.

Along with the math problems, students were to respond to the statement "I am good at mathematics." The Americans were No. 1 at thinking they are No. 1. Sixty-eight percent said they were good at math. The Koreans, who scored best on the test, voted themselves the worst, with only 23 percent agreeing with the statement. It should be apparent that how we feel about ourselves now and in the past is not the test of our education system.

It seems that despite the results of tests and comparisons, the real test will be an improved world, not how we feel about the past or the present. If we leave the world better than we found it, we have been successful. This seems to me to be the same question that teachers should ask at the end of the school year or course of study about individual students. The question is not about how students feel but about what they have learned the past year. Are they better now than when they arrived on the first day? The question is not whether or not they feel better about themselves but about what they have learned that will contribute to solving the problems inherited from the past. A teacher simply has not taught unless the student has learned.

The question about the good old days is really still open as the here and now becomes the good old days to someone in the future.

Perhaps our goal should be to make these current days the bad old days. If in the future we solve our human and environmental problems, the future will be better than the past and we won't look back nostalgically at good old days. It seems a worthy goal to have today's children look back as adults at the bad old days.