Implicit in most calls for educational reform is the notion that it was better in the good old days. Often reform means going back, maybe back to basics. We are generally not very specific about when these good days were. The truth of the matter is that things will never be as good as they were in the good old days and never were; but whatever the good old days were like, we seem for the most part to feel good about them.
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. Could it be that we have made progress? 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. This just isn't so today. The claim is that in the past, few students in the large city schools worked at grade level.A national study of the dropout rate in the 1920s and 1930s showed that only 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 with the graduate of today, but we do know that we graduate a higher percent of our students.
It may have been even worse at the start of the century. According to Greer, only 33 percent of nonwhites enrolled in school in the 1890s. It may be that we only began to make our best progress when the Supreme Court integrated the schools with Brown vs. Board of Education in 1957. In spite of the difficulties of integration that we still face, minority students are somewhat better off than in the good old days of segregation.
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 than ever in the past.
The problems of global warming and pollution have not been solved but created by our past. Neither have we taught people to be more human and compassionate. The crime rate is frightening - I don't remember gang problems in the past.
World peace today seems distant even when relationships between superpowers improve marginally.
These problems 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 youth will be answered as they try to solve the problems we have created in the past and failed to solve.
A Charles Krauthammer essay about five years ago 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. This showing made the United States last of the six countries. This test evidence seems to be frequently replicated.
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 were 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. Thinking we are good at math doesn't make it so.
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 in our educational enterprise.
This seems to me to be the same question that teachers should ask at the end of the school year 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, and a society has not learned unless it has improved.
The question about the good old days is really still open as now becomes the good old days to someone. Perhaps our goal should be to make these 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 be able to remember the bad old days.