Of course not, because none of it is true! Millions of Americans argue, often vehemently, that today’s schools are dreadful compared to the temples of learning that existed in our golden past. In their view, we would all be better off if schools could just be the way they used to be. Sure. Unfortunately, this “rear-view mirror” mentality is dangerous!
What these people are suffering from is a debilitating mental condition (coined by author Jamie Vollmer in his book, Schools Cannot Do It Alone) called “NOSTESIA.” Nostesia is a hallucinogenic mixture of 50 percent nostalgia and 50 percent amnesia that distorts rational thinking.
Of course, the nostesia epidemic is not new. Each succeeding generation of young people is regarded by their elders as “academically challenged.” Written expressions of “these kids today . . .” and “these schools today . . .” go back as far as Plato.
Every nostesiac has his or her own rationale. Some are convinced that schools in the past were better because everybody got a job. They forget that most of those jobs, now gone, required little more than a strong back and a willingness to work. Some people are alarmed because “these kids today” don’t know the same things they know, especially historical facts that they consider essential to being a good American. These adults forget that most of what they know, they learned after they got out of school.
They also fail to see that it’s not possible for today’s students to learn everything their parents or grandparents learned, plus everything that has happened since--especially in a school year that has not added a minute in decades but has layered on more and more additional duties for schools and teachers.
Some nostesiacs parrot the dreary assessment of public schools offered by media pundits. Some adults cling to the fantasy, because they refuse to believe they’ve been surpassed by new generations of kids. This is especially pronounced among the college educated. Finally, there are the CAVE people (Citizens Against Virtually Everything). No amount of reasoned discourse will eradicate their disease.
Nostesia can be cured, but it must be aggressively treated. The most effective treatment includes direct exposure to students and teachers in schools--the more interactive the better--coupled with regular, powerful doses of good news about our schools.
So . . . just when WAS the Golden Age of American education? (Based on media reports, it obviously isn’t now--or is it?)
While there is data for every decade going back to the early 1800s, I think you will get the drift from examples over the last 60 years.
It wasn’t in the 2000s:
- In 2007, the Foundation for Economic Education published an article entitled, “The Failure of American Public Education,” that stated the major problem with public education today is a lack of focus on results and that students aren’t expected to meet high standards.
- In 2001, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates remarked, “When I compare our high schools to what I see when I’m traveling abroad, I’m terrified for our workforce of tomorrow.”
It wasn’t in the 1990s:
- In 1996, educator E.D. Hirsch wrote The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them, in which he called for a return to a traditional approach to education.
- In 1994, IBM CEO, Louis V. Gerstner, proclaimed in the New York Times that, “Our schools are broken.”
It wasn’t in the 1980s:
- In 1988, former Secretary of Education Terrel Bell, in his book The Thirteenth Man, wrote, “If we are frank with ourselves, we must acknowledge that for most Americans, neither diligence in learning nor rigorous standards of performance prevail. How do we once again become a nation of learners in which attitudes towards intellectual pursuit and quality of work have excellence at their core?”
- In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued its seminal report, “A Nation at Risk,” in which it warned of a “rising tide of mediocrity.”
It wasn’t in the 1970s:
- In 1976, the Education Testing Service presented college freshmen with 41 multiple choice questions on basic American history and found that they could correctly answer only half.
- In 1970, in his book Crisis in the Classroom, Charles Silverman characterized schools as “grim, joyless places governed by oppressive and petty rules, intellectually sterile, aesthetically barren, with an appalling lack of civility on the part of teachers and principals who consciously display contempt for children.”
It wasn’t in the 1960s:
- In 1969, Harvey B. Scribner, chancellor of New York City’s schools, concluded that for every youngster who gained intellectually and psychologically, there was another who was “pushed out, turned off, or scarred as a result of his school experience.”
- In the mid-1960s, the first international test was given and the United States ranked 12th out of 12 nations
- In 1963, Admiral Hyman Rickover published American Education, a National Failure. It became a best seller. He traveled around the country proclaiming that we were not producing the scientists, engineers, and mathematicians we needed to beat the Russians.
It SURE wasn’t in the 1950s:
- In 1958, with the launch of Sputnik, failing schools were identified as the reason the Russians beat us into space, prompting LIFE Magazine to run an eight-part series entitled, “Crisis in Education,” in which the editors wrote, “The standards of education are shockingly low.”
- In 1956, US News and World Report published an article with the title, “We are less educated than 50 years ago.”
- In 1955, best-selling author Rudolf Flesch wrote, Why Johnny Can’t Read.
- In 1951, Readers Digest reported that “university professors and angry business people complained that public school students could not write a clear English sentence, do simple mathematics, or find common geographical locations such as Boston or NYC.”
- Oh, and by the way, in the 1950s the dropout rate was 50 percent!
So what is the conclusion? The Golden Age of America’s schools is a myth! For over 200 years, America’s public schools have risen to meet every challenge posed by a rapidly evolving society, an experiment in free-market representative democracy that is unique in world history. The truth is that each succeeding generation of young Americans has been better educated than its predecessors. While there is no doubt that our schools need to change to meet the demands of the knowledge age and have much room for improvement, any nostesiac who proclaims, “If we could just have the schools we used to have,” is either deluded or terribly misinformed and is an obstacle to increasing student success.
Never doubt that work in the continuous improvement of our schools has never been better. Due to the advances in neuroscience, technology, and pedagogy, we know more about lesson design, scaffolding, interventions, the use of data, formative assessment, leadership and supporting the “whole” child than at any time in the history of this nation.
As discouraging (think media) and frustrating (think legislature) as it may seem at times, we must keep fighting the good fight for our children and continue the incredible work educators are doing to make public education the best it can be!