1999-10-16 / Columnists

School Scope

by Howard Schwach

Where were you in 1950? Fifty years ago, that’s a long time.

Chances are, if you read this school column regularly because you have school-aged kids, you were probably not even born at that time.

I was just about 10 years old, living on Dune street in Far Rockaway. That street is almost gone now, taken over by Seagirt boulevard. Only two houses remain.

One of my "jobs" around that time was delivering such magazines as "Life," "Colliers," the "Saturday Evening Post" and "Look" to houses in the neighborhood. Those magazines are mostly gone now as well.

Only a reinvented Life Magazine still gets published regularly.

Fifty years ago, Life Magazine did an educational poll. I alluded to it a few weeks ago, but I think that the poll’s findings 50 years ago vis a vis their recent findings are revealing and interesting as well.

The magazine itself says that its findings in 1950 pointed out that the education system was "not very good, but getting better." Their findings today point to the fact that the education system is "not very good and getting worse."

In 1950, for example, 55 percent of those polled were not happy with their children’s schools. Today, that total stands at 66 percent.

The statistics on the individual questions, however, are far more revealing than the total numbers.

In 1950, parents were asked, "What do you think are the most important things young people should get out of high school?"

 

 

1950

1999

Academic

Training

13%

26%

Vocational

Training

41%

21%

Character

45%

48%

Many people believe that "character" and "family values" are a new issue. They clearly are not new. Almost half the respondents in both 1950 and 1999 saw that issue as the most important. The interesting point is that an equal amount of people saw vocational training as important in 1950, but only a quarter of the people see it as important today. The movement to do away with vocational ed because it was somehow "racist" and "demeaning" seems to have taken root. The fact is, however, that the movement to create more vocational education in America, particularly for minorities, is growing. Not all kids should go to college, unless you dumb down the colleges (which we have been doing for the past 20 years). People who work with their hands lead happy and productive lives and most of them make more than teachers. There is nothing demeaning in being a plumber or electrician. And, there is nothing racist about the number of minority children who chose that route rather than college.

The second question of import was "In general, would you say schoolchildren today are being taught more worthwhile and useful things than children were 20 years ago?"

Again, the answers are instructive.

1950

1999

More

Worthwhile

67%

26%

Not as

Worthwhile

13%

53%

Same

12%

18%

Don’t Know

8%

3%

So much for "multiculturalism," bilingual education, the new math, the Writing Process, and all of the other "innovations" of the past thirty years. More than half of the respondents believes that their kids are learning less worthwhile things now that they did in school. That is damning, indeed. Only a quarter of the respondents believe that their kids are learning more important things now than they did when they were in school 20 years ago. And, they are right.

We spend so much time on the "frills" and on making the kids feel good about themselves and in making sure that all kids succeed (or, believe that they are succeeding), that we don’t have time to teach the basics.

We give a near perfect score to a kid who gets the wrong answer on a math test, yet shows how he got it. We fail a kid who gets the right answer but does not show his work. We give awards to every kid in a cooperative learning group, even if one kid in the group does all of the work. We talk about high standards and then tell everybody that they passed no matter what kind of work they do.

There were a number of questions about teachers and the hiring and pay of those teachers.

One such question was "Is it your impression that teachers in your community generally are underpaid, overpaid or would you say that they get about the amount of pay they should receive?"

The answers:

 

1950

1999

Underpaid

44%

61%

Overpaid

2%

7%

Right

Amount

34%

26%

Don’t Know

20%

6%

In 1950, less than half of the respondents thought that the teachers in their community were underpaid. Today, almost two-thirds believe that to be true. That is a huge jump statistically, probably due to better teacher propaganda and a feeling that teaching today is a far tougher job than it was 50 years ago. In any case, when the politicians tell you that most people do not want teacher raises, point to this poll.

While most people think that teachers deserve a raise, they also believe that the teachers coming into the system are not as good as they were even 20 years ago.

The question that was asked was:

"Compared to 20 years ago, would you say that we are getting better trained and more capable teachers in our schools, not so good, or not much different than we had then?"

The answer is compelling. Almost two-thirds of the respondents in the 1950 poll responded that teachers were better 20 years before while only one-third of the respondents in the 1999 poll felt the same way.

1950

1999

Better

67%

31%

Same

13%

29%

Not so

Good

11%

36%

Don’t

Know

9%

4%

Those who believe that teachers today are not as good as those 20 years ago are both right and wrong. There are a number of great young teachers coming into the system. There are, however, a lot of teachers coming into the system without the background or language skills to teach in this city. If you are lucky enough for your kid to get the former, you are in great shape. If you get the latter, you are in trouble. That, however, is true of every school.

Some of the "best" systems in Nassau and Westchester have some of the "worst" teachers. If you get one of those, look elsewhere.

The numbers are interesting and they have lots of meaning for today.

People think that both teachers and the education they provide is deteriorating. In many cases, they are right.

Kids today do not read. Most of them cannot write a compelling essay. Many cannot write a simple business letter.

We need new strategies to remediate the system. Many of those strategies will be to go back to the old, tried and true ways of educating kids.

One can only wonder what the Life poll will look like in the year 2050.

 

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