Good News About U.S. Schools: Steady Improvement

It is all too easy for friends, family, parents, and colleagues to join the somber chorus denouncing our schools as broken, ineffective, and in[…]Continue Reading

Little boy working at his desk in class at the elementary school

It is all too easy for friends, family, parents, and colleagues to join the somber chorus denouncing our schools as broken, ineffective, and in need of a major overhaul. According to a recent article in The Atlantic, however, there is reason for hope. Though the author, Jack Schneider, acknowledges that there is always room for improvement, he points to evidence from the past to show how America’s education system has been on the uptick for centuries.

Here are a few points from the article that counter the idea that our schools are broken beyond repair. Feel free to quote these when you grow weary of the trash-talk.

  • Even as recently as mid-century, prospective teachers had no background in adolescent cognition and received no training in how to work with students from diverse backgrounds. All of that has changed. Does that mean that today’s system of teacher education is without flaw? Hardly. There’s lots of work yet to be done. But there is also no question that the average teacher in the U.S. today is better prepared than the average teacher from any past period.
  • But Americans are regularly told that the modern curriculum is a relic of the past and that it has grown increasingly out of date. That simply isn’t true. Prior to the 20th century, high schools focused heavily on Latin and Greek, required coursework in subjects like zoology and mechanical drawing, and rarely offered any math beyond algebra. In 1900, the average school year was 100 days long—40 percent shorter than the current school year—and classes were commonly twice as large as contemporary ones. And well into the 20th century, girls and students of color were regularly offered a separate curriculum, emphasizing domestic or industrial training.
  • Do students still read books? Yes. Do they sit in desks? Typically. Do teachers still stand at the front of the class? For the most part. But beyond that, there are more differences than similarities. Again, this doesn’t mean that present practices are ideal—but it does mean that Americans should think twice before dissolving into panic over what is being taught in modern classrooms.
  • Critics are right that achievement scores aren’t overwhelmingly impressive and that troubling gaps persist across racial, ethnic, and income groups. Yet scores are up over the past 40 years, and the greatest gains over that period have been made by black and Hispanic students.
  • The claim that the high school “was designed for early 20th-century workforce needs,” for instance, has been repeated so frequently that it has a kind of truth status.
  • But what if the schools aren’t in a downward spiral? What if, instead, things are slowly but steadily improving? In that light, disruption—a buzzword if ever there was one—doesn’t sound like such a great idea.

To read the full article from June 22, 2016, click here.